School Design

Surprise Money for Classroom Makeovers: My Experience, Reflections, and What I’d Do Differently

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

My first semester of teaching was all about survival. The second semester was about student management and creating systems. The summer was for picking up a side gig to pay the bills (and bonus time refining my management style).

After building the confidence and practice as a new teacher over the first full year of teaching, my second year saw a shift in my focus away from management towards content creation and creating learning spaces. I worked at a private school and funding was somewhat nebulous– sometimes there was a random yet marvellous donation, sometimes budgets were watertight, and most of the time, teachers had a fair amount of autonomy in how they created and designed their learning spaces. I toyed with flexible seating options, including rugs and beanbag chairs, as well as intimate spaces for independent or quiet study time. Eventually my school received a large amount of funding to be used on learning spaces, and my classroom was elected as the test classroom ( S C O R E ! ). We involved the students in the decision-making process by arranging a field trip to the classroom furniture store (very similar to this place). Here, students worked in small groups to product-test. Their job was to explore the options in the following categories:

  • Independent work spaces
  • Group work desks
  • Seats

Using clipboards, they kept track of the products by recording their model, assigning them under one of the above mentioned categories, and giving them a ranking. The rankings were as follows:

  • Converts to group + individual work station
  • Only Group
  • Only Individual
  • Helps me focus
  • Just for fun

They also kept track of price and a few other details (such as size dimensions, as applicable).

Students spent about an hour product testing, which was a hoot to watch. It was also somewhat clear what pieces of furniture would actually be effective for groupwork (as evidenced by students engaging in their furniture debates on the actual pieces of furniture), and which would decidedly not be (*unpopular opinion* Fatboy— so comfy, you could fall asleep in them. Perhaps their marketing with adults in pajamas is indicative of their purpose… #notinmyclassroom).

Back at school, students then created proposals, which included designs and drafts of their proposed learning space needs, including quantities and makes/models of desks, chairs, tables, and other elements. Student proposals included drawings featuring multiple iterations of group and individual seating arrangements (they gave these arrangements names, and we used these names in class for future groupwork). In addition to layout, students also wrote value statements, which included why their selected pieces of furniture would add value to our classroom, in terms of group needs, as well as any identifiable and unique features (ie: can they speak to a learning style?). The proposal went to the head of school, who would be placing the order and decide upon the best proposals put forth.

The entire process from field trip to proposal lasted in total 2 days and was done in the first week of school. At first, my team and I questioned the value of furniture testing, however, we quickly saw that this would be an excellent opportunity to start setting norms about field trip etiquette, craftsmanship, groupwork, and ultimately, teachers shouldn’t have exclusive say on the learning spaces. Students will spend nearly 1/3 of their day in these walls, too, and it’s important to include them in the process.

In the end, the classroom arrangements included 2 standing desks, 8 folding desks on wheels, 2 Fatboys (*sigh*), and a classroom set of Hokki stools. We were able to keep our existing set of classroom chairs in addition to the stools.

After the classroom upgrade, was there a notable difference in learning?

One of my frequent musings when perusing the world of teacher Instagram accounts is: classroom renovations can look absolutely STUNNING, but if they don’t serve to enhance student learning, is funding truly being allocated wisely?

That’s generally my query, but with funding in any school typically being somewhat random and dependent on other factors, most teachers (myself fo sho included) will not be turning down funding for classroom upgrades anytime soon.

In this particular case, I can’t truly answer if there was a notable difference in learning. This is partially due to timing, as the funds became available 2 days before school began, and this endeavour lent itself to some of the first-week projects. It ended up taking several months for the furniture to actually come, and we used somewhat random bits and bobs of furniture, including camp chairs and discarded art tables (the school was undergoing unprecedented growth). We also spent a great deal of time on field trips with our class and were used to frequently creating makeshift classroom on a city hall lawn, museum cafeterias, and hospital waiting room.

While creativity and motion are invaluable, by the time we got the furniture, we were all ready. So, how did it all go?

The Wins

Having flexible seating options, particularly for some of my wigglier students, was helpful. The Hokki stools, in particular, I cannot recommend enough. Like any new tool, if students are given boundaries and can help generate acceptable etiquette, there generally will be success. With Hokkis being new and exciting, at first all kids wanted to use them. Over time, the kids who really needed the extra motion to help them focus saw success with them. Some students became more distracted by the motion itself and found more success in the traditional classroom chairs. For some kids, the Hokkis and a traditional chair still didn’t seem to cut it, though other strategies did (such as standing at a desk, or using a rug on the ground). I identify as a wiggly adult and found these stools to be the missing ingredient needed to bolster my attention span at faculty meetings.

Standing desks seemed to have mixed success. Some students, particularly my tall students, found them helpful, but most of the class tended to use the tables or the floor when given choice. My teaching partner and I tended to get more use out of the standing desk during prep and planning time.

The folding desks with wheels were the most invaluable. The flexibility to use them for individual work, labs, large group discussions, and to completely roll them up and stash them away was huge. We were able to gain tons of space using them, and there’s very little that can be distracting on them. At times, we even folded them and used them as temporary displays of student work.

What I’d Change

Fatboys! I want to love these, but I’ve had little success with bean bags in my classroom. I find they get trashed during lunch hours or during other classes (I shared my classroom), and that norms were challenging to implement across the many students who used the classroom. I’m certainly not opposed to beanbag seating, but I don’t think I’d do it in a shared classroom again. Fatboys, however, are juuuust big enough that students can almost squeeze 2 people on them, and while at times cute, is overall more distracting than it is an asset to learning.

More Affordable Options

Admittedly, I had it made in this scenario. A wide range of learning space supplies at my fingertips, opportunity for student input, and a generous budget? Truly- it was a blessing.

And, oh, what a rare blessing it was, and one I doubt I shall see again any time soon 🙂 I savoured it, indeed.

I’m completely aware that this is simply not viable or possible for every educator. So, how to make classroom renovations more affordable? Check out DonorsChoose. This website is created specifically for classroom educators who are looking to improve an aspect of their learning spaces (supplies, furniture, etc.) and put out their classroom wishes. Donors choose which projects they want to fund and can provide a funding match, as well. Similarly, AdoptAClassroom is a platform for teachers to propose funding needs and create campaigns for their classrooms. AAC can also be used district- and school-wide.

  • Have you ever done a classroom renovation?
  • What are your favourite elements of flexible seating?
  • How have you involved your students in classroom makeovers?
  • What ways have you made classroom renovations affordable?
Must-Reads, Professional Development, School Design

BOMish: July 2018

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How’s that personal professional development going, friends?

In the midst of my final days of graduate school, in which I want nothing more than to sleep and eat an unsafe amount of chocolate truffles, I’m still keeping the practice of reading.

I’ll admit– I’m cheating a bit this month.

This month’s BOMish was one of my choice-books for my final class. Nevertheless, it’s a book! A compelling one, at that, rife with lessons I’ll take with me, and another chance to walk my walk and keep reading for my own sake.

The NEW School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools (Anthony Kim & Alexis Gonzalez-Black)

ISBN
Photo from newschoolrules.com

  • The Stats: 216 Pages, published February 2018
  • Who Should Read It: School administrators, school designers
  • My Rating (out of 5 ♥): ♥♥♥.5
  • My Thoughts: If you’ve ever found yourself checking the clock during a faculty meeting, willing the seconds to propel forward as you listen to an unproductive argument rooted in excuses and unnecessary power dynamics, this book is a breath of hope. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a strategic plan that seems impractical, patronizing, and woefully inappropriate, this book shows the light! 

The New School Rules offers six practices that help improve school structure, design, and overall effectiveness from an administrative perspective. The practices (Planning, Teaming, Managing Roles, Decision-Making, Sharing Information, and Learning Organization) are research-based strategies and are presented alongside realistic case studies, which include the problems, the learning, and helpful resources. The website is the perfect companion to the book and offers a rich supply of tools, workouts, and exercises for applying the rules in real-time.

I found myself nodding along several times in this book and having a few “aha!” moments, such as when planning, start small and plan for pivot-points. Or reinventing meeting structures, whereby most of the preparation is done by individuals before the meeting, rather than spending time listening to the moderator review the entire schedule.

Along with some aggressive head-nodding, I also left the book wondering how well certain ideas would work in a school, as they smelled more of a non-profit or start-up flavor, than that of an education setting. In a school setting, the majority of roles are already pre-assigned at the time of hiring. For instance, if I’m hired to be a middle school teacher, the bulk of my job will be… teaching middle school. The additional roles will generally be ancillary, and I’m curious how the Managing Roles and Teaming strategies will be received and/or adapted by school leaders as this book finds itself in schools. 

Ultimately, I’m curious about the reception of this book and its practicality and application to schools. I left it abuzz with ideas but also with equal measure of questions of its depth of relevancy to a school. The rules and simplification found on the website are dangerously tempting to be used as quickie (easily forgotten) professional development sessions and not for grander structural overhauls– which the book suggests are necessary for a school to be more responsive. 

Certainly worth a read, and I look forward to seeing further versions, adaptations, and ideas as schools take it on.

Have you read The New School Rules? 

Are these rules appropriate for your school setting? 

What rule do you think is most important for your school? Least? 

Educational Theory, School Design

Kindergarten Forestry

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Forest kindergartens: is there anything cooler?

Instead of stepping on Legos, kids are crunching crispy autumn leaves underfoot. Gone are Powerpoints, iWhatevers, and just-begging-to-be-broken definitely-cognitively-age-appropriate expensive gadgets in favour of trees higher than the eyes can see and captivating bug communities hiding under rocks. Forest Kindergartens are exactly what they sound like, and just plain UNEQUIVOCALLY AMAZING!

Well, actually. Are they really?

In my most recent obsessive pedagogical internet search, I came to meet the idea of Forest Kindergartens…. And like the good cynic I am, I instantly searched for critiques on them.

In short- what I can’t get out of my head is the notion that this instructional strategy may be challenging to implement due to insurmountable cultural boundaries and/or the inability to tap into and recreate the socially constructed reality inherent in the original Forest Kindergarten model, which was founded in Scandinavian countries.

The most compelling (and most free / easily-accessed) cynical article that presented this idea was written by a resident of the UK (Mark Leather), and he asserted that the Scandinavian philosophy of friluftsliv (or “free air life”) is largely responsible for the success of forest kindergartens in Scandinavian countries. Reading about friluftsliv in this critique inspired me to seek more clarity on what this philosophy was. I watched a fun Vimeo created by a Scottish journalist (Charlotte Workman) on the concept. Workman’s video is a blend of dogsledding, skiing, and a blend of living with the rhythms of nature. In researching friluftsliv, Workman explains “By living in a world of vast urbanisation, straight lines and electric lighting, we create a dis-harmony (or more correctly, discord) between nature’s rhythms and our own natural rhythms. We evolved in a world of ‘fractal’ structures: waves, mountains, fire, alongside seasonal rhythms, daily rhythms and different kinds of biological rhythms. These structures and rhythms are ingrained in us as we have evolved.”

I wonder– what cultural norms might the UK (or the US or China) have that forest kindergarten teachers/facilitators might tap into in order to successfully weave the concepts of forest kindergarten (play, exploration, and learn in a natural environment)? What cultural norms might be hard to transcend (rules, fences, etc.)?

[Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash]