The Deskless Classroom – part 2

Close your eyes and imagine a classroom. What does it look like? What furniture is there? What colour are the walls? What does it smell like? How do you feel in this space? If you’re like me the image that comes to mind is of paper-lined bulletin boards, colourful borders, tables and desks neatly arranged, shelves full of books. I can practically smell the wax crayons.

This classroom in my mind is Pinterest-perfect. As a teacher, it’s kind of a nerdy heaven. Most teachers I know are experts at creating an inviting space. But I think this space, even with the addition of a computer or two is designed for a different kind of learning than is done in modern classrooms.

What if a classroom looked less like a classroom and more like an artist’s studio? Go ahead and close your eyes again… My image is that of a messy space full of artifacts and materials for making. It’s a space for something completely different, isn’t it?

This is what greets most teachers when we walk back into schools after summer. Clean (although usually we put a little elbow grease into getting it back to the bare bones). This year, this is the same place that greeted my grade 3s. 

I was only mildly nervous over the first few days and only became really nervous the night before kids came  back for the fall when I read one of those “Dear Teacher” posts on FB. You know the kind I’m talking about… “Dear Teacher, I see how hard you have worked putting your room together over the summer, the boards neatly papered, the shelves full of books, organized for reading…” and I panicked a little. “OMG, parents are going to think I just traipsed in this morning without any thought to my environment!” when the opposite was true.

I actually spent a lot of time over the summer reading The Third Teacher, talking with my PLN and thinking and sketching. On the days of prep, I also put a lot of elbow grease into this space. Even when it’s “empty” it takes a lot of work to get a classroom to a blank slate.
  

I had an idea of what I was going for and it took a lot of self restraint to keep myself from creating the corners and “zones” that I had created in the past. “But how will they know where to find a pencil? Where will their agendas go in the mornings? Colour-coded notebooks… where will I put them…??”

In the end, I went for as blank a slate as possible. I pushed everything out of the way. I welcomed students in to what looked like a familiar meeting place. The benches in front of the computer and we worked from there.

“Does this room look like it might be missing anything??” I asked. And students quickly rattled off a litany of things that they were missing in this space for learning.

We worked through a google presentation prepared by Shafali, a teacher at another school, who I connected with via my Assistant Principal @Shafinad. We created empathy for students. What kinds of things might we include in our space? What might we be able to accomplish in this space if it looked different than a traditional classroom? What do we want to create here?

Students began the ideation process by breaking into five groups and recording their ideas on sticky notes. This, I might add, is not always an easy task with second-language learners at the beginning of grade 3, but I refused to do the work for them. They invented spelling, they drew, they collaborated to communicate ideas, and in the end, I scribed a few ideas. Very few.

   
 From there, I had students begin a sketch in their journals.

  
Then they put their heads together and drew a large poster.

   
 Then they cut out pictures.

We put our ideas together and grouped all of the ideas into categories.

Then we broke the categories down by student group and decided who would represent which part in the maquette. They knew that we didn’t have a million dollars to make this space. We would have to be  creative.

   
 Then students brainstormed about how to represent and measured our classroom, which told me more than I expected about them as learners.
We are not done yet but are starting to get close. Looking forward to sharing our final product!

The Deskless Classroom

Next school year I am planning something a little different to greet my students: in the past I have taken pride in a Pinterest Perfect Classroom but this year my students will be in charge from the outset. I’m planning to start with design thinking from the beginning. With the support of my admin, I’m hoping to open the doors with a bare bones classroom and have students design it to meet our learning needs.

We will spend day one designing our space. I will have furniture ready to move in and the fine details will be put on with the help of students. I feel like this will set the tone for our learning space.

I have spent some time planning and of course I have a few ideas…

My master class this term is about designing technology-supported learning environments and I have done some reading in The Third Teacher. As I had a few hours on layovers on my way to and from ISTE, I have done a lot of thinking about how physical environment can support learning.

I have long toyed with the idea of a deskless classroom, but it’s funny… When you google this term, mostly what shows up are images of classrooms full of tables. But that’s not what I mean. Going “deskless” is not just about the absence of desks, it is about what replaces it. Our classroom will favour collaboration not just group work. I want a classroom that feels completely different so that my students know from the outset this space is meant for fully engaged learning.

Step 1: Ditch the teacher desk. 

I still need space for my stuff, but that’s going in a closet now. My admin has provided every classroom with a u-shaped table. This will serve as space to meet with the teacher and will be my “home base”.

Step 2: The Genius Bar

The Genius Bar is a large lab desk I picked up last year and painted with whiteboard paint. Students use it as a stand-up learning space and I like the collaborative nature of it. Because students can write directly on it I find that it leads to risk-taking in learning that students might not take on paper. Write and erase becomes easier. While it’s not perfect, I’m hoping a fresh coat of paint or a plexiglass sheet on the top will make it even better.

Step 3: The Collaboration Cafe

I plan on bringing a coffee table and a couple of sofas into the classroom. This space will have a homey feel and lighting that students can control. Honestly, when I work at home I rarely sit at a desk anymore. Even this blog post was composed on an iPad while sitting in a café while my kids were at day camp. All the tools I need are at my fingertips on the iPad; dictionaries, Internet, word processing, images.

Step 4: The Studio

I have long wanted a studio, so I’m going ahead and putting one in the closet. This will be a semi-quiet space where students can record audio and video evidence of their learning for their portfolios, blogs, vlogs, and podcasts. I’m hoping to host a weekly news show from our classroom. We’ll see if this idea gets off the ground…

Step 5: The Stage

I have my admin’s blessing to bring a set of risers into the classroom, which I’m hoping to use as a meeting place and a stage. I think especially in immersion classrooms that students need the opportunity to speak. I’m hoping to integrate the stage with the puppet theatre and studio and to turn our classroom into a production studio.

Step 6: The Dojo

In our classroom, there will be tables that take up most of our learning space. This will be the dojo where I expect there to be 4-5 lessons going on at the same time. Students will be in charge of the learning in these spaces like in a dojo where there are several different lessons with several levels of practice going on at the same time.

Step 6: The Offices

Even in a collaborative space, I think teachers need to respect the need for some students to find some alone time and space. I want there to be a couple of quiet corners.

Step 7: The Walls

The wonder wall will continue again this year and I plan to make the walls more interactive by using QR codes and augmented reality targets. But for that matter, I hope to flatten the classroom and make the wall disappear by inviting Skype experts and using international projects like The Snail and The Whale.

I’m excited about putting together something new this year and am feeling open about designing the space and the learning activities together with my students.

Looking forward to posting images as our space comes together and looking for peer feedback. Anybody have tips or tricks for me?

Edited to add:

I wrote more about my experience with the deskless classroom here and here.

Math Movies

So this? Yeah… this is pretty cool! I had my students make fraction movies today. Using the app “Explain Everything” they recorded a lesson or an explanation of their understanding. I can imagine using this recorded lesson as a resource for students in the future. It’s also a great way for students to communicate their thinking without having to write it all out. I can get their ideas even when I don’t have the time in class to sit down with each group during class time – I can review their movie after the students have left for the day. As I said to the students, there will be a learning curve with the software. The movie they made today is not as good as the movies they will make in the future. We reviewed a couple of movies in math class and students discussed the math, critiqued their own work and provided constructive criticism for other groups. Some really powerful stuff going on here!

Inquiry-Based Learning

Summer 2009, I stumbled across this video of Sir Ken Robinson and was inspired to pick up his book “The Element; How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything”, which has enormously influenced my thinking on education and being an educator. I feel so lucky to be working at an innovative school, where we have the freedom and support to explore new ways of thinking and teaching.

Heritage Fair was a shining example of Inquiry-Based learning and educating students for the future. As Sir Ken Robinson said, “we are educating students who will not retire until 2065, and nobody has a clue what the world will look like in 5-years time; and yet, we’re meant to be educating them for it.”

Heritage Fair still feels like it was a huge undertaking and the feeling of being completely overwhelmed by it half way through is still strong in my mind. I wanted to throw in the towel because the feeling of everything happening at the same time and threatening to drown me was so strong. Managing 25 projects felt like it was getting too big as we approached our deadline and, for a few days, I felt like I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do the job of managing the project and couldn’t do the job of “teacher” if it meant having to do everything in this new way. Being mid-project, however, and committed to going ahead, I did. “The show must go on,” as the saying goes.

I remember photocopying the information booklet for students at the beginning of the project and it felt like dropping a phone book on each desk. The panic in students was palpable as they fingered through the document, full of things they had no idea how to do and with numerous deadlines already looming!

I am so glad we hung on, though! The final product was well worth the effort and far exceeded my expectations. Students each created their own projects, including an essay (complete with title page and bibliography, citing at least three sources), an oral presentation, a speech, and a backboard (complete with images, written information, and artifacts, all sources cited). What excited me was seeing students take ownership of their work and readily discussing it with the adults and students in the room; not only were they able to discuss the facts they learned, but they were also able to use Bloom’s higher-order thinking skills and apply their research to Canadian heritage and to their own lives.

Further, students integrated the new information and were able to apply it to new learning in the classroom. This week, we had a presenter from the RCMP outreach program come to talk about treaties, a complicated topic all on its own, and many of my students had relevant information at their finger tips!

Keys to success:

1. Laying out the entire project from the beginning, complete with due dates, templates and examples, and providing it to students. This was providing them with a road map rather than asking them to trust that I knew where we were going and that the path would be revealed as we traveled.

2. Collaboration. This key cannot be overstated. Without the support of Mme Cornelisse, who managed the organizational component and offered classroom support, and the collegiality of the other two teachers involved, who often served as my sounding board, this project could not have been as successful as it was.