Monthly Archives: July 2014

Creating a New Space for Learners


After I finished reading Edutopia’s recent article, Classroom Makeovers to Engage Learners, and have been chatting with teachers during these frantic “get our classrooms ready” moments, I thought that a blog posting in regard to creating a NEW space might be useful. Most teachers do not have thousands of dollars in grant money to redo a classroom, and there are many ways to accomplish a novel space without ‘many’ dollars. Rethinking design and routines from years past will propel you forward.

And why are we doing this? We are creating new environments for new kids. The days of industrial revolution fueled teacher driven instruction have passed. Today’s student must work, learn and play in an environment that is spontaneous, alive and collaborative. In past years the teacher was the driving force, now it is the students’ inquiry. This has been a major shift for me as I grew up entertaining, singing, acting….and the curtain has closed for most my frolics in the classroom (sage on the stage); however, my new coaching role has been a welcome surprise and I really like it!

Ironically, today, my principal sent a great quote, and I will share as well:

The appearance, organization, and structure of a classroom can invite learning with appealing colors, effective displays of student work, spaces for both solitary and collaborative work, easy access to materials and supplies, furniture arrangements that focus attention on peer input rather than largely or solely on the teacher, and visible cues to support quality work. Conversely, a classroom’s physical environment can diminish learning by being barren, drab, cramped, teacher-focused, distracting, or limiting (with seating arrangements that isolate students from one another). More significant than this physical climate, however, is the classroom’s more intangible emotional climate. Students learn best when they feel safe, respected, involved, challenged, and supported. Thus, a learning environment that invites each student to be a full participant in the classroom—with full support for the journey—is a necessity for robust differentiated instruction.

Off the top of my head, I’ll assert some items to consider, some changes that could create that “collaborative” and less teacher centered environment. Always knowing that YOUR innovation will not look like my innovation, hers or his!
Below is a simple table of some ideas that you might want to consider and reasons why. These are some ideas in which I have tried and LOVED and some ideas from other innovative classrooms of colleagues and friends.

Might you Consider? Why?
Move toward tables instead of single desks. Encourage Collaboration.
Eliminating desk tags. Students OWN the room, not only a desk.
Limit ‘before school’ teacher made decor. Let kids design spaces. Save space for anchor charts.
Provide color. If you cannot paint, use paper or fabric as ‘color’ areas throughout the room. Color themes are less cluttered.
Create open spaces. Kids like to move around, and group themselves. 4×4 flat pieces of wood for floor work, beanbags, large pillows, carpets.
Make things moveable. With more space, furniture can be moved easily for varied learning experiences.
Take some books home, consider not having as many books, and make the ones you keep in the room more special. Rotate them.Literacy rich, not literacy clutter Less is more, students usually will not filter through endless crates of books. Display books ‘out’ and kids will be enticed to look at them! Using slat, library, type board is optimal.
Lower white boards Kids will use them.
Move teacher desk out. Gives you more space. Room does not tend to have a “front”. Room is open, like a living room.
Consider virtual word walls. More space, and more differentiated
Raise a table. Some kids like to stand and work.
Limit homework Research shows that it is not needed. If parents want it, supply it. Make it optional.
Accept movement Kids learn and move at the same time.
Limit lecture Kids need to explore and have their hands on learning. They need to talk about it with peers.
Make graphics clear and concise. Think of the icons used for applications on an IPAD, less is more.
Use music. Current songs are great for transitions and let kids know without your always talking.
Survey kids. Find out what kids are interested in within a standard or topic.
Kids first, standards second. 21st Century Skill acquisition will naturally occur through rich projects and inquiry based explorations. They will connect to standards, trust.
Create a Maker’s Classroom. Have unique supplies available to encourage students’ showing learning in unique ways.

Myth Busting!

 Misconception    Primary Innovation Studio
Students are not required to meet Colorado State and district Standards. Units and explorations are planned according to district and Colorado State Standards. Students are expected to perform appropriately and are aligned with other MHE Second Grade Classrooms. However, the heart of the studio is:

There is no structure, kids run wild. There is a very established, practiced and revisited routine and classroom culture of learning routines. Integrity is a sound tenet of the space, and is embraced and discussed ALWAYS.
Students who prove that they can show learning individually get that chance. Those who are not ready, get a higher level of “teacher” direction. It’s all about the student and his/her needs. Guided reading, writing and math groups occur daily.
Students design their own learning experiences. While personalized learning paths are embraced, students are coached and supported as they explore and respond to content; however, in unique ways.
There is lots of ‘free’ time. Students have content to embrace and practice through jobs and responsibilities. They are continually supported and their path is individualized according to their unique needs.
It is never quiet. There is always a buzz in the classroom; however, students who need quiet spaces are encouraged to find them and/or their needs are addressed and supported.
There is no research to support this environment. Last year, my students exceeded past students’ gains, especially in the areas of reading fluency and the use higher level vocabulary. In mathematics, students’ exposure to higher level concepts increased and struggling students were offered more support opportunities. Students’ critical thinking skills were documented and noted through writing samples and verbal skills.
Students just play instead of learn. Yes, students do play and they do have fun as they are involved in learning experiences which are engaging, hands on and student centered. Joyful play is at the heart of learning for anyone.
 Students use technology too much. In the Primary Innovation Studio, technology is a tool just like a pencil, paper, a paint brush or a book. Students use tech when they need it and/or when it fits their learning challenge. There is not a ‘tech time’ or tons of direct instruction in regard to using tech. It is just there like all of the other materials in a learning environment. You won’t hear this: “Okay kids, it’s IPAD time.”

Design Thinking and a Classroom Maker’s Space

2014-05-09 13.00.16
Two boys were researching animals in the desert ecosystem. This is the way they showed their learning.

I CAN do this.

Marveling over the many options that are packed into the notion of a Maker’s Space is like going to the best candy store; however, once you are in the candy store, you have to CONTROL yourself. Running through the aisles randomly tasting every treat, throwing wrappers on the floor and eating until you get sick might not be the best of plans, or a lack there of!

Let’s face it, the Maker’s Space is a candy store to kids–they have an insatiable desire to be make stuff; however, they need careful and explicit guidance into how a classroom maker’s space is to be used and the reasons for it. This does not happen magically or overnight. It is a guided process that takes many weeks, and starts on day one of a new school year. And above all, this is not a space that is controlled by the teacher, but it is is a space with purpose, and kids need to understand that.

As I have ventured into my new quest of trying to make my instruction/craft/space more student focused, personalized, and striving for a more ’21st Century- skill- available’ environment for kids, I have noticed that teachers are excited about many components and ideas, but they are a bit wary of the notion and creations of the ‘Maker’s’ part of the environment. I can’t count the times that teachers have inquired, “So, how do you manage that Maker’s Space?”, and I would answer with my usual “um, errr, it is fantastic and my students make a proposal to me on a planning sheet–yadda yadda…” That never felt like enough.

We teachers might be somewhat  wary of a Maker’s Space because it is an area that we cannot predict or control—it’s MESSY. Trust me, my adventure last year came with many Maker’s challenges; however, it also brought so many more remarkable celebrations! There were times that the chaos of the Maker’s Space resulted in a headache and tons of reflection afterward—continually trying to improve and wrestle the space. My conflict always revolved around the 21st Century tenet of teacher as coach, facilitator, not dictator. In the beginning, trying to manage the space in a way that “looked” pretty and calm, turned me into a demander of this and that. I knew that sort of teacher within the great space was not what kids needed, and finally, after lots of revisiting and give and take with my students, we came up with a way to work toward quality products within the space; moreover, products in which we were proud to share with larger audiences.

The Maker’s Space can be a culture in the classroom, as I have detailed in blog postings and within a Google Site titled: Maker’s Space = Maker’s Culture.

The elusive Maker’s Space has the potential to be a hotbed for student discovery and it offers opportunities for personalized learning; moreover, it can propel a student beyond and out of routine academic benchmarks which have made or broken self esteem over the the past 100 years. For example, the Maker’s Space is where ‘Sally’, a student with dyslexia, found her voice and became ultra important within our community because of her clever hand built interpretations of book settings. She was not the girl sitting at her desk continually  needing help with the action of reading. She became revered for her creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, and communication.  A Maker’s Space does not care about a DRA score, it cares about critical and creative thinking and problem solving. And guess what, when the brain is churning and moving and grooving–fueled with confidence and self worth—that DRA score will most likely rise!

In summary: The Maker’s Space was the main vehicle for creativity, communication, critical thinking and collaboration in OUR classroom last year. When we all gathered around the large table on Fridays to share our products, I would very often sit in amazement at what the kids had accomplished…in what seemed to be that chaos that makes some teachers and administrators shush with conviction until the classroom silences. I fight being THAT teacher sometimes–busy and engaged kids create a buzz that can result in….yes…..a headache.

Moving through the Maker’s Space journey, messing up, collaborating and trying again has been a necessary part of the process for me. It is dawning on me that I have been accidentally, without knowing, working within THE design process already, so why not teach the process to my kids and give community voice to it?

But, I know they need more tools to organize their thinking.

And today, there I was, halfway thinking of my next blog posting as walked through the Denver International Airport terminal. Amongst beautiful pictures of children’s faces along the terminal hallway, all of this came to me, a simple connection of sorts, one in which I know many of you have had already. Maker’s Space = Culture Fueled by Design Theory.Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 10.41.41 PM

For this coming academic year in my classroom of 25 second graders, I will give my students even more explicit instruction and support, featuring the Design Thinking Model. Last year, students were encouraged to complete design plans for their experiences in the Maker’s Space. This worked (somewhat); but, I always knew that it could be improved upon—well…..just like one improves upon their prototype in the design process.

Having cruised the internet, I have collected a few interesting sites that feature Design Theory in primary spaces, there are many, just plug Design Thinking into a search engine.

My thinking, as mentioned, will be to carefully teach and model each process-step to my students and make the stages visually evident in throughout the room. This way, students will not only have a tangible paper/digital way to organize their thinking, but it will become a part of the look of the space. Students will also begin to use the vocabulary as they communicate their design thinking and process.

I will keep you posted, let’s consider this the IDEATE phase of my new and improved Maker’s Space in the Primary Innovation Studio!