Who Needs Walls?
The second strand from #NPC17 that I’d like to share focuses on different learning spaces. This blog will focus on our plan moving forward as a building more than reflection piece but will highlight key learnings I took from 3 great educators. During the #NPC17 I was able to attend the session by Bill Ziegler (@DrBillZiegler), Darren Ellwein ( @dellwein), and Nancy Alvarez (@techwnancy) that focused on creating flexible learning spaces in the building. Both Darren and Bill really focused on their story and how they transformed their learning environment to meet the needs of all students in their buildings along with building a strong community. My hope in writing this is twofold. I hope that after you read it you’re able to take some of the ideas that I’ve shared with you and implement them in your building. My second hope is that you will share your ideas or what you have already put in place back with me.
I want to first be upfront and honest about something before moving any further with this. Great instruction is at the core of any great school and any great teacher. Great instruction will always come first will always trump the bells and whistles. You can have the greatest technology, the fanciest building, or unique learning spaces, but if you don’t have great instruction taught by great teachers the rest does not matter. I wanted to make that point before talking about learning spaces.
Our story with flexible learning spaces starts with what we have put in place at my current middle school. We designed two café style areas in our building during the last school year. I had two goals for these collaborative learning areas. The first goal was to create a learning space for students outside of the classroom to give them that Starbucks kind of feel. The second goal was to create an area for staff to come together outside of their classroom to collaborate and build relationships. These two focuses happened very organically without any interference from us. Teachers and staff loved the look and the feel of these areas. Staff members started eating lunch at these tables. Students wanted to work in the halls and eat at the tables during lunches. Teachers were signing out the café tables throughout the year on a regular basis. Staff provided individualized support to students in these areas throughout the year. It was great to walk out of my office and see learning happening without needing to walk into a classroom. These new collaborative learning areas were a huge hit. I knew this when teachers were requesting this type of setup for their individual classrooms.
These new areas provided something that I didn’t think of when the initial planning took place. They provided an informal office area that allowed me to get out from behind my four walls. Throughout the year, I would take my laptop/tablet out in the hallways and just sit. This did a number of different things. First, it allowed me to see what took place in the halls during class in these specific areas. It allowed me to have conversations with students that I may have missed if I was behind my walls. It provided an opportunity to build community with my staff as they were coming into the building in the morning or running somewhere during their prep. It allowed for so many informal conversations that had never taken place behind my four walls. I was able to learn more about so many of staff members. It made conversations happen with those I interact with every day but more importantly, it made conversations happen with those that I wouldn’t typically interact with on a daily basis. I would highly recommend to any leader in any position to consider moving your office to different parts of the building throughout the year. It will open your eyes to see what happens in your building during different parts of the day in different areas of the building that you wouldn’t see if you were in an office. It will also spark many informal conversations that will have a big impact on your school culture. I am looking for more areas throughout the building to position myself during the day to continue this trend.
During the presentation, a great resource was shared with the group, a book titled Make Space, by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft. If you do not have this as one of your current resources and you are looking to redesign learning spaces or add new ones in, this is a must have resource. It is a wonderful guide for schools to begin thinking about different spaces in the building. The presenters also shared a website that I would recommend that you check-out-https://sites.google.com/site/innovativespacesnpc/?scrlybrkr. You will find a wealth of information that can help as you transform your space!
Our building is moving to a 1-1 environment this year. I am looking to add different learning spaces for our students to meet the needs that this type of environment requires. We are planning to design collaborative areas throughout the building. This presentation really highlighted how to maximize every single space in your building. This included broken lockers, unused areas of the building, empty wall space, and so much more. Other ideas that came out of the session that we will be trying out this year looked at making bar height tables and different hallway setups. Ideas were shared about tables that are standing height for students to work and collaborate at. Think about beams that you have throughout the building that come down in the middle spaces. How great would it be if you were able to set up a table that wrapped these beams? You just transformed something useless and often times in the way to something functional and collaborative.
This coming school year we are going to look to expand our flexible learning spaces throughout the entire building. We have 2 stairwell corridors that have a great deal of empty space. We are planning to utilize these spaces to create collaborative think-tank areas. This may include whiteboard walls (inexpensive shower board), high top tables, charging stations, and a few other ideas we are batting around. We have a new course called Innovation and Exploration. We are looking to transform this room into what Making Space calls a white room (whiteboards all around). We are planning to use inexpensive shower board all around the room and on tables for students to be able to create and innovate. As my building is going through a major construction we are finally going to add a faculty lounge which has been absent since my time in my building. I am looking to do a variety of seating options to promote community collaboration and learning. We will have café style tables, long community tables, and bar height tables throughout the room. I am excited to see what these new learning spaces will bring to our building.
Get the Kids and Community Involved
As many districts face budget constraints many of the ideas that came out of this session and book can be incorporated into some of the classes that you may already have in your school. We need to look at innovative approaches to designing and building these new areas. What better approach to accomplish this than to involve your students and school community. Our STEM classes will be the first resource that we tap into. We want real life learning experiences for our students. We also want to show them how they can give back to their own school. These projects will provide the perfect learning opportunity. Along with our students, we also have a community that is looking for opportunities to get involved in the school community. This will be the perfect opportunity to involve them in a project that will improve the school for our students. We will tap into local stores and businesses to help provide supplies we will need. We will look to use inexpensive materials such as shower board that can be used as a whiteboard substitute. This can be cut very easily to a number of sizes. It can be hung on the walls or put on mobile learning carts. We look to local lumber yards for scrap wood and materials that they discard. Redesigning learning spaces can be done regardless of budget constraints.
We want to create a community feel throughout the building. By creating these different learning areas in untapped spaces we are providing opportunities for teachers to move out of their four walls and we are providing collaborative areas to help our students grow. We want to show that learning can happen outside of traditional classroom designs. We want to involve our staff, our students, and our community to help transform unused areas of the building in order to create different learning spaces to meet the needs of different learners. We also want to create areas for staff to grow together in a collaborative fashion. Personally, I want more areas to set up shop while I am not in classrooms to be available to students and staff members. I want to provide more opportunities for informal conversations to take place. I have learned that being behind my four walls puts up physical and emotional barriers to these types of conversations for some. If I am asking teachers to personalize their classrooms to meet their student needs I need to model this practice for my staff. I hope that after reading this you will consider the unused areas of your building and how you could transform them this coming year. I also hope that if you have done any of this great work you will share with me so that I can model greatness in my setting!
Resources-Make Space by Scott Doorley and Scott Witthoft