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?
Educational Theory, Social-Emotional Learning

Welcoming Values into the Classroom

Beginning in April 2019, I forayed into the world of freelance curriculum development and consulting. I’d had experience in this realm before, minus the freelance part, and had a blast getting to know a few educational companies more in-depth. One of these awesome organizations I worked with (and continue to!) is Sole Girls.

Sole Girls is a girls empowerment program that tackles self-esteem, physical and emotional health, and running through after-school programs, workshops, camps, and mentorship. Sole Girls was conceived by super-inspiring Canadian social entrepreneur, Ashley Wiles, in her late 20s. Ashley was impelled to take action after hearing about the tragic suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, a teenager in Coquitlam, B.C. who was bullied, alone, without an advocate, and without the perspective of another way out. Ashley had been traveling the world working for a variety of organizations unsure of next moves, and after hearing about Amanda Todd, knew she had to come back to Canada and start a program that could support and empower girls while equipping them with skills and tools to navigate the frequently messy Girl World. And thus, Sole Girls was born.

Sole Awesomeness

Sole Girls works with females (and has a Sole 4 Boys program, too!) ages 5-12 through a 9-week curriculum, which is guided by the acronym S-O-L-E (Support, Open-Minded, Love, Enthusiasm) and culminates with a 5km run. The 5km run adds an element of challenge, forward-thinking, and bravery…all of which are absolutely transferable to social-emotional learning.

In addition to developing a variety of interpersonal skills, self-discovery, and running, Sole Girls also provides girls with a safe and encouraging community where they can share freely their experiences, questions, and connect with mentors ranging from high school to adulthood who play a diverse role in the programs’ communities. Six years of age, Sole Girls runs across Canada and has begun programming in Australia, as well.

I had the great privilege of working with Sole Girls, beginning in September 2019 in a variety of creative capacities, including leading programs (coaching) for both the Littles (ages 5-7) and regular (8-12) programs, curriculum development, and workshops.

…wait, can we bring this back to me for a second?

These programs are so special to me. As a kid, I never quite fit in, and I moved from a Montessori school to a public school and while I lived to tell the tale, retrospectively, I was thrown to the sharks. “Fitting in” was a totally new concept to me (made 0% easier by my strange obsession with growing a rat-tail and my parents’ wholeheartedly supporting nearly any form of said personal expression; side note- WHY, MOM AND DAD, WHY!? Jk- I love you); at my old school, all the kids played together, and for the first time, I experienced and saw that kids could be left out, which was jarring and confusing and really had no way of understanding any of it. I survived, yet constantly felt awkward, never knew when to “tell” on a student, and never knew what to do in the face of gossip or teasing. In short, I really had no clarity on my values.

And this is precisely why I adore Sole Girls programming, which takes a values-based approach in its curriculum and is also implicit in its mentorship programs.

But, I’m not really qualified to talk about that stuff…right?

Talking “values” with students might seem intimidating or “something they can do with their counselor,” but think about it. As educators, we learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starting in day 0 of any training, so we know that students have needs they need met before they can master counting to 100 or writing a 5-paragraph essay or shooting a free-throw (pick your teaching poison). Specifically, these needs are Basic (which are physiological & safety), followed by Psychological (Belongingness & Esteem), and finally Self-Fulfillment…which, let’s be real, do we ever really attain?
Photo courtesy of:

If we want to reach our students, we’ve got to meet them on this triangle first and foremost, before we think about behavior adjustments, learning support, and calling home, it’s worth seeing where students are feeling in regards to how they feel about their friends, their learning communities, and themselves.

Teaching values need not be complicated or deeply emotional. Introducing a word or theme of the day/month/week/year is a simple way to help students start learning about values and unlocking or further developing their own.

Okay, maybe I’m on board.

So, what are examples of values you may be asking? Here’s a few:

      • Gratitude
      • Friendship
      • Trust
      • Responsibility
      • Creativity
      • Optimism
      • Compassion
      • Kindness
      • Integrity
      • Curiosity
      • Craftsmanship
      • Enthusiasm
      • Honesty
    • Sincerity

…and so on! Chances are, some other words or values were sparked when you scanned the list. Using these words in grades or assessments, as well as at morning meetings and/or advisory periods is an easy way to incorporate more meaning into the academic schedule and help students’ navigate and further clarify their needs for belonging and esteem.

As it is February, a simple way to incorporate values into your classroom is with a fun resource I made for Sole Girls this year: VALUE-tines!

These simple, (free printable!) cards are an alternative take on Valentine’s Day, in which students can recognize and celebrate the values they see in one another. Have each student draw a name and create a VALUE-tine for a member of the class; or have small groups work together to create a VALUE-tine for someone who works at the school; or trade VALUE-tines with another class. Get creative! Remember to model yours first!

  • What are your top 5 core values?
  • Have you used values in your classroom?
Curriculum, Instructional Tools

Classroom Hack: Table Captains for Small Group Work

Small group-work: on the surface, it seems like a fantastic way to foster inquiry, bolster peer-to-peer interaction, and give students a taste of those real-world skills of collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.

But, as any substitute teacher will tell you, small group-work does not just happen. In fact, giving students a set of directions and letting them at it is most certainly a recipe for not-total-success. There are a lot of implicit assumptions on the teachers’ end: that students will know when they’ve reached the end of the task; that students will have all of the resources to finish the task; that all students will contribute and roughly equally; that all students will know exactly what needs to get done and a general idea of how. And the list goes on.

And, if your students are anything like I was when I was 11, if any of the above assumptions prove faulty, soon the task at hand, the collaboration, and any form of focus will fly across the room faster than a spitball.

So what to do?

First, let’s cover the bases. In order for group-work to…work, the following is a quick to-do list for teachers:


…come to think of it, this is probably an applicable framework for introducing anything in the classroom. But, I digress.

One of the problems with giving directions and letting students have at it is that students likely need more support when it comes to role definition. It’s unfair to constantly assume one student will “step up” as a leader. This is typically an extroverted student who perhaps doesn’t always particularly like the role, and it also makes it ever-challenging for introverted or more timid students to take on a role, which they may actually love!

Enter Table Captains: an equitable way for students to practice leadership roles, either as designated leaders or active followers.

How it works

Here’s the gist:

  • Students are divided into groups of 3-6
  • Each group has 1 Table Captain
  • Table Captains have extra responsibilities are in charge of keeping the team in line with respect to task completion; timing; and organization

A Table Captain is in charge of all materials and ensures the small groups stay on task within the given time frame. The philosophy is that students without a strong focus or drive tend to rapidly dissipate. With a clear leader in the group, students know who to turn to when they have questions about the task at hand. Additionally, when students have a leadership role, they are more likely to be invested in the tasks at hand, and ultimately, the learning at hand. This strategy also allows students to practice speaking to one another, instead of simply just to a teacher. In doing so, you’ll find students are learning from one another, and really… isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here? (Nod your head)

The Goods

Below is a sample Table Captain Task Page:.

Table Captain supplies in my (Grade 5-7) classroom typically include Post-Its + Folder with all necessary articles and Table Captain task page. I announce Table Captains the night before so students who may need (or appreciate) it can mentally prepare for being a leader.

Putting it all together

In order for students to understand how this works, follow the above to-do list:

  • EXPLAIN IT (have a conversation with your class about leadership opportunities)
  • EXPLAIN IT AGAIN DIFFERENTLY (show students a Table Captain sheet. Ask them what roles a Table Captain seems to hold)
  • MODEL IT (use a fellow teacher, aid, student, etc. and show, in a condensed version, of what this process looks like. For real. Do it.)
  • PRACTICE IT (give a sample task to the class. Offer students the chance to demonstrate to the class, if they’re confident)
  • DO IT (give a real task! Let it rip!)
  • COACH IT (wander about while students engage in Table Captain tasks. Check in with your Captains after class. Have them send you a quick email, including what went well and what was challenging– 1 sentence each)
  • PRACTICE IT AGAIN (keep doing it! You won’t know how it’s going until you’ve done it more than once)
  • SUPPORT IT (check in with your Table Captains. Be consistent. Even if it seems to not work the first few weeks, give it a chance. Don’t judge it until students have been Table Captains at least 3 times. That’s approximately 12 rounds. Data is important!)
  • REFINE IT (something work better or differently in your classroom? Get creative! Own it, customize it, rock it.)