Guest Post by @jenniferward

Guest Post by @jenniferward

teacher. learner. writer. technology enthusiast.

An interest in helping young people discover and define their writing voice and reading interests drives me to cultivate a student-centered learning environment, one that supports individual learning goals and incorporates purposeful use of technology. Not only do I strive to create an inquiry-driven curriculum with students at the center of their own learning, but I am also highly motivated to research and reflect on my own teaching practices, continually seeking opportunities to build my professional knowledge and skills through my connections as a TED-Ed Innovative Educator, Google Certified Innovator, National Writing Project Fellow, and as a 2014 PASCD Emerging Leader, as well as by being active in NCTE, Flipped Learning Network, and as an organizer with EdcampPhilly and EdcampDelco. I taught for thirteen years in a Philadelphia suburban district before returning to my home state to teach high school English at Ionia High School.

And when not in front of a class or a computer, I’m either in front of my sewing machine or got a glue gun in hand, ready to craft whatever my two little boys can imagine. A born DIYer, I jump into ideas, excited by possibilities.

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Evolving Space

My classroom space is in a constant state of revision.  I make changes to my space, my layout and design, based on the learners sitting in my room.

When I first started teaching, my student desks were grouped as pods, my teacher’s desk angled to face the door at the front of the room.  And this worked. Until it didn’t.

A number of years ago, I had a tenth grade student suffering from debilitating migraines.  Her doctor and later her neurologist struggled to make sense of the severity of her migraines.  But what my student knew was that overhead florescent lights seemed to trigger the onset of her blinding headaches.  She struggled to make it to class. School is filled with blinding bright white lights.  I wanted to find a way for our classroom space to be a safe haven. And me, not that far out of college at the time, had a plethora of cheap floor lamps cluttering my one bedroom apartment. So rather than clicking on those big industrial lights, I lugged those lamps into my classroom and purchased inexpensive table lamps from my local thrift store. I hung white string lights around my bulletin boards and dangled them from the ceiling.  And not only did the change in lighting seem to help my student suffering from migraines, but other students seemed to appreciate the less institutional feeling of our classroom space.  Murmurs of adding a reading nook with a rug and couch – “you know, like the ones we had in elementary school” – started to come up in conversation.  And so my classroom evolution began.

Over the years, I have added new pieces to my classroom space – a bench here, some pillows, a stool, a couch there – to accommodate the needs of my learners. My classroom now features a variety of different spaces.  There is a reading nook with a couple of couches, pillows, a rug, and chair situated next to my bookshelves for a comfortable place to read.  There are two desks facing one another near my back window, a perfect spot for a one-on-one conference.  My teacher’s desk, a hacked Ikea bookcase on casters, is at the back of the room without a chair.  It is a counter to hold my computer and teaching materials and to host informal conversations, but I don’t spend much time there, so there is no need for a chair.  I have a combination of tables and chairs, traditional desks, comfortable benches, and pillows around the room which my students move between throughout our class period depending upon what task we are focused on.  My classroom set-up has evolved over the last few years.  In changing from traditional rows of desks which I started with,  I honor the needs and stories of the students in my learning community, but my classroom also reflects my evolution in thinking about teaching.  My teaching is less about me being at the front of the room and more focused on space for my students to collaborate. My room reflects that change.

The classroom environment is sometimes referred to as the “third teacher,” influencing the ways in which students engage in the learning that happens in our spaces. The environment reflects the priorities of that class.  I need my classroom to support active learners.  Chickering and Erhmann write about the need for students to get hands-on with their learning. A learning space should reflect that idea. “Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers.  They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.”

A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to put this idea into practice when I redesigned my learning space to reflect some of the brain research coming out. Students need flexible learning spaces to encourage active learning.  Educators Erin Klein, AJ Juliani, Ben Gilpin, and Robert Dillion hosted a classroom redesign contest on their site Classroom Cribs, selecting my classroom as one of the grand finalists. “Redesigning spaces to maximize learning is primarily a shift in culture and mindset,” they write in their book Redesigning Learning Spaces. It was at this time that I moved my teacher’s desk and podium away from the front of the room, and spent more time creating spaces where students could collaborate and share.

These days, my room is loud.  And I need it to be.  I see my students for only 55 minutes each day.  I need my students to use this time to collaborate, to connect, and to create.  Teaching in a rural district means that many of my students don’t have the means or time to travel after school to meet with a classmate to work on a project. Some of my students drive as much as 30 minutes to get to school each morning. Many of my students work after school jobs. Some work more than one. The classroom is the place where my students have time to connect.  I view my classroom as a workshop. This is my students time and space to “make what they learn part of themselves.”

And that can look very different for each student.  George needs to move.  He’s one of the EI students in my classroom. He knows that he sometimes needs to remove himself from a conversation. Sometimes he needs to move into a conversation.  He needs a chair he can pick up and move.  Michael doesn’t.  Michael needs a corner, maybe a pillow to lean on, so that he can put on his noise-cancelling earbuds and write his blog post.  Hannah and Abby need chairs right next to each other, not across from one another, so that they can share a computer screen while they craft an email together to gather information for their research. I need a flexible space to reflect all the various ways in which my students learn.

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