3 Lessons to #HackYourClassroom

by room2learn

Every September, 3.1 million teachers in the U.S. walk into empty, bland classrooms, ready to be custom-designed to fit the aspirations of the year. Classroom design can be an exciting aspect of back to school, as teachers recognize the importance of creating warm and welcoming environments for their incoming student community. Many teachers return to school early, papering the walls with bright colors and fun borders. Still others wait for their students to enter the space, valuing the input of community voices in spatial design.

Here at room2learn, we recognize that teachers are hacking, or creatively using their existing classroom space and furniture, in order to meet the demands of 21st century learning. As we’re currently engaged in an effort to make 100% co-designed spaces the educational norm, we wanted to emphasize and reward the teachers who are including students in their daily classroom decisions.

This September, we launched our third season of #HackYourClassroom. Alongside our esteemed judging panel from partner architecture firms, Quattrocchi Kwok Architects and DLR Group, we set off to find the most creative uses of classroom space. We emphasized three tenets of classroom hacking:

  1. Problem Identification
  2. Student Involvement
  3. Impact on Learning

We’re happy to announce and celebrate FIVE winners of the #HackYourClassroom back2school campaign. Congratulations (and keep hacking!) to:

Our contest page boasted over 1,200 visitors and submissions came from classrooms as far as New York City, California, and even Australia! Whittling these submissions down to five learning-enhancing winners was no small feat. This week, we’re going to peek into classrooms with winning hacks. Here are three lessons we learned from the field!

  1. Clearly define the problem you’re solving for.

As one of our judges, Jason Lembke, stated, “a clear understanding of context is essential for design.” The old adage that form follows function holds true for learning space design. Our most successful classroom hack submissions had a clearly defined need, allowing for a practical solution that works for learning.

One of our winners, Blair, made one thing clear when he shifted his classroom to a flexible seating model: no one had a designated seat. He removed half the desks to make room for more diversified seating options. The problem with this was that students lost their designated space to store their books and project supplies. To overcome this, Blair found plastic tubs that students could store all their equipment in and would also fit a whiteboard on the lid. Blake shares that students have responded quite positively to the change:

Students love having their tubs. It has meant those less organised students are better organised and having the whiteboards on top mean students can sit in bean bags, on couches or wherever else they choose and they have their own portable workstations. Students always have everything they need with them in one spot meaning I no longer lose time while students are looking for books or pencils.

2. Structures and Spaces go hand-in-hand

Across our contest submissions, a central theme emerged: learning styles are varied. Our submitting teachers referenced their diverse roles within a classroom, ranging from IT support to project management. Even further, our judges commented and commended the number of zoned classrooms, or classrooms with structures in place to support multi-modal learning.

Sarah, one of our winners from Minnesota, said it simply: “I’m not sure if i have a solution — I just try to provide a variety of options. I know students must to be able to work in group and I also need to honor that they may be more comfortable and productive working alone.”

In order to achieve the balance between “flare” (thinking widely) and “focus” (honing in), classroom structures are key. When changing the layout of a classroom, it can be helpful to engage students in the creation of classroom procedures and expectations. Sarah goes further: “I always tell them it’s not my classroom — this whole classroom is yours. If there is a problem, we need to fix it [together].”

In some classrooms, students are in charge of monitoring themselves and their classmates. In the case that certain furniture is deemed “the most fun,” students can help determine limits to ensure everyone gets access.

In the case of Bonnie’s classroom, each seating section has a purpose. For example, the high table and cafe-style seating is the collaboration station and students should convene here to carry out conversations. You could also specify areas for reflecting or making. Moving students successfully through these spaces is a result of clearly communicated norms and continual practice of these structures.

3. Student involvement is an ongoing process.

As a key tenet of this process, we asked our contest participants to include students in the design process. We were excited by the number of participants who shared how they were able to engage students in the design process. In a standout moment, one class even had every student create their own custom floor plan!

Bonnie shares how she lets students take ownership and advocate for their own space and needs:

There is a young man who struggles behaviorally across his classes. In my room, he loves to sit up at the front board on a bathmat with a husband pillow. A teacher had brought it in for me — I wasn’t sure if anyone would use it but he uses it as a lap desk. This is his ‘I’m feeling outta control, I’m gonna sit down and work here’ spot. He’s able to hunker down and get work done. Other teachers walk by and see him sitting and say, “That’s not the person i see in my class!” Though what I’m most proud of is his ability to know when he needs to remove himself from the group and settle into his work space.

How will our winners use their prize money to continue improving their classrooms? Sarah noted that a need to create additional storage space. Bonnie was quick to respond, “the students have a list.” On the top of the list? Coffee. Though the caffeinated beverage is not allowed in school, we’re happy to support students thinking about ways to stay both productive and warm as we move into the winter season. We’re looking forward to seeing their spaces continue to develop.

We’d love to see what you’re up to! Sign up for a free educator account to browse designs, build your gallery, and upload your own space hacks at room2learn.org.

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