Submitted by Therese Jilek
Director of Instruction and Technology, Hartland-Lakeside School District, Wisconsin
As the school year begins, most classrooms will have rows of passive children sitting quietly listening to a teacher in the front of the class, but not at Hartland-Lakeside. New, unique spaces allow children flexibility to move, collaborate, and express themselves in creative ways. Across the district, teachers, students and administrators have transformed their Industrial Age classrooms into innovative, state-of-the-art learning spaces We want to share our process to inspire other districts to do the same!
How did we go from typical classrooms to innovative spaces?
We changed our instruction and our learning environment changed to fit our students.
Our new spaces are 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.
As teachers transformed into facilitators of learning, they found that standing in front of the classroom or lecturing was no longer prudent. Teachers and students need to be able to easily move and rearrange furniture, as learning needs change throughout the day. Children need to talk to one another and collaborate with each other to make meaning of their learning; rows, even clusters, of desks, make collaboration difficult. The process of forming strong learning relationships is a key to a child’s academic success.
Students and teachers work together throughout the day in many different ways. At one point, a student may be researching and need a quiet space where he or she can focus. This space is called “the cave.” In the next 15 minutes, that same student may need to pull his or her team together to share the information that was discovered and plan for next steps. This dynamic is called “the campfire.” Within 20 minutes after this activity, the teacher may need to pull the entire class together to allow time for students to report back to the class their discoveries; “The mountain top” is what this type of space is called. This kind of flexible learning requires furniture that is mobile. Another motivation for change was the increased use of mobile technology to personalize learning. Rather than relying on a traditional desk full of supplies, mobile resources travel with students wherever their learning takes them.
We did our homework.
When teachers knew they wanted to transform their classrooms, we diligently researched innovative classroom spaces. It turned out there is research to show that we were moving in the right direction, most notably the white paper 21st Century Learning Environments. We took a close look at our own homes and how we work there and talk with our families. Our own learning was a very important part of this transformation. “I thought about how adults work best – how can we mirror something that it is the workplace – like Starbucks – comfortable environments to work collaboratively,” said Andrea Davenport, a fourth grade teacher.
We also researched the effects of color, sound, light, temperature, movement and height of flooring. Learning is a multi-sensory experience that is personal, so we elicited feedback from our children. It turns out they had a lot to say. Here’s what one student had to say about comfortable seating. “I like the couch because it just looks like a place you can work and read a book.” Two things are obvious: Children want to learn, and children want to be in a space that works for them. When designing spaces for children, always include them in the conversation.
“My desk used to feel like my prison,” said one third grader. “I used to sit in school and think about being at home where I could get comfortable. Now, I’m just as comfortable at school as I am at home.”
Some children need to move around or wiggle. Others need a quiet, comfortable nook to curl up with a good book. One student does his learning nestled in a beanbag, while another sits on a chair originally designed for hockey players, a simply designed stool that has a unique feature. When you sit on it, it rolls slightly in any direction, but doesn’t tip over; an ideal feature when putting on skates, but also perfect for kids who need to be in motion to think.
We collaborated with our students.
Amy Buttner is one such teacher who worked with her middle school Spanish students and various consultants to re-design the Spanish classroom. The following is the list of furniture and design elements that generated into a completely new classroom environment:
- Hokki stools that are flexible chairs that students can sit in three different ways and flex back in to go with a newer style of table deskDesks that easily interconnect to form a pair, trio, or table with four desksHigh stools for students to stand or sit in that are pair 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.
- 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 we are doing.
- Video rockers for students who like to move.
- Fresh paint – The front classroom wall was repainted and the classroom walls were redecorated using some existing posters and brightly colored wall decals.Pops of color - We used bright colors! The low table is a brighter green color, the bean bags are bright green, pink, and purple, the wall decals are a mixture of bright colors, and accent colors in the posters, and then some more subdued colors in the chairs to create balance.
- Lighting - New lights were also purchased to combine with the natural light from the two classroom windows so the overhead fluorescent lights that bother many students’ eyes did not have to be used.
What do the students have to say about the change?
“It makes me feel excited to come to your class.” — “I think that it makes me feel a lot more relaxed.” — “It makes me feel comfortable and wanting to learn more.”
Another group of students came to our superintendent, Dr. Glenn Schilling, with an idea to convert an unused room into a student learning lounge. Michele Davis, our Administrative Assistant, worked with the team of students for over a year to complete the project. This included having the students come up with design ideas on what they wanted the room to look like and the functionality of the room, browsing online furniture stores, designing a scale model, meeting with furniture consultants, shopping trips, working within a limited budget, fund raising, and presenting to our School Board. It is a perfect example of perseverance through problem solving as the project took over a year to complete. They ran into obstacles and had to make tough decisions about what they could actually afford versus being able to do everything they had originally envisioned. In the end, the students felt it was worth the hard work. The student lounge is constantly being used during lunch times by students, for staff meetings, by classroom teachers and their students, and by the community!
Yet another special project was facilitated by Michele Davis. An opportunity arose to purchase new lunchroom furniture for the middle school. She worked with a group of sixth and seventh grade students to design the cafeteria. Initial conversations with the students were about what changes they wanted to see in the lunchroom environment and researching these options. The students overwhelmingly decided their top priorities were easy accessibility for all students, oval and round tables to offer more inclusive social interactions, popular and fun table styles such as café 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 survey 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. By participating in this opportunity it enabled the students to be creative, collaborate between grades, make some new friends, and consider the perspective and needs of other students and staff.
We overcame some creative challenges.
The concept of changes in classroom design is not a new idea. Teachers move desks, add beanbags and couches in bold and creative attempts to make classrooms match what they know about student learning. In Hartland-Lakeside, we realized that we needed to do more than rearrange the room; we needed to start over. Light and mobile furniture gave us the freedom to creatively change our environment, enabling us to adapt flexibly to student learning needs without disrupting the learning. No longer is furniture a hindrance. Holly Albrecht, a 5th grade teacher agrees. “There is a freedom in choosing how you want to be engaged as you learn.”
We found that most furniture retailers were still manufacturing furniture to fit the same old model. This part was not an easy process, and creative sourcing is key to success. Our search brought us all the way from an Amish furniture maker in our own backyard to Germany. Henricksen, Demco, and CozySac.com You don’t have to look at the typical school furniture retailers. Places like Henricksen that may at first glance look like businesses that provide for the business world only, may in fact pleasantly surprise you with better prices than furniture retailers that specialize in school products.
Our results are changing the face of education in the district!
While the concept of innovative classroom design is not new, the way in which Hartland-Lakeside has embraced the connection between learning spaces and actual classroom learning is a significant departure from the status quo. None of our 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 our 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 set up of a classroom and the learning and engagement of students in that space,” 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.”
The Common Core State Standards have higher demands for our children. We want to provide for them the optimal learning environment. With comments such as ”It is more calming, helping me focus” and “I like it and it helps me think,” we believe we are on the right track. Our innovative learning spaces welcome each learner and show our passion for teaching. They inspire. They send the message that everyone belongs here. As one middle school phrased it, “In a way, it welcomes you to class.” We have found that our students are more engaged and more independent in these learning environments, and we are in the process of collecting the data to demonstrate this. We are still listening to our students and know we still have work ahead of us. In Hartland-Lakeside, we’re changing the face of education, one desk at a time.
We took that first step and began. Change doesn’t happen overnight. Changing learning spaces is much more than just putting a couch in a room or painting an accent wall. To create meaningful change, involve a variety of voices to bring richness and flavor to the design. The transformation in Hartland-Lakeside brought together the vision of Bernajean Porter who shared the beauty of storytelling, architects like Prakash Nair, who taught us how to look at our space through different eyes, and parents who showed us that they support and care for our schools. These people inspired us and brought rich meaning to our design.
You too can change your educational environment to improve student learning. Get ideas from your own home. Let go of one thing from the past and bring in a new idea. Build a team. Start talking about it.
Be a change agent in your school today!
Therese Jilek - May 31, 2012
Watch this video called Innovative Classroom Design to see more of our classrooms: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPua_6tS-_I&feature=youtu.be.
Visit our website: www.hartlake.org
Thanks to DesignShare for providing us with inspiration. More great resources for learning about innovative learning spaces are:
The Third Teacher: http://www.thethirdteacher.com
School Design Studio: http://schoolstudio.typepad.com