Monday, May 05, 2014

Classroom Physical Arrangements

Mark Phillips' post A Place for Learning: the Physical Environment of Classrooms has prompted me to write out some of my thoughts as a sub about different classrooms.  He relates the story of one of his mentors taking the job of custodian, so that he get a firsthand look at the physical environments of classrooms.  Well, I can do his mentor one better: take the job of substitute teaching.  Then you can get a sense of the physical environments of not only multiple classrooms in one school, but also of the vast differences between schools and the differences between elementary, middle school, and high schools. 

I do most of my subbing nowadays in elementary schools, especially third through fifth grades.  From what I can see of most elementary schools, the physical environment is very busy and almost overwhelming.  Walls are COVERED with posters, student work, number lines, job charts, attendance/leave-the-room boards, reminder lists, even decorations on the windows, etc., in addition to the white boards, the Smart boards, and the cupboards. 

I have often wondered how much of this is really necessary.  Do students actually USE the information on those posters?  In most cases, the print on the poster is too small for students to see, unless they are close to the poster.  Displaying student writing projects may be motivating, but no one can actually read the essays posted on the walls.  To me, it is visually distracting.  It doesn't seem so to the kids, who seem used to it, but I wonder how much it contributes to too much visual stimulation. 

Personally, if I were to decide on the classroom decorations, I would remove most of the posters and charts with small print.  They are useless and distracting.  I like a display for student art work, but the student written work would be better in a three ring binder in the library.  And replace some of the posters with beautiful pictures and professional art work.  One school district I worked in was in a state where public buildings were to spend one percent of their construction budget on professional art work.  Some of the art work thus added to the buildings was amazing.  And, to me, it seemed as though, surrounded by this gorgeous art, the students actually produced better art of their own.  The buildings themselves seemed to say, we value art and creative expression.  

Unlike Mr. Phillips' mentor, though, I don't feel that the classroom desk layouts are designed for the custodians.  In most cases now, the classrooms I go to seem set up for the ubiquitous group work.  "Table groups" of 3 to 6 or more desks are arranged throughout the classroom and are often numbered/named for ease of reference:  "Table 4" or the "Purple Ninja Unicorns".  Some classrooms are so crowded that it is difficult to walk to be next to each student's desk.  Other classrooms have sufficient space, so that the teacher can also set up a library corner, a meeting area, and a (largely unused) computer area. 

One 4th grade teacher I subbed for was there when I arrived for a part day job.  I was quite impressed with his arrangement.  He proceeded to demonstrate how his classroom could switch configurations at the snap of his fingers.  For one of his subjects he was going to have the students watch a video, where they all needed to be able to see the projection screen.  After that, they were going to work on a small group task related to the video.  In a different subject, they were scheduled to take a test individually.  Each of these arrangements had a number.  He would snap his fingers, call out a number and the students would rapidly change their desks around to match the needed configuration - less than a minute transition time. 

Middle schools and high schools seem to have fewer job charts and instructionally related charts and posters.  Many of the rooms are functional and plain.  This is especially true if the rooms are shared by multiple teachers.  No teacher seems to own the space, so it is left undecorated.  This too-little can be as stifling as the elementary school's too-much.  And, as Mr. Phillips noted, the classrooms are often arranged in rows.  Sometimes, this is necessitated by the size of the classroom.  I taught one calculus class with 40 students who were all crammed into a too small room with multiple tables.  In truth, it was a fire hazard.  There was no way for the teacher to get to students at the end of the rows which abutted the walls.  Middle school and high school science classes, on the other hand, usually have large tables for the students to work on, demonstrating that sometimes the arrangement of the classroom depends significantly not only on the teaching style of the teacher, but also on the necessities of the subject matter.  Math often works in rows, science at tables, and social studies, English, or world languages in semi-circles for discussions.  Unfortunately, with class sizes surging, the semi-circles for discussions are becoming rare.  There simply isn't enough room.  

I have long been interested in floor plans for schools and, for a while, I got publications from a professional society that gave awards to new school building designs.  One of the key factors in good design seems to be sufficient space for the activities.  Many of the elementary schools are very limited in this respect.  Even high schools sometimes are feeling the pinch, as in the example of the calculus class above.  That was in a building that was less that 10 years old, but some of the classrooms were simply too small for the numbers of students they needed to accommodate.  With school budgets stripped to the bone, many of the newer schools are being "underbuilt" - they are too small from the moment they open their doors.  Many of them rely on mobile trailers for their overflowing numbers.  These classrooms, in my experience, are very much less than ideal - no running water, no bathrooms, security problems, and feeling like an outcasts from the rest of the school.

The physical environment of the classroom can have a big effect on the students.  Crowding seems to lead to more interaction problems.  There is no place where the student can go to get away from it all.

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