Teaching is architecture.

Since I decided to become a teacher, my volunteer work in public elementary schools has shifted from a purely service-oriented focus to a more observant and analytical position. As I enter different classrooms and observe new teachers at work in these spaces they have constructed, one of the first things I almost always do is draw a floor plan of the physical space. When I was a child, I always wanted to be an architect (along with a bus driver, high-rise window washer, and Target employee), until I did an internship in high school and realized how much I hate CAD and the other computer drafting softwares that dominate the field. Drawing floor plans of classrooms by hand sparks my creative and imaginative interest. It also helps me feel present in the space I am in, and draws me towards sensitivity to subtleties and nuances I might have otherwise overlooked. Once I have mapped the physical architecture of the room, I begin to see how this connects to the social architecture of the space—how do children move around this room, and how does the arrangement of furniture and things influence their interactions? This becomes a very telling narrative of the energies within the classroom, and often correlates with the initial organic feelings I sensed when I first entered.

The power of choice in classrooms is a crucial consideration, as children who feel empowered and in control are more likely to be engaged. However, in terms of not assigning seats, I would be weary of the impact this might have on building an inclusive community. Will students simply group with people that are similar to them, re-affirming social distinctions and choosing to become segregated? At the same time, I wonder if this could be an incredibly useful exercise in talking about inclusion; an evolution of “you can’t say you can’t play” to “you can’t say you can’t sit.” What would this look like and feel like in a classroom of young learners? It would be interesting even just as a temporary experiment, to see what would happen if students were allowed to pick their seats throughout the day. I am excited to try out these mini-level social experiments in my own classroom; the metaphor of the classroom as a laboratory will come to life!

One thing I notice every time I walk into a classroom is how cramped everything feels. With twenty to thirty desks squeezed into each of these spaces, there is not much room for anything else, especially not fluid movement. When I was in India volunteering in a school modeled after natural education philosophies, I was struck by how open and free the classroom space felt. There were no desks; everyone sat on the floor with mats. The classroom space was smaller than classrooms I am used to at home, but even with the same number of kids, the space felt so much larger and navigable. Kids could move and play, and their lessons often incorporated kinesthetic activities. Do we really need a desk for every student in every classroom? What would happen if we were to decide we do not want desks in our classrooms? What would the rooms look like and feel like? What could we do with the freed up space? What would be the reaction of other teachers and administrators?

Our lessons and discussions regarding online technologies have led me to expand these concepts of learning environments beyond physical classroom spaces to also see cyber spaces as constructed classrooms and laboratories for learning. Contemporary online resources offer an amazing opportunity to extend the process of learning beyond the school day and to include families in this journey. We can create and use these cyber spaces as tools for teaching and engaging students, children, families, and communities. Much like the environment of a classroom, I believe the structure and design of these cyber spaces is a critical element for successful learning. How can we design these cyber spaces so that they promote positive, deep engagement and authentic, active learning experiences?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching is architecture.

  1. ponderinged says:

    I always enjoy reading your insights into so many issues. Also, I must say I enjoy the art on your blog as well! In regards to your post on classroom structure, I agree that having free seating at all times may not be beneficial as cliques do tend to form; however offering this option at times is good for moral. I feel it is importanat for inclusion to make sure that all students work with each other at some point during the year so frequent table changes assist with this. My daughter’s class sometimes initiate the “You Can’t say, You Can’t Sit” overall it has gone fairly well, but I caution doing this every time as some students perpetually will pick the same people every time and sometimes some students want a break from that person for various reasons. I think alternating free seating with teacher assigned is a good balance.

  2. Classroom layout, or any room for that matter, has a real effect on how the room feels. I like walking through the mini-rooms as IKEA, seeing how each one is set up and what elements are in the room that give it a distinct feel. Your comments about desks made me wonder if they really are necessarily. I think in younger grades, you could get away with not having them, I’m not sure how this would play out as students aged. A room without desks would allow for more movement around the room, and allow space for big projects and whole group activities. In the classroom I’ve been involved with, there were different stations in the classroom, but the main space is taken up with desks. The children seemed to enjoy choosing stations to visit, while some took books to their desk. If at some point you try this, I would like to hear how it goes.

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