“Where do we sit?” asks the student who walks into my journalism lab and sees two lines of computers, but over there, where desks and chairs should be, there is nothing.
A gaping hole of learning that is usually fraught with assigned seats.
Another kid walks over and sits on the floor with his back up against the wall.
Students who have had me before, their eyes go blank. Like, “What is this madness?”
“I miss your old room,” is said more than once.
On the right side of my room, there are 17 computers in two rows. On the left side -- nothing.
Well, not nothing nothing. It’s not a dark void.
“Timmy, don’t step over there! You’ll be lost forever!”
Because 30 or more desk and chairs was inconceivable in my classroom due to lack of space, I asked the custodian if he could take them out. He found this odd, but complied. Many people who view education as desks and chairs will find my room odd.
He wasn’t used to it. My students weren’t used to it. I wasn’t used to it.
And so began the Great Room Design Experience of 2015-2016.
I went into my new room last year knowing I was going to have some kind of furniture. It just wasn’t going to be typical. Not really sure what my budget would be, I started looking at all the different school furniture sites to see what was out there. Like, how much is school furniture anyway?
Your left arm.
Your first born.
Apparently, only million-dollar renovation or building budgets get to go shopping at the likes of School Furniture Liquidators.
For lil’ ol’ me, I needed to be more resourceful, so I visited the IKEA website.
After clicking “items that ship,” I found exactly what I needed. Stools and coffee tables that were easily moveable and didn’t break the bank. Orange-red stools that cost $4.99 each? Black coffee tables that cost $7.99 each?
Sold to the lowest bidder!
Eight tables and 18 stool-assemblies later (using my prep to assemble furniture was a first), my room now had the modular components I wanted. I could take the square black tables and create a long conference table and place the stools around it. Here, we’d have meetings, just like a newsroom, with me at the helm, leading us all to educational wonderlands.
Students could move the tables out to the hallway to work, to create a “news desk” for our video announcements, or hide under them if they so desired, while laying on the floor. The stools were the perfect size to sit by a bookshelf that moonlighted as a counter for workspace. The stools were also perfect for partner-work at the computer. Since the computers are close together, there’s not enough room for two chairs. There is room for a chair and a stool, however.
Once all that furniture was assembled, along with two rugs I also purchased, the room was ready. I never really set up the room, except for the conference table, so students were able to come in and go where they chose.
I also had ten cushions left over from my grandparents’ old outdoor furniture. They were nice cushions, faux leather on one side, fabric on the other, but they were straight out of “The Golden Girls” Florida. These were the prized possessions, the one things students clamored for, because, have you ever sat down on the floor of a classroom?
“Let’s just roll this carpet over some cement slabs and call it a day. It’s not like they’re going to sit on the floor. Look at all that fancy million-dollar desks and chairs!”
Then someone like me comes along and says, “You know what. I’m kind of tired of doing it the same-old, same-old.”
And I go and throw same-old out the window. It died a nasty death.
All of that furniture, 18 stools, 8 coffee tables and 2 rugs, not including shipping, cost less than $150. My principal was amazed at the cost. I felt frugally accomplished.
I mean, my hands and knees hurt from assembling all of it, but I felt accomplished.
Like, my blisters popped from all the assembling.
Sadly, my happy furniture story didn’t last.
And you know why?
Middle school kids. Those things are hard on furniture. Now, I don’t just have the same 150+ students coming into my room all year where I train them at the beginning of the year to do my bidding.
I have 150+ different students rotating through my schedule four times a year. That is upwards to about 600 different faces I see a year.
There are 1,300 students in my school.
You do the math.
Once they’ve learned how to occupy the classroom respectfully, there’s only two days left of the quarter.
By the time we concluded the year, only two out of the 18 stools were still functional (and with the start of a new year, even those won’t last) and two of my tables are missing one leg each. Also, pen ink has made its way onto the rugs. With the help of 21st Century glue, those tables will be repaired. The rugs will continue to be inked. The stools will be replaced with sturdier stools.
What won’t change is my resolve that a nontraditional room is something these students need. Walking into a space that isn’t set up like any other room in the building is making their neurons fire, making them reconsider what the classroom is even for.
Hopefully, this makes them reconsider what learning is.
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.