Overhauling the classroom

Learning spaces that are flexible and nurture creativity help drive deep learning, according to Steve Laatsch, assistant superintendent of instructional services for Saline Area Schools in Michigan. Laatsch spoke with SmartBrief Education about his district’s redesign initiative, how it’s changing teachers’ roles, and creating new ways for students to collaborate and learn.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What was the vision and purpose of your redesign strategy? 

Our goal was to redesign classrooms so they would better meet the needs of our students. We wanted to support the 4 Cs and our student attributes within our graduate profile, also known as the Saline Area Schools Compass. The belief was that our current traditional classroom, where all seats face the front of the room, wasn’t going to allow for the collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity that is needed to support these 21st century competencies.

Did students have a say in the redesign? 

Students initially worked with their classroom teacher to mock up different designs for their classroom space. This was an invigorating process as students were able to share their ideas of what worked best for them in the classroom. Student designs, along with teacher input, were used to guide the district in purchasing new furniture pieces and designing new spaces such as our Saline Middle School Media Center and our collaborative science labs.

How have the spaces changed the teacher’s role? Are teachers still the “sage-on-the-stage” or are they more of a facilitator?

We are definitely seeing that the role of the teacher is evolving in these newly redesigned spaces. There is still a place for direct instruction, where the teacher leads an activity. However, these new spaces allow for more student-led learning where the teacher helps facilitate this process. We are gradually moving away from the “front of the classroom” idea where all eyes are glued on the teacher. There is more of a community feel where students work both individually and in small teams to accomplish their goals.

How do you see the redesigned classrooms supporting deeper learning? 

Part of the process for redesigned spaces was thinking critically about what was going to happen in each space. “Campfire spaces” let teachers bring students together for whole group discussions and mini lessons. We have cave-like spaces for students who need a place for independent, distraction-free work. And we have “watering holes” where students can collaborate with peers, work on projects or have small group discussions.

We wanted spaces that would be nimble--and they are. Students can move furniture to create areas for group work. Teachers can call small groups in any area of the classroom to meet a need. Furniture can be shifted quickly to make space for multiple classrooms to come together in order to support guest experts.

How are you integrating technology into these spaces?

At our lower elementary schools, we have iPads that support learning with various educational programs. We purchased organizational pieces so we can place student iPads in different spots around a classroom and create a better workflow for our teachers.

At our upper elementary, middle and high school, we are primarily Chromebook based. We have monitors in all our classrooms so that teachers and students have a space to project and collaborate on projects. Student Chromebooks can easily be hooked into television monitors for small group presentations, and in grades 6-8, our teachers are using Discovery Education’s resources to create digital learning environments.

Also, in many upper elementary classrooms, teachers are having students work on genius hour projects. Weekly, students are able to present their finished work to classmates by quickly connecting to a monitor right in the classroom. And, in many of our classrooms there are multiple small group station areas that allow collaborative groups to convene in front of a monitor in order to project their work.

Kanoe Namahoe is the editorial director of SmartBrief Education and Leadership. 

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