When I first started teaching, my student desks were grouped as pods, my teacher's desk angled to face the door at the front of the room. And this worked. Until it didn't.
A number of years ago, I had a tenth grade student suffering from debilitating migraines. Her doctor and later her neurologist struggled to make sense of the severity of her migraines. But what my student knew was that overhead florescent lights seemed to trigger the onset of her blinding headaches. She struggled to make it to class. School is filled with blinding bright white lights. I wanted to find a way for our classroom space to be a safe haven. And me, not that far out of college at the time, had a plethora of cheap floor lamps cluttering my one bedroom apartment. So rather than clicking on those big industrial lights, I lugged those lamps into my classroom and purchased inexpensive table lamps from my local thrift store. I hung white string lights around my bulletin boards and dangled them from the ceiling. And not only did the change in lighting seem to help my student suffering from migraines, but other students seemed to appreciate the less institutional feeling of our classroom space. Murmurs of adding a reading nook with a rug and couch - "you know, like the ones we had in elementary school" - started to come up in conversation. And so my classroom evolution began.
The classroom environment is sometimes referred to as the "third teacher," influencing the ways in which students engage in the learning that happens in our spaces. The environment reflects the priorities of that class. I need my classroom to support active learners. Chickering and Erhmann write about the need for students to get hands-on with their learning. A learning space should reflect that idea. "Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves."
A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to put this idea into practice when I redesigned my learning space to reflect some of the brain research coming out. Students need flexible learning spaces to encourage active learning. Educators Erin Klein, AJ Juliani, Ben Gilpin, and Robert Dillion hosted a classroom redesign contest on their site Classroom Cribs, selecting my classroom as one of the grand finalists. “Redesigning spaces to maximize learning is primarily a shift in culture and mindset,” they write in their book Redesigning Learning Spaces. It was at this time that I moved my teacher's desk and podium away from the front of the room, and spent more time creating spaces where students could collaborate and share.
These days, my room is loud. And I need it to be. I see my students for only 55 minutes each day. I need my students to use this time to collaborate, to connect, and to create. Teaching in a rural district means that many of my students don't have the means or time to travel after school to meet with a classmate to work on a project. Some of my students drive as much as 30 minutes to get to school each morning. Many of my students work after school jobs. Some work more than one. The classroom is the place where my students have time to connect. I view my classroom as a workshop. This is my students time and space to "make what they learn part of themselves."