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An Innovative Classroom Requires More Than Rearranging Desks

Jennie Magiera

In my first year of teaching, I thought I was incredibly innovative and forward-thinking when I set up my classroom. After all, instead of rows of desks, I made clusters of desks—ta-da! Collaborative learning! Perched from my teacher's desk, I surveyed my domain, excited to stand at the front of my "new-age classroom."

Ten years later, I realize I had so much further to go. Did I really need a teacher's desk that took up so much of my meager classroom space? Do communal tables work for every student? Why should my class have to wait until a yearly field trip to explore beyond our walls? How does technology fit into classroom design? There were so many ideas I wish I had considered when designing my classroom space. Here are three I find incredibly important as I work with teachers today.

Phase Out the Front

In most traditional classrooms, the front of the room has all of the action. There is a board, sometimes even an interactive whiteboard or projection system. Moving student seats around and creating table clusters can help students get better access to these visuals; however, inevitably someone is literally left in the "back of the class." In a redesign of a classroom, how can we eliminate the front of the room? Taking the attention away from a single focal point brings the focus to the students—their thinking, their work, their collaboration. Instead of the teacher in the front (sage on stage), ridding the class of the front can encourage a more student-centered classroom.

One idea that I've always wanted to see in classrooms is a projector on a swivel. How great would it be if you could rotate the direction of the projector based on student group work or need? Even more interesting are new technologies that attach to the projector and turn any flat surface into an interactive whiteboard. Imagine a projector that could face down and allow students to use their table or even the floor as a giant tablet surface.

A Space for Us and a Space for Me

If there is no front of the room, having a meeting space for easy collaboration is even more important. Students can access any wall, board, or surface to gather and explore ideas. Moreover, allowing these meeting areas to be flexible in arrangement can also be beneficial. As group size and purposes change, so do physical needs. Perhaps one group needs an area to work on a science investigation while another wants to discuss the climax of their novel study. Either way, students should be able to personalize the space to meet their needs.

Conversely, one of the complaints students had about our classroom was that it was "too crowded." By this, they meant that our room lacked areas of personal space. So the challenge became creating areas where students could have some "me" time. Whether they want to get lost in a book or work through a challenging math problem, having a cozy, quiet corner of the room to escape to is important for many students.

Moreover, as students are doing more digital creation, they need a quiet space to record audio, make movies, or edit their content. To meet this need, some teachers are creating mini-sound booths by placing small tents on a rug, covered with a blanket. (While a tent doesn't eliminate ambient sound, it does dampen it.)

Ultimately, finding a balance between communal gathering areas and invididual work stations creation stations is something to keep in mind. 

Reading Between the Walls

As important as it is to design the physical space of the classroom, it is also important to rethink how we are designing what's inside of our walls: wiring and material. As more and more schools are giving students access to wireless devices that extend the physical space of their classrooms, many are forgetting to think about how this will affect their school's Wi-Fi. Having one wireless router for every two or three classrooms might have been fine when there were a handful of classroom computers, but will it suffice when there are 300-400 devices in your building? Wireless signal passes easily through drywall, but what about newer buildings with cinderblock walls? Concrete can be an enemy of Wi-Fi.

As we create comfy couch spaces, natural lighting, and collaborative workspaces in our classrooms, the invisible wireless signals should also be considered. A strong Internet connection can transport our students out of the classroom altogether.

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