More than space

Lao Tze, in the Tao te Ching, states that a room has four walls, a roof and a floor, yet it is the empty space inside that provides its purpose.  While the philosophical truth of this wisdom resonates with me as an educator, the more thoughtful and purposeful the design of classroom space, while keeping mission and instructional strategies foremost in our intentions, renders the educational process far more executable on a high level.
How many schools consider the mission of the school while developing curriculum and instruction? Well, those that keep the lights and AC on must.  But how many look at the four walls and execute a vision for the space inside of them that allows for the mission to be executed most effectively?

A school that has a traditional sage on the stage stand and deliver pedagogical approach must have a space designed for such instructional activity. Auditorium-style seating is necessary in this environment, while papasans and beanbags do not belong.

In a school where differentiation through small group instruction is the mission-driven model, traditional desk-in-row seating with a single teacher desk on the side all centrally aimed towards a single wall with a wipeboard and perhaps a smartboard is not the use of the empty space inside that will serve this mission’s purpose.

At the end of last school year, we reflected on our physical space and some of the decisions that were made in the design and furnishing thereof.  With our small group focus with three adults in the classroom so we can differentiate every step of the way to provide each student with what he/she needs each day, for each concept, with each activity of practice, we needed to rethink how we used the empty space inside the four walls.

First, we established that we wanted to create a four group strategy for most of our instructional sessions.  The idea is that we can better target our students’ needs by grouping them more homogeneously.  Essentially, two groups would be in instructional groups with the 2 lead teachers, while the other 2 groups worked on a variety of targeted, independent, anchor activities supported by the teaching assistant.  After a set amount of time, the groups would switch.   Having such a plan, we needed to look at how we used the classroom space.

It is important to note that the school is in a growth mode, so our teachers have been accustomed to having copious breakout spaces in other rooms on the hall.  With the addition of grade levels each year, those spaces have ceased to be available.  Thus our strategic approach to differentiating in small groups within the four-walled space.

Each team has executed the design and process a little bit differently, according to style, vision, and plans. However each room allows for the instructional strategies to be utilized effectively.   In the 6th grade room, the teachers moved their desks out of a corner, and placed them next to each other across the back wall of the room.  This move created corner breakout space right next to each teacher desk.  With affixed wipe boards in each corner and the teachers facing into the  corner, the small group would essentially have its own space and the instructor’s voice facing into the corner, not into a cross-fire with the co-teacher.  This plan also allowed for large independent, targeted, anchor activity workspace away from the 2 small groups.

The seventh grade team has taken a more progressive approach as both teachers got rid of their teacher desks, replaced them with a small mobile workspace for their laptops/ materials, and ordered easel-style mobile wipe boards.  In place of their desks, they now have 7 ft X 2.5 ft. tables to gather students around during small group activities.  Again, the teachers are set up in the middle of a long wall so each has a corner for break out space.  They can move their wipe board wherever they want.  Now, their table acts as a group area, and can be used for one-on-one or teacher workspace if necessary.  Again, like in the other room, the independent work area is large and flexible.  Also, the larger wipe board and promethean are affixed near the independent/ teacher assistant guided area so that group activities can take place in that area, too.

Finally, the eighth grade execution, similar to 7th in that both groups of teachers have replaced teacher desks with group breakout space tables, but in the 8th grade room, the teachers are caddy-corner from each other to allow for greater breakout space.  This room is longer by 6 feet than the others, so this model allows for greater flexibility with use of space in the breakout areas without sacrificing the large independent/teacher assistant guided area.

While the description of these rooms, the instructional strategy focused on small groups, or the presence of 3 adults in the classroom at all times may not align with how other schools practice, the process of mission driving curriculum and instructional strategies, and the curriculum and instructional strategies driving classroom design should be applicable to any setting.

One month into the school year and the fluidity, transitions, and instructional quality all are enhanced as a result of our meaningful attention to classroom design.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention that our teachers know that we need to maintain a healthy organic mindset with regard to what we do.  We have liberated them to make them feel empowered to experiment with classroom design as long as our instructional strategies, school mission, and student experience are at the core of all adjustments.

As the Taoist passage has guided us to make best use of the empty  space inside our four walls, our students have benefited from a classroom design that allows them to be optimally engaged in their school experience.


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