Posts Tagged ‘room design’

Public Domain image from This is how I do not arrange my classroom.

Public Domain image from
This is how I do not arrange my classroom.

So, I’ve been thinking about room design again. I thought about it a lot those last few years I taught 5th grade. I did some massive overhauling of my classroom set up and got in the habit of rearranging desks and tables regularly depending on the teaching and learning format of the lesson. It was worth the time and effort.

Then, I moved to edtech in the upper school, didn’t teach for a year, and when I went back to teaching a class, I was teaching my one section in someone else’s room. In theory we were sharing the room, but I was just a visitor for the most part. Somewhere in there, I forgot about all that room design thinking I did. Or rather, I wrongly thought well, they are high school students, it won’t be such a big deal. And, since it’s not really my room, it’s hard to rearrange and then return the room to its former set up all in 48 minutes. It will be fine. 

Ok, well fine is rarely my goal. And, as I have written about this year, the older kids may be bigger, but there are kids in many ways. And, teaching these big kids means remembering all sorts of important pedagogical information, including room design. Here are things I know and need to remember about room design:

  • The format of the desks and tables signals the kind of interactions you expect. Don’t want people talking, don’t put them close together and facing each other.
  • Seats (either at tables or desks) should be close to where ever instruction is happening. So, where the teacher desk is needs to support not hinder this. In a couple of the rooms I have shared, the location of the teacher desks has made it very hard to move around and get the students close to the board when that is desired.
  • In a 1:1 (laptops for us) environment, I need to be able to see screens and move around easily.
  • No arrangement is THE arrangement. It is THE arrangement for THIS learning experience.
  • The students can be trained to rearrange the room into a few formats quickly. Putting in some time on this in the beginning is worth it.
  • Telling students that the particular arrangement is for a particular purpose is good.
  • Being annoyed at students for talking when you have them sitting in groups facing each other is like being mad at the refrigerator for not having food in it. This is my responsibility.

Late in this school year, I finally got back on the room design bandwagon. Since I had my class meeting in literature circles for a lot of the semester, I had to do some rearranging and that got me back in the habit of considering the best arrangement for any given class.

For example, when we had presentations towards the end of the day on the two days before spring break, I made sure the set up the room in formal rows of tables with a table in front for  the presenters. It looked formal and said we have two distinct roles in the class today. The presenters were positioned close enough to the projection hook up that they could easily sit or stand, project, and see the room.

During our recent article writing time, I finally set up the room to signal this is independent work time. The tables were separated and in a ring (though not connected) around the room, chairs were set so that students faced out (towards the windows or walls). Other classmates were therefore less of a distraction and, added bonus, I could see the screens. I made this clear it was very purposeful and that this was to be work time. Some students, with lots of room in the center, decided to make themselves comfortable and work lying down, as they do at home. But, they were working. And then everyone just worked beautifully. Not everyone made good use of the time, but those who did not use the time were not distracting to those who were working. Victory there.

Time to put room design back in the front of my brain.

Public domain image from

Public domain image from

So, I’ve been thinking about my senior English elective, YA Literature, and what is interesting and engaging for the students. I don’t mind working, but I do mind doing all the work and harassing students to do their part of the work.

In this unit we read The Phantom Tollbooth all together (and I did a really good job with it, IMHO), and then the students went to their literature circles reading either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The discussions that the groups managed to have independently were a very mixed bag. That combined with some serious senior-itis lead to a rather disappointing end to the week. When I planned out my assessments for the semester, I had imagined a comparison paper at this point. However, as the time got closer to assigning it, I got more and more convinced that a paper was not the thing that would actually produce good thinking and a solid product. Several students happened to have mentioned presentations over the course of the semester, and I had skipped a planned presentation earlier in the semester, so I decided to think about changing my assessment to some sort of presentation.

I still wanted to maintain the goal of having students think about this type of story. We compared general plots arcs of all three books, in addition to some other similar stories that they knew, and I wanted them to wrestle with both the similarities of the big events and the wild variety in the specifics. I also realized that with my podcasting experiment not working as well as I had hoped, I could use another creative assignment. So, I put all that together and came up with an assignment that required thinking (always good), involved presentation (which the students need to practice) and was creative.

The Remix/Remake/Create project was born. Here are the particulars, as I shared with my students:

You have now read The Phantom Tollbooth and either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making. You may also be familiar with the Narnia series, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, or the Wizard of Oz.

Think about the common characteristics of these adventure tales. You will plan and present a concept for a new book in this genre. Your concept must include information about the following:

Title: title and brief plot outline. No need for a summary of all the events, but a basic outline or flowchart of events is fine.

Cover or interior image: design either a cover or image for a chapter heading or major event

Protagonist: some description of this character and background; major character traits; ways these traits will be demonstrated not just stated.

Companion(s): who will travel with the protagonist; what do we know about this character; what traits does he/she bring that are valuable and challenging; is this character from the world of the character or the new fantasy world

Fantasy world: in what sort of place does the adventure take place; in what key ways is it both similar to and different from home; who is in charge; what sort of people/animals will our protagonist meet; how is this place connected to or known, or not, by others in the real world

Mission: what brings our protagonist to this new land; what adventures do you imagine once he/she arrives

Lessons to learn: what key lessons about life; about being an adult; about being a child; about living a meaningful, purposeful, true life will the character learn

Use of Language: what symbolism might you employ; consider the literal and nonliteral use of words; pay attention to the names of people and places.

Optional-Societal issues: will your book idea be addressing any particular societal concerns of the day?


Presentation (10 minutes) that clearly and enthusiastically shares your vision for this story concept. This should include the following:

    • outlines of ideas about the topics above
    • Several paragraphs of sample text from a few key points in your proposed book: first paragraph and two consecutive paragraphs from later in the story.
    • Note: Do NOT make a Powerpoint with all the information above and simply read from it. This will be beyond boring no matter how interesting your ideas are. You should be necessary to your presentation. You must present. What and how you present is up to you.
  • Brief written explanation of your inspirations for the decisions you have made. How have you taken ideas from the books you have read and reworked them, remixed them, to create something unique and new. This should include your target audience and reasoning behind your choice. Please put your concept in the context of other works. (~600 words)

In addition, I made this evaluation form that the students and I filled out after each presentation. I shared this with them in advance.

I explained the assignment on a Friday, and the presentations were the next Wednesday and Thursday. Classtime on both Monday and Tuesday was devoted to working on the project. I checked in and had good conversations with each group each day.

What I noticed right away was the energy level and engagement in the room. This was the 4-day week (with 4 Spirit dress days!) before Spring Break, not traditionally a time of great seriousness. People were talking about their ideas immediately. And because the students had ideas, my conversations with them could be so much more specific and individualized. I wasn’t giving vague encouragement, I was able to have particular discussions about the details of the project:

  • Was a storyline veering too far into PG-13/ R rating when I had set PG (maybe PG-13) as the upper limit?
  • Yes, I was familiar with Captain Underpants and could see the appeal of bathroom humor for a certain demographic, but were there lessons to be learned?
  • How much background knowledge of today’s rappers was necessary to understand this storyline? Would it be dated instantly?
  • Yes, I get the humor in the name of the king, will other characters’ names also have double meanings?
  • Has the group thought about whether the protagonist can return to this fantasy land?

I also wanted to be sure that the presentation days felt a little different and more serious, even if students were in odd attire (Spirit Week!). In a bold move, I invited the English department chairperson before I even introduced the project to my students. I also invited the Head of Upper School, who turned out to be busy. On the days of the presentation, I rearranged the room into 2 rows of tables for those listening and a table for the presenters at the front. I am a big believer in the importance of room resign to signal what is expected. Presenters could project their presentations and speak from the table or stand. Each day there were 3 presentations (10 minutes each).

While not all groups came up with books that would be snapped up by publishers, every group had a solid plan and outline. Several of the ideas were quite complex and well-fleshed out. The students thought about the intended audience and wanted to balance life lessons with a light touch. The assignment accomplished by three stated goals of requiring serious thought, including presentation skills, and stressing creativity. All that during the week before Spring Break. There’s room for improvement, but this assessment is a keeper.


A transistor, one of Bell Lab's inventions

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about the article in The New York Times from February 23rd: “True Innovation“. Jon Gertner is the author of a forthcoming book about Bell Labs called The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation and this was a kind of preview. There was plenty of detail about Bell Labs that was new to me, all well and good. What I thought was most thought-provoking was to think of how the characteristics of Bell Labs that Gertner identifies as success generators might or might not be present in schools.

Gertner contends that  Bell scientists “worked on the incremental improvements necessary for a complex national communications network while simultaneously thinking far ahead toward the more revolutionary inventions imaginable.” This idea of combining incremental change and visionary thinking is what struck me. I think this is what schools should do. They should work continually to improve what they do (tweaking this and that) while at the same time be working towards that revolutionary (re-)invention. Gertner states that Mr. Kelly, who ran the lab for many years, believed it was necessary to have “a ‘critical mass’ of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas.” If schools can attract and retain talented teachers, they should be all set in this department. A little more respect for the teaching profession would help here, yes? Anyway, what professional doesn’t want to work with a team of talented colleagues? I know some people don’t want to work with a team, talented or not. But, let’s just say you are working with others, not too many people would say, yes give me the duds. So it seems obvious. However, I think that what is not obvious is that you want bunch of talented folks in the same place. It’s not overkill. It means that they will have peers and be able to have that exchange of ideas that is so important for real innovation. This is a place people will want to be! Excited and interested teachers will attract and produce excited and interested students. There’s our critical mass.

According to Gertner, Kelly also set up the building to encourage, if not force, people to come into contact with each other regularly. On top of that, he gave researchers freedom and time. Just let that sink in a little. Employees have a physical space set up to allow and encourage them to run into each other, they have the freedom to follow paths they think will be valuable, and the time to do so. Sound good so far?

There are lots of other interesting details in the article. It’s worth reading the whole thing, in my opinion. What I noticed was the powerful combination of purposeful design of space and culture in the service of understanding. That is certainly what I want to be going on in my classroom. I want to set up a physical space that allows for easy and frequent interaction by students. I want to give my students more freedom to follow their interests, trust them to be serious (serious for 10 year olds) about it, and time to get lost in what they find. And, I want that for myself as a professional. I want to run into all different colleagues regularly, not just the ones whose classrooms are next door to mine. Once I run into them, I want to be able to sit down somewhere and talk, not necessarily in a room filled with laminator fumes on a cast away sofa. I want to have the freedom to do new things and spend time, lots of time, working on how to do what I do best. Some, even many, of these things I already have, but as my students will tell you, I’m not really about half-way. I want the whole thing. I want it for me and for my students.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Vincent Connor)

So, I’ve been thinking about room arrangement all year. I started with a new format at the beginning of the year, changed it up a little based on some student input; then had the students plan and vote on a new arrangement. All that didn’t quite push the boundaries as much as I wanted. So, the last day of school before spring break after I dismissed everyone, I set to work. I dragged my husband in and we spent a couple of hours moving everything, and I mean everything, around.

First up, the student desks. They are a pain because there are enough of them that they can’t be rearranged quickly enough to be considered truly flexible. So they had to go. Well, ok they couldn’t entirely leave the room, but I did the next best thing. I lined then up facing the 2 long walls (window out and hallway). They are storage and independent work options, but not much else. Once we did that, I could really see some possibilities. I have a couple of low bookshelves that I dragged into the middle of the room. They now form a low wall bisecting the long rectangle space into 2 almost squares. Then I put my 2 nicer chairs in a good reading spot, found a semi-permanent place for the single biggest, and most significantly, heaviest table, and sprinkled my light easy to move IKEA tables liberally around the room. Voila!

Here is the basic arrangement, without the IKEA tables sprinkled around

Now we can have the IKEA tables pushed together for a big group discussion, in a U shape, in rows near the board if I need to show something there, or broken apart for pairs or groups of 4. I swear the room seems like it grew.

Arranged for whole class discussion

Discussion with the board available

Direct Instruction at the board

Group work-4 groups

In some ways it looks more like a primary or preschool room now with the bookshelves dividing the space (although they only come up to the kids’ thighs at best). It has freed us up to work in groups without being on top of each other, and I feel like I finally really have the flexible learning space I have been craving all year.

I could go show about a million more variations to the room. Sometimes there are 2 main things going on, 1 in front, 1 in back. Sometimes people are all over: desks, tables, floor, cubby area. I thought I would just give an idea of some of the arrangement options. (I have to say I am better at furniture placement than photo placement on the blog here. But, I have spent enough time on this particular problem and need to move on-something we discuss a lot in 5th grade.)

So, I’m not sure why it took me six years to get here, I’m just glad I finally arrived.

(Pictures created with Doodle Buddy app)

So, I’ve been thinking and writing about seating arrangement a lot this year. Just on the off-chance that you didn’t catch those earlier posts, I’ll summarize quickly. I did some reading over the summer about seating and then bought tables from IKEA that were not only inexpensive, but easily move around the room. Then, even though I thought the new arrangement was great, my students surprised me by saying that there were some things about sitting in rows that they liked. So I went back to the drawing board and made a new plan.



Photo by Vincent Brassinne used under Creative Commons license

My idea of a new plan was not really that new. I asked for input from my class and then it fell off the to-do list. But, it’s back on the list–and at the top. Today I set up the room in yet another arrangement for our morning work. It was temporary, but made me start to think that the real problem was with my lack of imagination about the whole thing. For the rest of the day I got flashes of crazy ways to arrange the room. Whenever my students were out of the room I was tempted to start moving desks, chairs, and anything else that wasn’t nailed down.

But then I thought that I should really put this back in the hands of my students, as I had originally planned. Having put it off, if only for a few weeks, I am more ready to push them and myself to think WAY outside the box.

Here’s my plan: tomorrow morning I will ask for volunteers to be involved in a remodeling plan. Anyone who is interested is welcome to join. In groups of 3ish students will have a chance to make a proposal for our new plan–however outlandish it may be. Then we’ll vote or combine plans or something.

Wish me luck!

So, I’ve been thinking about seating arrangementt this year. I’ve written about my ideas and my new IKEA tables and how well I think the new plan is going.

Then, I had to rearrange, briefly, for ERB testing. I hated it. The desks were in rows; the students were all facing me when we were trying to have a discussion. A student up front was replying to what someone behind her had said, but was then forced to decide to look at me or her peer. Uggh.

However, when I mentioned this to the students, they said they liked being in rows. They thought it made the room seem bigger and they had more room around them. I was stunned. This had never occurred to me. But then I thought about it a little more and realized there was something to some of what they were saying:

  • When we were in a circle, everyone was next to someone, right next to them.
  • Binders and books were spilling onto neighbors.
  • It was sometimes hard to get from the outside ring of desks to the inside table.
  • It was hard to move around parts of  the room.

I still wanted:

  • Students to be facing each other
  • A lot of the space open for other work options
  • No one to be “way at the back”
  • Options

So, I found a reasonable new layout that I thought suited everyone. It’s kind-of a square with parts missing: 4X4 but with gaps every 2 desks. Here’s why I think it is a good arrangement:

  • Students are facing each other.
  • Everyone has some space on 1 side of his or her desk.
  • It is easier to move in and out of the square.
  • No one is right up next to the wall or bookshelves.
  • We still have the front open and available for sitting near the board when necessary.
  • We still have room to move around our tables.
  • It’s easier to maintain.

But, then I went and asked the students what they thought. I just couldn’t help myself. I was expecting all this positive response. Instead I got all sorts of ways we could face the board!? I kept having to say, “that is no my goal.” Since I did not predict that the conversation would head in this direction, I did not have the time to have a complete discussion.

So, we are in the modified square for now.

But, I think it’s time to have a real group discussion, that does not have a time limit, about what we want our seating arrangement to foster. I believe that my students and I can have this conversation. I know that it will be messy. I recognize that I am giving up a lot of control because this is not going to be a “pretend” exercise.

So here’s my plan:

  • We will all read a few articles about seating in advance and come to this with some background knowledge.
  • We make a list of things we would like our space to be able to do.
  • We prioritize the list.
  • We suggest designs and evaluate them against our priorities.
  • We pick a design for our space and live with it for a while.
  • Repeat, if necessary.

I have to say I’m a little nervous about it and totally excited. I’ll keep you posted.

So, I’ve been thinking about the great conversation I had with my class yesterday. It was the kind of conversation we don’t usually have until a lot later in the year. I’ve been thinking about why it went so well.

First let me tell you what my definition of “going well” is. In 5th grade I think a good conversation about a book means a number of thing:

  • Many people (everyone) participate.
  • Solid information from the story is shared.
  • People are not just summarizing, but collecting appropriate examples for the topic.
  • There is back and forth among students.
  • New ideas emerge.

That may sound like a lot for 5th graders, who incase you don’t recall, are mostly 10. But,I have found that is exactly what they are capable of: a lot.

So, here are some of the reasons I think this, our first real discussion about our first book of the year, went so well:

  • We were sitting in our circle arrangement (see my post about it here and here) and I was just part of the circle. Everyone was facing each other and conversation was naturally flowing.
  • I adjusted the plan of what to talk about when a student brought up an idea that clearly got many students’ attention. I told the students we could discuss this idea further once we finished a few housekeeping review items and that my goal was to learn and improve our ability to discuss what we read. I said that often it would not matter what in particular we discussed, so I was open to new topics.
  • I tried to keep things somewhat free-flowing and insist on some being-called-on-taking-turns.
  • At a few different times I said I needed to hear from anyone I hadn’t heard from soon. Students responded appropriately and raised hands ready to join in.
  • And, finally we had already had our “5E Day” (Identity Day-read about it here) project and started on the path to a really great class tone.

I am going to have to up my game if my students are going to be leaping into this kind of discussion in September.

I’m in.