Sunday, April 7, 2013

Classroom environments in elementary school and high school

Why is it that K-8 classrooms often seem better than high school classrooms? 
Like Nancie Atwell, I think we secondary English teachers can learn a lot from our elementary school colleagues. I remember thinking, when my son was in third grade, that the ELA curriculum he was getting (reader's and writer's workshop, basically) was in many ways better than what I was doing with my students, and much of the work I've done over the past few years has been trying, with mixed results, to replicate that feel in my own classes. It seems that every exciting curriculum idea I have, it turns out that elementary school teachers have been doing the same thing for years. I recently read a good book about reading conferences written by a third grade teacher (Conferring, by Patrick Allen); the book made a coherent, mature presentation of what my colleagues and I have been only beginning to investigate. It sometimes seems as if as if small bands of us high school teachers are hacking through the jungle in search of a lost garden that K-8 teachers rediscovered long ago.

What does the lost garden look like? 
In our department meeting last week, we were asked to list some things we would see if we spent ten minutes in an excellent English class.  Some of us came up with things like having a lesson plan on the board that students seemed to understand; others were more focused on whether there seemed to be evidence of engaged reading. When I got home, I asked the same question of my children, and my eight-year-old daughter said, "That's easy: no desks! Instead, you should have tables."  She did go on to list two other important things ("A nice teacher, and books--good books!"), but then she came back to the physical environment: "You should at least have a little cozy corner." My son, who's twelve, started by focusing on student independence ("kids should be working on their own projects 50% of the time"), but then he said, "oh, and there should be bean bag chairs and clipboards!"

My kids' focus on the physical space of the classroom, and in particular their insistence that an excellent English class would not have school desks, is well aligned with the practice of K-8 teachers. In the book I read about reading conferences, Patrick Allen has a section on the layout of the classroom.  He says that it is really important what the classroom looks and feels like, and he cites Debbie Miller and her book, Reading with Meaning, as inspiration. "Debbie taught me that beauty and organization are essential," Allen writes. "We have to be purposeful about how we set up our environment." This purposefulness is evident in the hours and hours that K-8 teachers spend in setting up their rooms.  We at the secondary level don't do the same, but maybe we should.

At Leafstrewn, we share classrooms, so it's not as easy to make your room your own--and even those teachers who do personalize their rooms end up with what could be seen as basically high-quality window-dressing.  My colleagues Rich, Steve and Mark all have wonderful, very distinctive rooms whose walls are covered with fascinating art, maps and memorabilia, whose corners are stuffed with interesting artifacts (bicycles, stuffed ravens, etc.). But even these classrooms conform to the same basic formula:  the teacher's desk and a chalkboard at the front, and student desks arranged in a semicircle or double-horseshoe around the rest of the room.  The bric-a-brac, maps and artwork personalize the rooms, but while students certainly seem to appreciate these distinctive rooms, just as they appreciate these distinctive teachers, the rooms still put the focus on the teacher, not on the students. It could be argued that these are still more rooms for teachers to teach in, than rooms for students to work and learn in.

Nevertheless, I haven't even done what Rich, Steve and Mark have done.  I have always assumed, I guess, that the environment didn't matter, that reading and writing were so inherently interesting that they could be done just about anywhere. But I'm starting to think the second-grade teachers might be right, and I want to start planning how I will move my own classroom more in their direction.  Can we move away from the teacher-focused semicircle of desks?

Is a different kind of classroom possible in a conventional high school?
When I taught second and third grade, we had tables and a cozy corner, but every high school English classroom I've ever been in has had desks with attached chairs, even though no one really likes those things (there's even a Facebook page about hating them).  Obviously there are lots of reasons to use these desks (flexibility being the main one, since the desks are so easy to move around within and among classrooms to suit different purposes), but I am curious: what would a different model of a high school classroom look like?

I could envision a classroom that would feel more like the room that houses Leafstrewn's program for kids making the transition back to school after being hospitalized or out for serious emotional or mental disorders.  That room has both tables and easy chairs, it has potted plants, it has a few computers, and it has a little library of books and magazines.  Whenever I go in there I always think: why would anyone want to go from this wonderful, comfortable environment back to a regular classroom?  If only my own classroom could be as welcoming, attractive and richly furnished!  A few easy chairs, tables instead of desks, a wall of bookcases...

Nevertheless, putting this scheme into practice would not be easy.  There are, first of all, real space constraints. The transitional program usually seems to have only about seven students in the room. High school kids are larger than 2nd graders, and if we were to have tables instead of desks, it would be difficult to fit 26 students.  Another limitation is that tables are good for discussion, but they are also good for socializing.  I met with a librarian to talk about summer reading last week, and every few minutes she had to deal with trying to quiet kids down at the table they were sitting and supposedly working at (another issue at our school is that there are few attractive places besides the library for kids to hang out in, so the library is used as much for socializing, or for surfing the web, as for studying, and it’s rare that I see anybody sitting in the library and actually reading.  We need a literacy lounge!) Another problem is that we already have the desks...

What could be done within the constraints of our current rooms and desks?

1) I could get a few comfortable chairs.  Sitting in them could be a privilege…

2) I could have a tea corner.  Tea is calming, and students appreciate the vibe.  I think tea, in connection with a very serious attitude about reading, could make for a wonderful combination of treating the kids like students and treating them like human beings.

3) Classroom libraries!  This is really, really important.

4) In-class reading journals, for daily writing.  These could lead to a longer writing assignment that could be done at home—but in that case the notes in the journals would have to be transferred to computers during class time.

5) Space on the walls: for awesome student work, for students to put up raves about books they recommend to others, and for the teacher (me) to put up: things to remember; cool words of the week; the book(s) I’m reading now, and a list of all the books I have read over the course of the year.  Maybe students could put up the same things…

And what else?  What have I forgotten?  Is this impossible?  Is this important?  If the classroom changed, would the teaching practice have to change?  What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post!

    I did have tables in my classroom, which I had arranged in a large square with one opening. I sat at a table as well, during class, usually at one in the front of the room, but sometimes at one in the sides or back. To eliminate chit chat I always, always assigned seats--even in my senior Rhetoric class. I also did that because I hated the little cliques, and kids trying to save seats for their friends.

    Sometimes I shared with other teachers, and we ended up moving the tables a lot, as most preferred a more traditional setup.

    But I loved having the kids face each other. It made for much better class discussions.