Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Decisions Series: Part 3 - Classroom Environment

Once upon a time, I thought it was important that I cover every inch of wall space in my classroom with inspirational Argus posters (think kitten dangling from a branch with "Hang In There" written in a cute font across the top).  I thought the brighter and bolder the border on my bulletin boards the better.  I thought I needed to make up for the fact that the classroom was "on the garden level" of our building and the only way to make it a place my kids would want to be was to make it NEON!
 These photos are from my 7th grade ELA/US History classroom from about 2003 or so.  Notice the premade bulletin boards.  Notice the lack of any space for my students to have input in the room.

There were some things I did right back in the dark ages.  I replaced those god-awful all-in-one desks with tables and chairs.  The tables were positioned in such a way that would allow for discussion.  My teacher desk (and the desk of the other teacher who taught in my room) were pushed up against the wall and out of the way, leaving more room for kids.  It's not the most awful classroom space out there.

My thinking about my classroom space changed about eleven years ago when I had the opportunity to spend two days in classrooms in our elementary buildings.  I noticed how different parts of the classroom were used for different kinds of activities.  I noticed the anchor charts and student work on the wall.  The classrooms felt warm and welcoming, like places where ideas were shared and encouraged.  I decided I wanted my classroom to feel more like THOSE rooms and less like a traditional secondary classroom.

So I set out to make changes.  I got an easel that I could put chart paper on. I got a couch.  I brought in some old area rugs I had at home.  I moved the desks apart so that they were spread out around the room.  I stopped hanging so many pre-made posters and saved wall space to reflect our learning.

Yes, I pulled my seventh graders into our "living room" for our group instruction.  We had class discussions here.  Kids loved to read here during independent reading.  It was a start.  I could definitely feel a different vibe.  But classroom environment is not all about furniture and rugs.  It's also about the community that is created by the teacher AND the students.  It's set when a teacher takes the time to get to know her students and incorporate their passions into the curriculum where possible.  The environment is created when a teacher steps back and gives kids choices in where and how they will work and in the books they read.  The environment develops when kids trust that their voices will be heard.

Now I teach third grade.  I spend a great deal of time thinking about the environment my students will encounter when they enter my classroom next week and that we will continue to create together.  I want them to be able to tell what's important to me, and I want them to have some say about the changes we'll make as we begin to do the hard work of learning together.

So here's the latest iteration of my space:

 The desks are grouped into pods so kids can work together throughout the school day.  Each pod has a little tote that has basic communal supplies and a three-drawer storage unit that holds math books, white boards and markers, and extra paper.  Together, we'll figure out what, if anything, else should go in those drawers and that supply tote.  The kids are the ones who will be using these, so they should have some say in how they access supplies and materials.

My easel is on wheels, so I can move it to whatever area of the classroom I happen to be using at the time.  Kids still gather in our large meeting space in the front of the room for most of our whole-group instruction, but during independent work time, they can sit anywhere.  Last year, I had kids who really liked working under the small group tables.

The kids can also choose their seating.  I want them to be comfortable.  If they like the chairs.. great!  I also have wooden stools, wobble stools, yoga ball chairs (which I also use at my desk), and lap desks for sitting on the floor.  They can move freely around the room and work wherever they feel most comfortable.  In our first days together next week, we will set expectations for how to work in a flexible environment.  The kids will be an active part of creating our learning community.

As you can see, my walls don't have a lot on them.  Some of my bulletin boards are done.  That one above my desk is a hassle, so I put something up that will stay all year.  The others will feature kids' work, our "star of the week," and I have one board that the class will decide how to use.  This is not just my work space... it belongs to my fifteen students as well, and they need to have ownership of how we work in it.

I want my students to feel at home in room 301.  I want them to know I honor their voices and stories, and that I want them to take risks and stretch themselves in order to grow as learners and people.  I want them to learn how to work together and solve problems, and even get along with people who you might not like or who you might disagree with.  I want them to think about big ideas and hard topics and begin to find their own truth.

The environment is where this all starts.

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