Y'all, it's time for some pictures.
This past summer, I got the chance to be a part of my state's "Summer of eLearning" extravaganza of conferences. I signed up for one that was for "leaders" and wondered if I really belonged.
(I'm not a principal. I'm not an instructional coach. I don't have my masters. I'm just a lowly tech coordinator, working as a middleman between administration and teachers. Sure I've been smacking educational concepts in the face here and there, roughing them up a little, but does that really make me a leader?)
The conference I signed up for took place at a local high school that had just redesigned a majority of their spaces. When I saw that in the description, I messaged my teacher friend who is my instructional coach go-to, as well as the media specialist, to see if she would join me.
The first afternoon of the 2-day conference was a tour around the new facilities. Although we don't have the kajillion dollar budget to scrap what our building is doing and go into renovation hyper-drive, the spaces at the local high school were a place to jump start a new frame of thinking.
I was also inspired while walking downtown Louisville, KY on my way to an Alton Brown Live! show. The office had whiteboard walls, movable seating, couches, tables, coffee tables, movable whiteboards...OMG, I can't even!
That office space is lucky I didn't break in, create a teleportation device and turn it into my classroom. It'll give a whole new meaning to telecommuting.
"Students, we'll be leaving Indiana for 90 minutes and tele-commuting to Mr. Williams' classroom in Louisville, Kentucky. Step up on the teleportation panel, one at a time, and keep your hands next to your sides, otherwise, typing will become very difficult."
Eventually, I'll be posting pictures of my classroom set up, but check out what some of the big-wigs have come up with:
After a few weeks of no desks and simply stools, something was beginning to take shape in my classroom.
It started to become a trash heap.
It was really offensive.
I shook my fist. I created a slideshow of the ways they defiled my classroom and said "No!"
I pleaded. I begged.
This new concept of an open space was foreign to the kids, and for some reason, it gave them more leverage to leave trash on the floor and not get up and throw it away.
Part of that is my fault, I realized. When it comes to a room that is different then others, you need to reteach some routines and place in some structures. And be consistent. Unlike what they're used to, there are no desks to push chairs under. Instead, there are stools and coffee tables everywhere.
Wouldn't it be nice if those got moved out of the way so the evening custodian, who is also a friend, can be more efficient in doing his work?
One would think.
But the minute the bell rings, kids shoot up like scared cats, and bolt out of the room. I see kid-shaped clouds for one second before they dissipate.
With a mere 5 minutes to walk a few miles across a desert to their next class, my students aren't concerned about the journalism space anymore. They're on to their next endeavors, and they don't want to be tardy.
The first thing I've done this year is to try and create a place for the stools and chairs to go when not in use. Chairs sit under the computers. Six of the stools have a place to go next to a counter and an additional table. The other six stools are to be pushed toward the wall of the room. Little black coffee tables are also to be pushed to the walls.
Instead, the two plastic spinning chairs on wheels are on the other side of the room where theyd on't belong, because let's face it, chairs with wheels are fun.
I scoot around in them just as crazy as the next person.
But they have a specific place to go to, as well...and are they ever there?
Of course not.
Dystopian novels wouldn't have ever been written if chairs were actually put back to where they belonged.
If you didn't realize, the true inspiration to books like "1984," "The Handmade's Tale," and "The Hunger Games," all came about because people didn't push in their chairs.
It was all chaos.
It was all out of control.
Although students have creative control when it comes to where they sit or what they sit on, it still needs a home base at the end of the day. I have given them that, and my sixth graders know this, especially, because they are my final class.
What I don't do is give them ample time to stop, take a breath, and move any piece of furniture where it belongs. To take a moment and pick up any scattered papers.
I hear the bell, or look at my watch, throw my hands up like a crazy person, and yell, "It's time to go, put all the furniture back!"
What they hear is: "It's time to go! Destroy the room and never return!"
I realized this today when my room looked like it survived a tsunami. I'm not giving my students the chance to put the room back in order. How can I be mad when I'm part of the problem?
At home, they're parents probably nag them relentlessly about not pushing chairs and stools back under counters and tables. They do it all the time at home, it's just, when I've got 30+ of them in my room, it's 30 times worse.
Imagine if they all lived in the same house together.
Stools, chairs and tables would become blockades.
I'm not good about room procedures like that. I get frustrated every year, and never try to change it. The students are mine for 9 or 10 weeks, and then I lose them. With yearbooks, newspapers, online stories, and video announcements to create, I don't make time to remind the kids to pick up.
But I think it's time to start, as well as give them ample time to set my room up straight.
Years ago, when I sat down to partake in something called "teacher research," I would like to say that right away I knew exactly what I wanted to research.
The idea of a teachers researching, at the time, was new to me. As a journalism teacher, I didn't know where to begin. What kind of research was out there for journalism teachers? Especially one that catered to the middle school crowd.
Instead, I decided that I could redesign my classroom. It needed a fresh start. It needed different spaces for the students, and it needed to feel more like a news room and less like school.
Where to begin?
That was all back in 2008. It took seven years for my "teacher research" to begin: a year of observations under the RISE model that pointed out some of my teacher weaknesses (that's another story for another day), gathering new tools in my toolbox to become a way better teacher, some confidence building, and a room change.
With the room change came 8 coffee tables and 18 stools from IKEA, as well as 10 cushions from my grandparents' old patio furniture. I had no vision. I just opened my doors and allowed for my students to have at it.
And have at it they did.
I needed to just be in the room with no plan for all the furniture. This is one of the hardest things for a teacher to do. To spend a year without a plan and just be. Teachers always feel like they have to have some form of control over their classroom. Some sleight of hand that gives them the upper deck. Any ounce of chaos will often throw a teacher into overdrive and cause them to crawl under their desk in tears.
Luckily, I thrive in said chaos. I stand on top of my desk and reign over it.
But my sleight of hand was always a traditional room set-up where the desks were placed into groups, or "tables." It was comfortable. It didn't allow for running, moving, dancing, fencing. Students had restrictions by the sheer amount of desks and chairs. Counters with computers also ate away at the available square footage in the room.
Then I moved rooms and said, "No chairs! No desks!"
Cut-to my latest room: Without the comfort of traditional school room furnishings, not only did my room look like it was filled to the brim with insanity -- it really was.
And I needed to live in that. It was uncomfortable. It was loud. It was never perfect. Some days, I would look at the room and grin, knowing that the experiment was successful. Other times, the room looked like the Tasmanian Devil came for a tea party.
But a year without rules helped lead me to uncover the best ways to use nontraditional learning spaces. For tonight, let's just start with one:
Students must design the learning spaces
Over the summer, at a conference, the idea came up that students needed to have a major voice (or the entire voice) when it came to organizing the classroom. It didn't matter what the teacher wanted, it's all about the students. Which is true, yes? It is all about the students. Give kids ownership of the room and let them design the space.
There's a caveat for me, however. I wanted to jump in 100% and be all pompoms and confetti canons about this process, but I rotate through 130+ students each nine weeks. That's about 520+ kids a year I could potentially see in one year. That's a plethora of opinions on how the room should be set up, which would take much time to plan, vote, etc.
I'm a journalism teacher, people. I've got deadlines to meet. As Utopian as it sounds, I can't have students design the entire room four times a year.
Then, the discussion went one-step further: Get rid of the teacher desk! I mean, it's their room, not yours! You don't even belong there, right? Go back and live in the garage where the mower is kept.
It's like the student took control and said, "I'm the captain now."
The whole idea of giving up the teacher's space was a bit extreme. I mean, I only spend 45 minutes a day with my sixth graders. For one quarter. I spend 90 minutes every-other-day with my seventh and eighth graders, because of block schedule.
I'm spending about 7 to 8 or more hours a day in that space.
It's my home away from home.
I feel like I should get to have some say in how the room is set up.
Through the summer, after allowing that conference to sink in a bit, I took a step back from the ledge and realized all the above was philosophy. Pedagogy. I didn't have to agree with all of it, and for one of the first times in my teaching career, as a trend came hurtling toward me, I didn't dodge it. I stood and let it try to hit me straight on, and it fell off the tracks.
Now, I do respect the philosophy behind "not having a teacher desk." I'm just going to go ahead and ignore it.
I also agree that students should have some say in the classroom layout and design. There is nothing wrong with that. I'm just not letting them draw up blueprints, nor am I getting rid of a space to call my own.
What I will do is include movable aspects of my room. This will allow students to create different areas within the room during collaboration or individual work time. If they need a conference table, they can create it. If they want a footstool for their legs, they can claim two stools. If they would like to create a little quiet space to write, think, or design, I've got movable walls on casters that can create temporary spaces.
I may not allow the students to completely design my room, but I will give them the freedom to move pieces of furniture around to create new spaces within the room. They are designing the learning spaces. Their own learning spaces. Compared to other classrooms in the building, my room is like being thrown into a pool of cold water.
You can see it in their faces when they walk into the room for the first time. They are so used to the "traditional" way of classroom set up that missing desks and chairs is foreign. Uncomfortable. You can really see it on their parents' faces during open house night.
So, I'm not getting rid of my teacher desk.
Where am I going to put my coffee?
For three weeks one summer, about eight years ago, I was a part of the National Writing Project (in central Indiana we call our small corner of it the Hoosier Writing Project). Teachers get together, discuss lessons and the importance of writing, as well as take hours upon hours to write for ourselves. It was when I started seeing innovation before innovation was a hashtag on Twitter and George Couros wrote about it being a “mindset.”
One of the goals for this group of teachers, all spellbound by improving our craft, needed to create and work on a “teacher research project.”
Since I wasn’t taking the class for credit, it sounded awful.
I threw up in my mouth.
What could I even research? What did I want to improve? It’s not that I didn’t need improvement, that wasn’t the case -- I’m not a diva. I know I can always improve. The question was...how does a middle school journalism teacher that teaches a full journalism curriculum (and no language arts, like most) even find research about his craft? There are not many teachers out there like me.
Typically, middle school language arts teachers take over aspects of a journalism class at their schools. The yearbook is the biggest, and there’s sometimes a newspaper, but typically they’re club activities and not actual classes.
And I’m not a high school journalism teacher -- there’s a TON of research out there, and articles, and lawsuits. Middle school journalists are not ready for such dramatics within the field of journalism. Yet. My goal for them are basics. They need the ground level before they advance -- and since our feeder high school has a tremendous journalism program, they can take the basics they learn from me and stretch their wings there.
Ugh, so what could I even research? I wanted it to be beneficial. Who does research for the sake of research?
Nevermind. I know those people are out there.
But I started thinking: How amazing would it be if I could have areas in my classroom that could be for specific purposes? When students came into my room, they would have to utilize different areas for different tasks.
And then it hit me -- if I’m a journalism teacher, how can my classroom look more like a newsroom?
I started to think about classroom design before it was trendy. Except, since it wasn’t trendy -- there wasn’t anything out there for research, and I wasn’t snazzy enough to put the studies of Piaget, Bloom and Gardner to the test and write my own papers about classroom design.
I was at a loss. My teacher research went nowhere, but it set the stage for my journey -- eight or nine years later.
At the time, my classroom held 17 computers, 30 desks and 30 chairs. A teacher desk. Three windows. A door to the media center. Counter tops. It felt like a smallish room, and there wasn’t much I could really do to move furniture around. Getting fancy with classroom design wasn’t abandoned completely, but I felt stuck.
Then, years later, I transferred rooms. I moved across my building to a larger room -- a change I didn’t like at first, because, really, who likes packing a bunch of yearbooks?
Then, on the last day of the 2014-2015 school year, my assistant principal showed me my ‘new’ room, and I had complete say in where my computers would go. I also asked what I could do with the room.
His response: Anything I wanted.
Insert: Confetti Cannon.
The support of administrators is a glorious thing. I didn’t always have it. At one point in my career, I was afraid of my administration. Going to my principal’s office made me feel like I needed to go to the bathroom -- you know the feeling.
Sure, the principal left you alone if you did good things, but also called you out when you did bad things. So, you weren’t sure if you were doing good things, but you knew quite well that you did bad things.
After a change in command, and gaining the absolute trust with my latest principal, I’ve become one of the biggest risk takers in my building.
I’ve become the teacher that tightrope walks without a net.
So, looking at the blank canvas that was my new room, I looked at my assistant principal and said, “I don’t want any desks or chairs.”
It was one of the best, but also most challenging, decisions as a teacher I have made, yet.
Who is The Vade Mecum
Evan Williams is a middle school journalism teacher in Indiana. He advises the student publications: yearbook, magazine, video announcements, broadcast and online news. To find success in the classroom, he uses blended learning with the help of Canvas and Google Apps for Education.