A few days ago, during an interesting conversation with a colleague, a realization came to me. The conversation began after my class had been cleared of its institution-like tables and chairs. In their places sprouted various couches, chairs, tables, pillows, and cushions.
"In my mind, they are not being serious if they are not sitting at desks or tables," my colleague, and friend confessed to me. This had been more than a stumbling block for me as well. How could they possibly work if they were sitting on a couch or at a picnic table? And more importantly, how would they test? We all know that our year boils down to that one day when we test (please note the sarcasm here).
Over the next few days, the strangest thing happened: work. A level of engagement began to happen in my classroom that had previously not taken place. Students were diligently working in the new areas, some together, some on their own. They had picked their own spots based on where they would work best. We spent a week moving around and testing out different areas and for the most part, they were making mature choices that were directly effecting their learning and engagement. Listening to their discussions was very interesting. The students knew exactly where they could work and where they were comfortable or even too comfortable.
The room consisted of different areas: the library, the mini-rooms, the genius bar, the maker space, the living room, the tech spot, the think tank, and, finally, the picnic area. Each area had its own theme that set it apart from the rest of the room. The living room and the mini-rooms were quickly identified as favorites. Personally, I adored the mini-rooms. My room came equipped with three large, 1970s closets. After talking to our administrator, the doors were removed, the cabinets emptied, and the shelves removed. Each cabinet was given a theme: Marvel, Harry Potter, and The Walking Dead. Pillows and tables were added as well as lights. These mini-rooms have become great places when concentration is essential.
Why had I not done this sooner? I had contemplated this change for months but could not actually see myself doing it. After a series of purchases at the local auction and an SUV full of new furniture, I knew it was time. The students carried in all the furniture and put it together. The day was long, tiring, and most of all, empowering. The students owned the room. Not only is their level of engagement higher but their ownership is exceptional. They keep cleaning supplies at the ready, fluff pillows, and arrange small tables when they are finished. They "mow" the grass in the picnic area (artificial turf that is spotless when they leave), and turn our many lamps on and off at the beginning and the end of the day. We have a larger than life stuffed animal dog that has become our mascot. His name is Henry and he is a comforting friend to so many of them. I watch them lean against him or fix his bed. They hug him and pet him as if he were a real dog. Our classroom has become a home.
Learning does not always take place at a school sanctioned table and chair. Our students can be serious in many different environments. And learning is messy. Education has changed and is changing, this is another step along the path.