For Back to School, Reimagine Classroom Design
By Therese Jilek
As the school year begins, most classrooms across the country will mirror traditional class design: rows of desks with passive children sitting quietly listening to a teacher in the front of the class.
But not at Hartland-Lakeside. Across the Hartland-Lakeside school district in Hartland, Wisconsin, teachers have transformed their Industrial Age classrooms into innovative, state-of-the-art learning spaces. Unique spaces allow children flexibility to move, collaborate, and express themselves in creative ways. And as a result of changing the learning environment, classroom instruction changed to fit students’ needs too. The innovative spaces were a product of teachers changing how they taught and viewed student learning. Teachers realized that differentiated methods and changing their learning expectations for students required an environment that was radically different than rows or groups of desks. Creating comfortable spaces that reflected the world outside of the classroom began to take shape.
- Hokki stools, flexible chairs that students can sit in three different ways and flex back in to go with a newer style of table desk.
- Desks that easily interconnect to form a pair, trio, or table with four desks.
- High stools for students to stand or sit in that are paired with tall desk tables in the back of the room. The stools are on casters to facilitate movement in the room and spin so students can move slightly in their chair. The idea is that, since students can see and hear more, they can absorb more.
- Low tables with casters for ease of movement paired with floor cushions to make it more comfortable.
- Bean bags that are mobile depending upon the activity.
- Video rockers for students who like to move.
- Fresh paint.
- Pops of bright colors with furniture, bean bags and wall decals, as well as posters on the walls create a vibrant environment.
- Softer lighting that works with natural light to reduce the glare of fluorescent overhead lights.
Students across the board loved the change. They said they were excited to come to class, that it made them more relaxed and comfortable, and ready to learn more. INVOLVE STUDENTS IN THE DESIGN A group of students came up with the idea of converting an unused room into a student learning lounge. Over the course of the following year, the students came up with design ideas on how they wanted the room to look and function, browsed online furniture stores, designed a scale model, met with furniture consultants, went on shopping trips, worked within a limited budget, fundraised, and presented their idea to the school board. They did run into obstacles and had to make tough decisions about what they could actually afford compared to their original vision. The fruits of their labor is reflected in a student lounge that’s constantly being used during lunch times by students, for staff meetings, by classroom teachers and their students, and by the community. Another opportunity to exercise creative design came up with the purchase of new lunchroom furniture for the middle school. Administrative assistant Michele Davis worked with a group of sixth- and seventh-grade students to design the cafeteria. The students overwhelmingly decided their top priorities were easy accessibility for all students, oval and round tables to offer more inclusive social interactions, and incorporating café tables and booths. Throughout the planning process, students met with various staff, such as the building engineer to discuss how the furniture changes would impact his time, lunchroom management, the buildings manager, principal, and the superintendent. They also spent a day surveying fellow students on their lunchroom ideas. When the final design was formulated the student team presented their design ideas to the school board for approval. SEEDS OF CHANGE The concept of change in classroom design is not new. Teachers move desks, add beanbags and couches in bold and creative attempts to make classrooms match what they know about student learning. But in Hartland-Lakeside, teachers realized that they needed to do more than rearrange the room; they needed to start over. Light and mobile furniture provide the freedom to creatively change the environment, enabling teachers to adapt flexibly to student learning needs without disrupting the learning. No longer is furniture a hindrance. “There’s freedom in choosing how you want to be engaged as you learn,” said Holly Albrecht, a fifth-grade teacher. Change doesn’t happen overnight — and it’s much more than just putting a couch in a room or painting an accent wall. To create meaningful change, teachers involved a variety of voices to bring richness and flavor to the design, including Bernajean Porter who shared the beauty of storytelling, architects who showed teachers how to look at space through different eyes, and parents who showed them that they support and care for the schools. As a result of all the work, none of the classrooms look the same. Teachers were active agents in the transformation of learning spaces and exercised freedom in color, furniture, and design. The concept of infusion, the process of bringing in a new element or quality and becoming one with the existing structure, played an important role in the success of classroom transformations. Every space looks different, but every space is designed with the same goals in mind: collaboration, flexibility, and meaningful learning. “I have always experienced a direct connection between the physical setup of a classroom and the learning and engagement of students in that classroom,” said multi-age classroom teacher Alicia Moore. “The classrooms in Hartland-Lakeside now reflect what we believe about how students learn best, and it has a positive impact on both teaching and learning.” Teachers can start the redesign process right now. Let go of one thing from the past and bring in a new idea. Build a team. Start talking about it. Get ideas from your own home. Get started! RESOURCES The Third Teacher Design Share School Design Studio Furniture: Henricksen, Demco, The CozySac This video slideshow, Innovative Classroom Design, provides a glimpse into some of these new learning spaces: http://youtu.be/GPua_6tS-_I Therese Jilek is the Director of Technology and Instruction for the Hartland/Lakeside School District