Saturday, December 12, 2009

Classrom Design

The classroom that I have been working in for the past three months is a young school, with a strong tradition in meeting the special needs of all learners.  This is a school filled with caring teachers, who understand (and remember) what it's like to be a student teacher.  As a result, this has been a great place to become introduced to the teacher profession.  I have been teaching second and third grade, under the tutelage of a veteran teacher of 16 years.   Both the school and my cooperating teacher have a strong emphasis in understanding the conditions that best foster learning.  Topics like social justice, equality and individual learning plans are common discussion threads at this school.  The students in my classroom are between six and nine years old. 

The Classroom Redesign Assignment is a challenge to write about because, for the most part, there is very little I would change in my current classroom.  The materials are all available and accessible to students.  The room is open and children are not assigned a specific desk, which encourages creativity and a fresh atmosphere.  The schedule is clearly mapped out and discussed consistently.  I notice that the students come in and the schedule board is the one of the first places they check.  This consistency provides the student with an element of safety and their awareness to the schedule changes hint at the importance it holds to them. 

Although the room is designed beautifully, there are a few changes I would make.  The first is a welcome board.  The kid’s respond so clearly to the schedule board, I would take advantage of this and offer a question, or graph or diagram that invites the students into a self-directed activity.  There are many ways to take advantage of the opportunity to engage students through the use of questions.  Throughout my take over, I welcomed the students with a quote or invitation or offered them a question to write in their journals.  For example, "Welcome to Tuesday!  Please take out your journal and tell me three things that make you happy that you ALREADY have in your life".  Another day I constructed a Venn diagram and asked the students about their weekend activity.  The following week, I heard more than one student inquire about the message and questions, and if we could do them again.  The next day, one of the students, arriving early, made a Venn diagram by himself, asking the kids if they liked video games, hiking, both or neither.  After the students filled in their response, we had a great discussion about how we could verify if everyone in our class participated.  We then restated our data in a different format to understand the groupings in a different way.  From that format, we had a great discussion about fractions and percentages.  Finally, we constructed a pie graph showing our results and percentages.  (Anytime you find these win-win situations in your classroom, they should be recognized and continued!)

Another changed made during my takeover was the notification for using the bathroom.  These students are responsible enough to use the bathroom by themselves and I wanted to encourage this autonomy.  Writing their name on the board, in the 'bathroom' box, was introduced to them as a way they could manage the use of the facilities by themselves, while still maintaining a safe environment.  Upon their return, they clear their name and someone else would know that option is then available.  This empowers the student and encourages responsibility, while reducing the demands on the teacher.  This is another change that has been continued past my takeover.

The last change I made that the students continue to respond to is the use of a small bell that students can ring to gently remind other students that the noise level has exceeded acceptable limits.  Anyone can ring the bell.  Students have used the bell responsibly to successfully reduce the noise level while increasing the focus for their classmates. 

These are all minor design changes that have benefited the room, the student’s growth, and the teacher’s happiness.  However, there is one major design change that I would put into effect, if this were my classroom.  The use of technology in this room is limited and I would change that.  The use of a document camera and a centralized computer with a solid sound system would increase the capacity of entertainment and information available to the students.  It would also reduce the amount of paper being used in the room. 

We are living during a time of great change where students will graduate from high school with a relationship to information much different from their graduating counterparts twenty years ago.  Because any piece of information is now readily available via the internet, the focus of education must respond by asking students to understand the implications of the information.  Perhaps one simplified expression could be that the educational focus up until recently has been on acquiring knowledge, whereas now, we are asking our students to comprehend, process and apply that knowledge in the most responsible way.  Being able to synthesize, correlate, extrapolate and reduce complex data sets into meaningful and relevant topics will be a skill set that successful high school graduates will possess.  I am not putting forth the idea that all second graders should have a laptop and all lessons should be streamed onto their personal IPOD’s, which they can remotely access from any place on the playground.  However, I am suggesting that teachers should re-orientate themselves by integrating tools now available, to help facilitate and encourage these skills that our graduates will some day need to possess. 

During my take over, I took advantage of the use of BrainPOP.  This on-line animated video site, featuring light-hearted characters, provides educators with a plethora of topics to help inform and entertain.  They are a great way to introduce, reinforce and provide an access point for those students with a visual intelligent focus.  Personally, I have learned a great deal from these video lessons.  Most of the videos are less than eight minutes in length, but still provide powerful information, with a social justice focus.  For example, who knew that an unhappy slave-owner hit Harriet Tubman so hard with a brick, that for the rest of her life she would spontaneously collapse and fall into a deep sleep for extended periods?

I am also a big fan of the document camera.  The link to the internet, and its abundance of learning tools, combined with the document camera’s ability to illustrate and highlight any text with your entire audience, provide teachers with a great tool kit from which they can communicate from to (and with) their students.  Due to the inclusion of a document camera, projector and laptop, I have noticed a physical change in many classrooms in the last ten years.  In various forms, educators can help connect students with the powerful combination of access and inclusion by utilizing these tools.

An ideal set up for a classroom, in my humble opinion (and hypothetically unending flow of financial support) would include a ceiling mounted projector that is able to connect to at least one student-accessible computer, in addition to the teacher’s laptop.  This will enable students to find resources they can share with the class.  Research and presentation skills are part of the California Standards, and this opportunity would provide a natural way to help promote these skills. 

Also, since sound often dictates more than half of our experience when watching a video, I would make sure that proper sound was available and easily adjustable.  The use of a mobile microphone dramatically changes the experience of a read-aloud.  Having students use a microphone to amplify their voice encourages them and others to hear the words they are reading, which reinforces their reading ability and comprehension.  Not only is using the microphone fun, but it can be used to focus a team.  The use of sound can also be used to play music, which can enhance the environment during work time or transitions. 

Finally, I love the idea of accessibility in a classroom.  Teachers who are able to quickly reference materials produce a classroom that is flexible, engaging and fun.  Once I witnessed a teacher search and find a great interactive tool that kept track of the migration of turtles from northern Canada to the Caribbean based on an informal conversation the teacher was having with his students about migratory patterns and the speed of turtles.  Students where able to form teams, pick a turtle and spend the week “racing” along with their team’s turtles.  The students personal connection, and therefore the level of learning, was dramatically higher because of this experience and only materialize as a result of this teachers classroom design.  This kind of symmetry and synchronicity are only possible in a classroom that is prepared for it. 

One of the great aspects of the current room I work in is the skill the teacher has at providing choices for her students during work periods.  This is a skill that I wish to develop and include as a professional teacher.  Being able to have a focus and then a series of options, help clarify what is expected of the students, while giving them an element of choice.  They know when the main task is complete they will have the choice to do something different.  I believe this promotes autonomy and the chance for students to feel empowered about their learning.  Having almost two hours for language arts would be a drag, if it were not broken into parts that help the student focus and engage in learning.  Having these options built into the design of the classroom is something I will continue. 

The last change I would make (again, in the most ideal scenario) would be the inclusion of stations students can use at any time.  Taking from the wisdom of Montessori, I would develop stations where students could play in self-directed learning areas, any time they have the option to explore.  Good teaching is the result of meaningful interaction.  Meaningful interaction is different for each child.  Therefore, no matter how great a lesson plan is, there will always be students who struggle, and others who find little challenge with the lesson.  With the intention of maximizing the opportunities for differentiated learning, I would design a series of stations that both GATE and emerging students could benefit from.  GATE students could find activities to further their investigation and emerging students might find an activity that could be used to scaffold themselves to a higher level.  All students start at a different point, and it would be my hope, through the use of powerfully designed learning centers, to level the playing field by providing an access point for every child.

In conclusion, I feel confident that given a great deal of money, enough time and staffing, combined with a powerful paradigm shift that integrates our worlds changing methodology of communication and inter-relatedness, with the wisdom of great educational thinkers and activists, one could easily produce the perfect classroom!
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