Monday, October 18, 2010

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

The Literacy Builders community has been thinking a lot about classroom environment and its impact and effect on teaching and learning.  At the beginning of the school year, we heard from Kathy Merlino, a second grade teacher from Islip, New York about her travails and triumphs with going deskless.  This week, Cara Newman, a fourth grade teacher from Plainedge, New York, shares her “hybrid” approach to the “deskless” classroom. 

I’ve been a teacher for 8 years now and one aspect of teaching that I have always struggled with is classroom setup. Every year I enter my classroom over the summer, set the desks up in tables of 4-8 desks, put the teacher desk off to the corner somewhere and then wait for the students to come in, in order to see if the classroom set up works.  It wouldn’t be long until I stayed after school and re-arranged the classroom again, this time hoping it would work. Through all of this re-arranging I wanted to achieve a “homier” feeling but that wasn’t going to work with a minimum of 22 desks taking up the classroom space and current fire codes.

At the end of last year I asked my principal if I could get rid of all desks and set up my classroom with just tables. I had a dream classroom in my mind and I couldn’t wait to set it up. Unfortunately, the answer was “no”. My husband and I then went into my classroom at the end of the summer to set up and while moving each desk into tables I was so upset that once again my classroom would be mediocre and not have the “homey” feeling I was craving. I left knowing this set up wouldn’t last all year but didn’t know how I could fix it with the desks in the way. The classrooms that I read about over the summer, in books such as Classroom Management In Photographs (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Maria L. Chang and Spaces & Places: Designing Classrooms for Literacy (Amazon Affiliate Link) by Debbie Diller seemed so unachievable.

As the school year began I launched Daily Five, Math Workshop, Science and Enrichment. My kids are allowed to move anywhere in the classroom when they are working and very often the desks would be empty. Something had to be changed! The desks couldn’t take up the prime real estate in the classroom when they weren’t being used 75% of the time. Keeping my principals “no” in my head I had to think of a creative way where each kid would still have their own desk, although may not be where they sit all the time.

With the help of the math teacher, who was also looking for a more manageable way to do Math Workshop, we sat down and drew out a floor plan. Together after school we moved the furniture in the classroom and came up with a plan that I think may work. Half of the desks in the classroom were moved to the outside parameters and now half of the children are sitting at tables while the other half is still at desks. I have 11 desks, 1 hexagon table of 6, and two circle tables of 4. The children sitting at the tables have two places where they can put their materials. Since their desks are arranged on the outside of the classroom flat against the wall, open side facing out, they are still available for storage. Also, each table has a crate for materials. We use a "tool book" basically a big binder with everything in it and this is the only item they need for the day. The children at the tables have also taken it upon themselves to put pencils in a common supply box, along with stacking their independent reading books in various areas. I love how every time I look at the tables the kids have come up with a new idea.

In order to avoid parent or student complaints we talked a lot about "good fit" spots and how they can try both the tables and desks to see what they like better. We spoke about how trying different things is good and sometimes change is for the better. No child has to sit at either a desk or table. I am glad I didn't get rid of the desks because now the option is still there for the children who want them. Some kids came in the first day very upset when they saw the new arrangement and were like "I don't want to sit at table!" I made sure they knew they didn't have to. I also had a child who was agonizing over the decision of whether or not he wanted to sit at a table. I told him not to worry about it and try the table for a day. He said he would next week. At the end of the day I looked at his desk and found a post it with a note on it that he wrote to himself, “Next week I will try a table”. When I questioned him about the note he said he didn’t want to forget that he wanted to try the table when he walked into school on Tuesday. A lot of Daily Five is about student choice and I think because they are being given the choice and opportunity to be a part of the classroom set up, they are more opt to respect their area, the classroom, materials, and the new arrangement.

Some of the positive aspects of this change are: the classroom is bigger, there is more room for everyone to move around, children's seats are no longer bumping into each other, children have personal space, kids sitting at the tables are not worrying about the next step (taking out a book before I say so), I've taught more lessons where kids are on the carpet, I have a common area for group work and we now have only one meeting area instead of two. I've also found the classroom to quieter. This is all in only one week.

Things I need to still work on... some of the children at desks can not see the Smartboard from their seat, if more kids want to sit at the table and/or desks there is not enough room, switches need to be made but that may not be an option, and I need to get use to all of the movement with kids getting up to get materials (I am thinking about putting tennis balls on the legs of the chairs). We also need to work on our transitions.

It has been an interesting week one and I look forward to improving the classroom set up as we move forward. As my dad once reminded me when I moved into my college dorm and wanted everything to be set up at once, “Rome was not built in a day” and neither are our classrooms.

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