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What Does Your Classroom Say?

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During this Spring Break, I’ve been thinking about that kidney-shaped table in the back of my room. 

Designed to accommodate one teacher in the main groove and up to six students around the outside, that table has been in my classroom since the first day I taught fifth grade fifteen years ago. Truth be told, that same kind of table was in my classroom when I WAS a fifth grader forty-some years ago.

It’s gone through several incarnations: the back table, the universal access table, the pull-out table. Regardless of the moniker, it’s been the place for small group interventions, meaning everyone knows that if you have been called to sit there, you need help. There’s an unspoken stigma to having to go back to the kidney-shaped table. And I started thinking, when my students see that table, what kind of environment have I created? 

What other messages are we sending our students when they walk into our classrooms?

* Individual desks in neat rows: You’re on your own.

* Teacher’s desk in front, separating teacher from students: I’m big, you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

* Walls covered with pre-made posters: Your work isn’t good enough to put up on the walls.

* All seats facing the front: Don’t even think of talking to your neighbors. 

Common Core Standards call for students to “build on others’ ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood.” (English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Publication Version, page 6) 

But does our classroom layout send a different message? And if it does, won’t that confuse our students? If we expect them to collaborate and communicate, shouldn’t our classrooms look like places for collaboration and communication – not isolation?

A 2013 study by the University of Salford's School of the Built Environment and British architecture firm Nightingale Associates suggests a school's physical design can improve or worsen a child’s academic performance by as much as 25 percent in early years. The year-long study discovered that classroom architecture and design significantly (73% of the changes in student scores) affected academic performance. 

From the moment our students set foot in our room, they should see that the design of the classroom itself reflects the lessons we’re teaching. 

Like most educators, I’m always trying to tweak old lessons and design new ones that will reach each individual student. I try to craft big questions that will allow students to creatively and critically think their way to big answers. I want them to realize they are capable of working hard, working together and finding joy in both.

So until I can afford new classroom furniture, our desks are in arranged in groups of four and five. We have a “Collaboration Station” with four unique chairs and a connected monitor where students can go to brainstorm as a group. Students can also use the tall chairs set up in our class “Book Nook” to gather their collective genius to ask the right questions and find the best solutions.

 And I had my custodian get rid of that kidney-shaped table.


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Tammy Brecht Dunbar, M.Ed., S.T.E.M. teaches 5th grade in Manteca Unified School District and Pre-Service Technology at Teachers College of San Joaquin (Stockton, CA). She is a popular presenter and trainer around the country. She presented at the 2015 Microsoft Global E2 conference (where she earned two global awards for project excellence), and will be presenting at ISTE 2016 (with Angela Maiers), CUE 2016, ETC! 2016 and CTA’s Good Teaching Conference 2016. Follow her on @TammyDunbar or find her at http://www.teachergeekischic.com

Dunbar is a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert, Certified Educator, Master Trainer & Regional Lead as well as a Common Sense Media Digital Citizenship Certified Educator, a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator and an NCCE Professional Learning Specialist. She won the 2010 eInstruction $75,000 Classroom Makeover Video Contest, wrote a successful Enhancing Education Through Technology grant for Manteca Unified School District in 2008, and was Teacher of the Year in MUSD in 2006. She serves on the MUSD Superintendent’s Technology Committee and as a district Tech Champion Expert as MUSD continues their “Going Digital” project.

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Guest Monday, 15 July 2019