Okay so my classroom didn’t quite look like this one but I did have my desks set out in nice patterns and each student was assigned their area and I had my space with my big desk and text books piled everywhere just in case I needed them. I did have a class library and an area that students could relax in and read but it was all by my design. So when I was having a chat with Andrew Churches a few days before my new school year began he asked me what does your classroom look like? I proudly described how I arranged everything and the thought process behind it all and he asked me “whose classrooms is it, yours or your students?”. My answer of course was “the students, that’s why I put so much thought into the layout so it works best for them.” He quickly shot me down in flames, showing me how the students had no ownership of the learning space and they had no areas where they could collaborate. The first thing he said was stop hiding behind the desk because that is the symbol of my power and control. I must admit I went home that day a bit miffed to have what I had done challenged so brutally but when I reflected it made so much sense. What I was doing was replicating my classroom experience as a child with a bit of colour and funkiness but in essence it was my classroom not theirs. I knew I never felt like the classroom was mine when I was a student and that I was only passing through for that year. How can I expect the students to love being in a learning space when they had no say or ownership? So I went back that afternoon and put all the desks and chairs back in stacks and got rid of my desk. All those text books went into a cupboard (which I never opened all year) and I gathered a pile of beanbags and fit balls and other items of non traditional classroom furniture I could scrounge.
On Monday morning when all my students walked in looking for their desk I just told them to pile your books on the floor and find a space to sit. Amongst the confused looks their was the start of an excited whisper. Then I explained that it was not my classroom and that they needed to design it. I broke them up into 3 groups and they had to draw up a design based on the premise that no one had their own desk and that we had to have an area to gather as a whole class and that we needed collaborative spaces where at least 4 people could face each other to work.
A buzz went through the room and off they went, and what they brought back was exactly what we had before, desks in rows. Again this satisfied my love of symmetry in the classroom but they were just giving me what they thought I wanted, so when I challenged them and asked them is this really how you would design your room when you can have it any way you want the answer was a resounding “NO!” They still couldn’t believe that they had control but off they went again and this time I started to see some of their creativity instead of their preprogrammed responses.
Each week we trialled one of their layouts and we debriefed and the next group would make changes to their model which would be used for the next week. By the end of the month we had a space where students could sit wherever they felt like, be it on a couch, beanbag, fit ball or at a table. It was a space they owned and one they felt responsible for. There was a noticeable shift in attitude as they understood that this was their learning journey not mine and that they were in charge of it. They even banned the fit balls themselves halfway through the year as they thought they distracted some of the students (I do hope they allow them back next year as I enjoyed bouncing on one myself as I would conference with a student).
I must admit it was hard to give up my desk and the control it gave me. No longer did we have a front of the classroom where the students all diligently faced quietly waiting for me to tell them what to do. Instead students would sit where they felt most comfortable working and there was a constant hum of talk, but the talk was collaboration not gossip. It was students taking responsibility for themselves and their learning and it all started with the change from the “classroom cemetery” a term coined by Erin Klien (@KlienErin) to a collaborative classroom designed and owned by the students.
I think my favourite design this year was our last one when the students decided that our room should be set up like an aeroplane because we spent so much of our time collaborating with students and experts around the world that they felt like world travellers. They set up some desks to look like propellers and some to look like the tail and each of the chairs in the classroom had an inspirational quote on it along with a seat number, and I finally gave up the last thing I had been controlling all year, my class library. By the end every part of the room was truly theirs and I must admit it was the most enjoyable learning space I have been in and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year!