Giving the classroom concept a makeover

Tacoma educators re-thinking the traditional learning space

10/7/2016 | TACOMA, Washington

​Picturing your childhood classroom, you probably think of a regimented space filled with rows of student desks, all facing a chalkboard or whiteboard and a large and magisterial teacher’s desk. Phrases like “assigned seats” and “come up to the board” come to mind.

Times change, and so do learning spaces. While the Tacoma school district is currently incorporating modern classroom layouts and furnishings into its many school construction projects, other schools are creatively adopting similar concepts into existing spaces.

Larchmont Elementary principal Cynthia Horner, given the opportunity to work with two internationally known education consultants over the summer, gave two of her second-grade classrooms complete makeovers.

“The goal is getting kids to be in charge of their environment,” she said. “We’re getting away from the traditional thing, in rows, or being in desks but where you’re not allowed to have any movement. Even as adults, we can’t sit still for very long and just listen. So we’re trying to get an environment where kids can move around and materials are accessible to them so they can take charge of what they need, without being disruptive.”

Consultants Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, known professionally as “The Two Sisters” (because they are, in fact, sisters) have authored two books, “The Daily 5” and “The Café Book.” Both former teachers with extensive classroom experience, Boushey and Moser’s work presents a complete system for improving literacy in children, right down to the level of arranging classroom furniture.

“There’s space so (students) can lay on the floor and read, whatever’s comfortable,” said Horner. “They’ve adjusted heights on some of the tables so the kids can stand if they need to and work. Kids are put together in groups so they can work together, they’re not isolated. Lighting has a lot to do with it, it’s not just sterile bright light on everything. So now teachers don’t just stand in the front of the room and teach. There are multiple areas they teach from.”

By happy coincidence, the consultants have a friend in Tacoma—Jill DeGoede, a teacher on special assignment as a resource person for Larchmont’s teachers. DeGoede’s friendly invitation brought the sisters to Larchmont for the in-person classroom makeovers in August—free of charge.

“It’s a pretty special opportunity,” said DeGoede. “They’re my friends, and they wanted to come out and see the school. We were honored, given that they travel all over the world, that they wanted to come here. And it was great that some of the teachers wanted to come in on their summer break to participate in creating a classroom environment where kids are more eager and willing to learn.”

The sisters did two second-grade classrooms with the assistance of teachers. The new layout includes students at tables in groups of four, a wide open carpeted area where the students can gather and sit on the floor, a workstation in one corner with computers, and instructional materials on every flat surface in sight.

“When you think about a traditional classroom, there’s furniture that is necessary, but it takes up a lot of real estate—like filing cabinets,” said Larchmont instructional coach Erin Scanlin. “So the filing cabinet in these classrooms is placed so that charts and posters can go on the sides.”

“There are never desks in rows anymore,” added DeGoede. “They’re always working collaboratively, at least with one other person. It’s inviting, interesting.”
In addition to redirecting the room’s focus, part of the makeover involves making the room itself a reference and learning tool. “Anchor charts” provide easy-to-understand reviews of lesson concepts, and transform the room’s decorations into learning tools.

“The walls are accessible for them, to pick words that they don’t know how to spell, or to review anchor charts when they’ve lost their way,” said Horner. “It’s a standards-based classroom as well, so they don’t have to always be asking the teacher for help. They can access the environment for themselves.”

Rather than the front of the room, the teacher’s desk occupies a far corner—it’s hard to say it’s in the back of the room, because the new arrangement sort of negates the idea of the room having a front or a back.

“You wouldn’t set up a classroom where the teacher’s space is really prominent,” said DeGoede. “That space is much smaller. We’re trying to send the message to the kids that this is their learning space, and that space needs to work for them.”

DeGoede and Scanlin note that studies recommend a library of 2,000 books in each classroom—the large number comes from taking into account a range of student reading abilities and interests.

 “Our teachers are working hard to create these libraries,” said DeGoede. “So kids can be engaged, and read more. We’re trying to get their reading minutes up.”
A “technology corner” also concentrates important functions in one area without dominating the room.

“Technology can be bulky,” noted Scanlin. “It can take up a huge area. Putting it on smaller tables allows room for students to better work with partners.”
“It may not work for everyone, or every student,” said Horner. “They’ll have to re-tweak it. But it has filtered to the entire building.”

Some of the classrooms vary on the details, especially in the higher grades.

“A sixth-grader is bigger than a second-grader,” said Horner. “So if you want a space where they can gather on the carpet, you have to make allowances for their bigger bodies.”

“We want to give kids the idea that they have choices,” said DeGoede. “It’s not so much about a power struggle—‘I have to sit in this chair in this row and stare straight ahead and not move for six hours’—no, they can move about. And we know that’s good for the brain. It’s all backed by research.”