by Laurie Simpson
January 24, 2020
When teaching my students how to plan and organize essays, I steer them away from staid and formulaic structures. Instead, I introduce the idea of “intentional structure” because there is no one way to organize a piece of writing; so much depends on the writer’s audience, her purpose, and her message. When planning the use of space in Room 110, as well as what furniture to purchase, intentional design was the goal, with audience, purpose, and message in mind.
This project was organized around a central argument, a thesis statement: English class is a comfortable, collaborative experience where open minds flourish, where one format does not fit all. Learning space guru Dr. Robert Dillon often says, “It’s not about the furniture,” which is true and will be explored in future posts. But with our purpose clear—designing a space that engages our audience and increases their comfort, choice, collaboration, and creativity—we started with the furniture.
The desks-in-rows configuration is something like the five-paragraph essay structure: standardized, time-tested, and efficient. Today, thought leaders dismiss both formats as inflexible, feudal defaults that stifle students’ voices and individual needs. However, educators also argue that students need structure and with growing class sizes and increasing demands on teachers, sometimes standardized is the best a teacher can do under such conditions. Still, both send the message that one-format-fits-all.
My co-planners and I weren’t thinking about technology bells and whistles when we called the project the “21st-century English classroom.” We’re no Luddites, but in English class, we still read books made of paper and bound by glue; we still write in journals, holding pencils; we collaborate on large pieces of poster paper. For Room 110’s design, we were thinking about the space, not about the screens, although we have those, too.
One priority was creating more places where students can read comfortably. We decided on Global’s 2-person couches with tablet arms, as well as a reading nook with floor rockers. The desk chairs by Smith System have a flexible seatback that gives when students lean or stretch. Tall cafe tables also provide a place for students to stand if they are fidgety or tired of sitting.
A flexible classroom means, in part, that almost nothing is nailed down. Tables, desks, and seating can be rearranged depending on the lesson. More importantly, flexibility serves our audience: adolescents whose preferences, abilities, and needs can vary on a given day.
When students want to collaborate or spread out, there are larger, longer tables, as well as smaller tables for closer conversations. For those seeking solitude, we have desks that separate into singles but can jigsaw into groups. Each zone comes together to accommodate a cooperative grouping of four students.
We designed our space for readers, writers, and thinkers. There is structure, but it’s not standardized. If all a young writer ever sees is the “funnel introduction” template, that writer might never experiment with other ways to present his ideas and engage his audience.
Hopefully, this classroom experiment has engaged our audience of individuals and opened their minds to more possibilities.
In my next post, I will discuss how we have been using the space and the changes I am making to my instructional planning and delivery.