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?
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.