Sunday, October 9, 2011

Flexible Space

Flexibility, to me, is one of the two most important qualities for an educator to have, and yet I find so many teachers to be rather rigid in their thinking, practices, and how they deal with students.

I am in my fifteenth year in the school district where I teach now, and over my career I have been in about nine different classrooms beginning full-time at the middle school, then traveling between the middle and high schools when the ninth grade moved to the high school.  At that time, the middle school was on a 40 minute every day schedule, and the high school was on an 80 minute every other day block schedule.  After that, I was moved to the high school full time, adding a new course to my repertoire.  Not too many years after that, the high school went to a modified block schedule with 80 minute classes every other day for all classes except freshmen math and foreign language, which would meet for 40 minutes every day.  I straddled both schedules until this year, when we reverted to the 80 minute every other day block for all classes except I'm back at the middle school for four of my classes.  I teach from a cart, and do not have a classroom of my own.  Flexibility is a matter of survival.

Having given some of my professional background, I'll focus on the topic at hand -- flexible space.  My current absolute preferred teaching space is the middle school library because of the opportunity for flexible space.  Our middle school library is the best in all the land.  No, really, we have an award that says so.  Our librarian, Sue Kowalski is one of the most phenomenal educators I have had the pleasure of knowing.  So when I teach in our library -- (which it truly is.  I've worked with librarians in the past where I might say "her library", but this library truly belongs to the school community, most especially the students.  But I digress...)  as a technophile I am there because it is a 1:1 environment, and much of what I do with my students is much easier when each student has access to a computer.  However, off to the side there are rectangular tables, where I can split off students individually, in pairs, or in small groups for low-tech activities, or to access material on my laptop or tablet.  Between two bookshelves is a casual circle of comfy chairs that a small group can use for collaborative work.  Behind the rectangular tables, and separated by a book display are round tables.  On the wall, is a standard erasable whiteboard --  I have several students for whom that is their preferred method of practice.  There is even an area with beanbag chairs and pillows.  In short, aside from kitchen space (I'll have to negotiate some time in a FACS room for that) there is space in our library to meet the learning needs of my students in a variety of situations.

I feel very blessed to be back at the middle school at this particular time, because we are on the verge of some groundbreaking change in the area of flexible space.  We have what has been dubbed the "STEAM Team" STEAM, of course, being Science, Technology, Arts, and Math.  Part of what's so fabulous about what this team is doing, is that they are playing with physical space in such a way as to make it suit learning needs, rather than the traditional model of adapting instruction to four walls and one desk per student, let learning happen as it may.

Science and the technology labs have large double doors like you might find leading into a cafeteria -- fire doors if you will -- and there is a large common area in the hallway where folding tables can quickly be set up to expand space.  At any given moment you could see mini traffic cones set up with students collecting data about cars they've built.

Jason Fahy, a teacher for whom I have the utmost respect, is the science teacher for the STEAM Team.  He admits to being outside his self-described "very narrow" comfort zone (sorry Jason, I've heard too much about your cutting edge teaching from my students, most notably my daughter, to buy that you hide out in a tiny safe comfort zone!) and I think that's the biggest barrier to more teachers using flexible space -- "comfort zone" issues -- either their own personal/professional comfort, or in some cases the comfort zone barrier may belong to administration, and without administrative support, there are limits to what can be done.

Also, there is certainly some amount of chaos that accompanies flexible space.  This may not work for all students, and we need to keep that fact in mind.  I have requested a couple of old-school study carrels for one of the classrooms where I teach, in order to accommodate those students who need some extra structure and/or a quiet place removed from the rest
of the three-ring circus.  Key word again -- flexibility.  Any preconceived model we may have of the "perfect" learning space goes up in smoke when the first student lets you know (and not always verbally or directly) that it's not working for them.

So here's my challenge to you:

Shake up your physical space -- change the arrangement of desks, try tables, visit the basement of your school and see what cast-off furniture might still be serviceable.  Try it even just for one lesson.  Let me know how it goes!

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