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How a middle school classroom redesign increased student ownership of learning

Kathy Rogers
January 15, 2020

Some things never change -- but some things need to.

Three years ago, at the start of my 25th year in the classroom, I realized that it was time to make a major change. That summer I had binge-watched episodes of my favorite TLC program, "Trading Spaces," a show that involves totally redesigning a space to allow it to function in new and better ways. I was inspired to reconfigure my middle school classroom space. But that fall, as I arranged all my garage sale finds to create a cozy little teacher’s corner in my classroom, I took a step back and asked myself what type of learning environment I was establishing. Over the years I had accumulated what looked like a secondhand furniture store! I had not one, but two, teacher desks; a well worn but comfy chair that swiveled and rocked; a podium; a credenza; a file cabinet; bookshelves; a mini-fridge; a microwave and a coffee pot! Was I furnishing a classroom that was an inviting space for my students?
 
And what did their furniture options look like? Pretty dismal to be honest. All that was available to my kids were rows of uncomfortable traditional student desks. While I sometimes tried to arrange them in a circle, or as tables, the fact was that those desks most often resembled rows of tombstones in a cemetery. What message was that sending? Was this a classroom atmosphere that invited learning? And why did I get the only comfortable chair? 
 
As I continued to reflect, another question came to mind: Was this classroom space was “my room” or “our room”? The answer to that question would prove to have significant consequences. 
 
After asking myself more hard questions and doing some honest reflection, I resolved to do better. I got to work, did a lot of research and wrote a grant proposal. 

My vision

Here is the vision I outlined in my proposal:

  • To create a classroom space at our middle school that would offer students a variety of seating options and workspaces that would facilitate and promote engagement, movement, collaboration, conversation and creativity.
  • To move us into the 21st century -- away from traditional “cemetery seating” with rows of desks all facing forward -- to a “Starbucks-style” classroom that offered lots of seating options.
  • To eliminate all traditional desks (teacher and student) and replace them with tables, wobble stools, beanbags, office chairs that swivel, rocking chairs, standing desks, etc.

After obtaining the necessary funds, I got to work remodeling. I ditched my teacher desk and most of my garage sale finds -- except the coffee pot! I was determined to create a space that wasn’t a collection of cast-off and repurposed furnishings. I did my research and used the grant money to purchase quality furnishings designed specifically for schools. When the kids arrived to start the year I invited them to explore a variety of flexible seating -- and standing -- options. They loved their classroom!

About garage sales and grant money  

You may be thinking, "It would be great to redesign my classroom but not everyone can count on grant money." The reality is that most teachers fund a lot of what goes into our classrooms from our own pockets. There are numerous DIY options for creating flexible seating in classrooms, but this usually involves a trash-to-treasure approach and contributions of the teacher’s time and money. Don’t give up if you don’t have a huge budget. I encourage you to seek out other ways to redesign your classroom.

One thing every teacher can afford to do: Ditch your desk and physically move into the classroom space. This strategy doesn’t cost anything and comes with big rewards. And if your mindset is already one that embraces a student-centered learning environment, then you’ve already accomplished the most important part of redesigning the learning space.   

Tips for facilitating a flexible seating classroom 

The key to successful experiences in a classroom featuring flexible seating options is -- you guessed it -- flexibility!

  • Agree on and set norms around seating options.
  • Encourage kids to change seats from day to day and as they move between activities.
  • Help students reflect on and discover which seat works best for them.
  • Reserve the right to assign seats and guard against anyone being left out.
  • Have more seating options than students.

And be prepared for your classroom to become the preferred location for department meetings, conferences, PLC meetings, etc. Everyone likes a comfy seat!

Revelations of a classroom redesign

I soon found I was no longer leading the learning from the front of the classroom. When I joined my students in the classroom space, I experienced a mindset shift. Guiding my students along their learning journeys required that I set aside my ego and relinquish -- or at least share -- control. In a classroom environment that is focused on student learning (and not on the teacher’s presentation of the curriculum), one of the most important roles for me became the "guide-on-the-side."

Before the classroom redesign, I told my kids to “Sit up straight and activate!” and to keep their eyes on me. I said that the front of the room was wherever I was in that space. But our redesigned space has shown me that many of my students are paying attention even when sitting -- upside down -- in a beanbag chair! I now understand that sometimes they are actually able to pay attention because they are sitting in a beanbag chair.

When I changed the look and the function of our classroom space, I began to share responsibility for the learning taking place in it. This was not my classroom, but our classroom. I had the responsibility to facilitate and guide my students’ learning, but they could take ownership. The classroom redesign and our new classroom configuration facilitated this shift and continues to put the focus on students.  

Technology in student-centered spaces

At the same time that I was managing this classroom remodel, our administration decided to implement a 1-to-1 technology initiative. This meant that each classroom would receive a set of Chromebooks. It also meant that my students no longer had to “face the front” -- they would not have to watch a SMART Board as I present to the class. Now, I can move around the room and interact with students in new ways.

With the move to 1-to-1 devices and a loosening of rules regarding student cellphones, we were able to make another significant shift in our classroom environment. We expanded our use of the integrated digital portfolio tool, FreshGrade, and used it to create a virtual classroom. This was a redesign I had not anticipated. Students use the platform to communicate with me about their learning. FreshGrade -- coupled with the flexible seating options -- empowered me to create individualized programs of learning for my students. Today in our classroom you will find each student at a unique point along a path toward meeting learning targets and gaining proficiency. FreshGrade also provides a window into our learning spaces, both virtual and physical, because parents are welcome to join us at any time. The door to our FreshGrade classroom is always open! 

What is the ideal classroom space for students? 

Over the past 28 years of my teaching career, I’ve experienced the push and pull between my instincts about what was best for my students and the directives and expectations of traditional school culture. Each year I have tried to reflect, make adjustments and grow in my practice. Changes like redesigning the traditional physical classroom space as well as entering into a virtual learning space have brought me back to my reason for becoming a teacher. I want to meet every one of my students where they are in their learning journeys and help them to become lifelong learners. I believe that ideal classrooms are inviting, individualized, comfortable learning spaces where every child is able to learn and grow.

Digital environments function best when they are reciprocal with a physical space, and vice versa. It might seem counterintuitive, but the relationships formed in our FreshGrade classroom have had a transformative effect on the learning in our physical classroom space. By redesigning not just the furniture but also the tools that we use, student ownership of learning has grown. The flexible seating classroom and the virtual classroom each complement and enhance the other to the benefit of my students.

Gratitude is good -- relationships are everything

I recently made another change to our classroom environment. With intentionality, at the close of each class period, I now take time to thank my students and say, “Thanks for learning with me today.” It’s created powerful change. My students now thank me too. In their FreshGrade portfolio comments and as they leave our classroom, they are expressing gratitude.

After almost three decades as a classroom teacher, my experiences with students continue to humble and inspire me. As I near the end of my teaching career, I’ve stopped feeling compelled to employ practices that I know are not helpful to my students and I’ve embraced change. Changing my focus to student-centered instruction in student-centered spaces has allowed me to better guide my students on their learning journeys. What hasn’t changed is my gratitude for the opportunity to continue to learn and grow with my students every day.

Kathy Cote’ Rogers learns about German and Coding with her students at Pizitz Middle School in Vestavia Hills, Alabama. She says that when she is asked the question, “What do you teach?” she used to proudly state, “ I am a German Teacher” and wait for the predictable responses. They included, “Isn’t German hard to learn?” and “German is such a harsh language, not pretty like French.” While telling people that she taught German made for interesting conversation, she says it really missed the point for her. She says, "Labeling myself as a ‘Teacher of German’ didn’t tell the whole story. It felt false because the part of my job that is the most meaningful to me isn’t the content that I teach, it is the relationships that I have with my students. So, I’ve recently begun responding in a new way when asked, 'What do you teach?' Now I answer, 'I teach children.' This shift in my response reflects the changing environment in our classroom. My students and I are making the shift from a teacher-directed to a student-centered classroom."

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