Making Space for Learning: Rethinking our classroom environments for 21st century students
This blog post was co-written by neighbours and teacher-buddies Matt Fabbri and Annick Rauch when, after one night, out of the blue, Matt texted Annick and said, “Let’s write a blog about the importance of varied learning spaces in high school as well as early years”. He knows the way to her heart.
Annick: Everyone, this is Matt. Say hi Matt.
Matt: Hi Matt.
AR: Even though Matt teaches at the high school level in English and I teach 1st Grade French Immersion, we have more in common than you’d think.
MF: Our four-year-olds are crazy.
AR: True story. But besides that, we seem to never be satisfied with status quo in our classrooms.
MF: Also true. For me, I’m constantly changing things. Including rearranging tables and chairs. I’m always looking for the better mousetrap in my classroom. I think that, for me, how my space is arranged dictates how I’m going to teach that year and, in turn, who I am, and what I believe as a teacher.
At first, I just did what many of us do: replicated the classrooms around mine. Teacher desk at the front, students facing said front, alphabetical seating charts for no other purpose than to remember names —
AR: (raises hand) Me too. So many names.
MF: I told myself that this was what they needed, obviously. This is what would prepare them for their journey outside of high school and into university.
“But what about those who don’t go to –”
Who cares! Doesn’t matter! It’s good for them!
AR: It was your first year. I’m sure you didn’t mess up the children too much…
MF: As time went on, I eventually found a model that worked for me: table pods with 4 students per. It worked great for discussions, book clubs, and especially as I moved to a Writer’s Workshop model in my teaching.
But the kids still had their spots, they still sat where I sat them. Still no choice.
So, as I transitioned to a new school, Nelson McIntyre Collegiate, which itself was transitioning into an innovative school, (That journey itself is a whole series of blog posts!) I learned that emphasizing student voice and choice in learning needed to be a primary goal for our school to set them up for success no matter where they go in life. So, for me, the question became “How can my classroom space model the pedagogy of voice and choice?”
AR: Yeah, my journey very much resembles that. In my first years, though I always grouped my students’ desks together, I didn’t want to swap out my desks for tables. Small difference, I know. But the desk gave them their own space. You know? Everyone had their little box …
MF: Well, that’s a metaphor waiting to happen.
AR: I also dictated seating throughout the year – except maybe for the month of June. Because… well, June.
Then, bit by bit, I began making little changes and testing the waters. First was giving up the desks and changing over to tables,
MF: Tables seem to be a common theme.
AR: Then I got CRAZY! Made some floor tables with no legs; others standing tables with longer legs.
MF: Crazy like a fox!
AR: Then I moved to a brand-new innovative school, École Sage Creek School, and got to order and play around with a variety of flexible seating options.
As Matt and I began making changes, it occurred to us: our students need to learn how they work best, and that needs to reign supreme. Which begged the question: how do we work best?
MF: When I’m not teaching, I’m writing. Film. Plays. Poetry. … Blog posts (apparently). And I write best at my nearest Starbucks, 7:30 at night until they start mopping up literally around me. I sit at the harvest table with an Americano, black, in my hand. My headphones relay whatever Spotify suggests as I face the front door. I tell people that people-watching is part of my process. Secretly I hope someone I know will walk in and distract me.
AR: I work well there too. Spotify. Cinnamon Dolce steamer because I don’t like coffee. Tucked away in a corner. But I don’t get there often because, surprise, 4 little boys at home. So, it’s the left-hand side of the couch after the boys are in bed and while my husband watches TV. Or at the hockey rink. Or wherever I am when I have a few minutes… and then, the pressure’s on to produce.
MF: But the thing is: nobody forced me to Starbucks or you to the couch. We didn’t get those spots because of the first letter of our last name. We tried something we preferred, we learned if we could concentrate there, we continued to use it, and the psychology of that practice lead to us being able to produce there.
AR: You need to get away. I need to use the time. So if I’ve got precious minutes, I use them.
MF: Hash-tag Mom Life.
AR: Yeah. But also it’s a comfort thing. I like being around if people need me. And the bonus of working in PJs.
MF: My big thing is: If we are to foster an understanding in our students of who they are and how they work best, should we not also not give them an environment of choice in our rooms?
AR: The “rows of desks” model is outdated.
MF: Well, even the “one-size-fits-all” model is outdated: We’re all going to sit at fill-in-the-blank. We need to – kind of like kindergarten – give our students some choice in where and how they work.
AR: So what does that look like in your class?
MF: I was going to ask you the same thing.
Stay tuned for next week’s post on our tips and tricks for students of all ages.