New York City, Summer 2011. I was excited to be joining a force of Teaching Fellows poised to tackle the opportunity gap in NYC. I began my summer school assignment feeling a healthy mix of zeal and terror. I was about to go live. The challenge? Get a group of straggling eighth graders excited about science.

Room 230. I enter. My students are seated in clunky desks — or are they chairs? Let’s call them desk-chairs — uniformly lined up to face the SmartBoard.

I wanted to get my students talking. To kick off the summer session, I had come prepared with clear and actionable directions: “Point to your partner. Turn your legs to face him or her. Partner A, the partner closest to the door, will be the first to share. Get ready to talk in 3, 2, ready? Talk.” With the word talk, I snapped my fingers.

Our first discussion was as clunky as the desks. My students looked awkwardly at one another and a few reluctantly slid their feet in the general direction of a partner. The remainder of my students turned their heads and settled their chins into their palms. Several students questioned who would serve as Partner A. One student raised his hand, possibly to ask which direction was left. Another started sharpening her pencil.

As much as I wanted to teach 21st century skills like communication and collaboration, there was only so much I could do when every student was facing the back of another student’s head.

That’s when it hit me: Learning needs have changed in the 21st century. Yet, every day, over three million educators in this country are forced to make do with the factory-model classrooms of the early 20th century.

What might 21st century learning look like? For one, it’s student-centered. That means curriculum that engages students in meaningful and immersive problem-solving. Learning is personalized, and we build systems to support student initiative and individual student needs. Also, it’s collaborative — we foster communities of students who learn from each other and grow together.

To achieve this, I hack my classroom. By hacking, I mean making the most of the infrastructure I’m given.

Yes, this means moving tables and chairs.

Yes, this means considering the users of the space — my students — their tasks, and questioning how our surroundings can support (or hinder) their growth.

My students deserve to work in an environment that meets — and adapts — to our group and individual learning needs. They deserve space that is welcoming and safe. My students deserve a room to learn.

We need learning environments that meet — and adapt to — our group and individual learning needs. I started to create classroom maps, and taught my students to shape their own learning space. Having studied geography in college, I find it intuitive to optimize my classroom layout to meet my intended learning objectives. When students work on different tasks or with different people, their environment should support that. Gradually, my students got used to shifting around furniture and taking ownership over their space. One of my students even Tweeted a photo of our space, tagging it #bestroomever!

For me, the classroom is much more than a cell of tables and chairs. The classroom is home base. It’s the science lab, the pitching venue, and the recording studio. As an educator, it’s my job to equip a next generation of creative and critical thinkers. And the classroom architecture should be there to support that.

Last October, the journey with room2learn began when I met my co-founders at the HIVE Hackathon at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Combining forces between education, design, and business, we realized that our job was to help teachers (like me) utilize their classroom spaces as a critical tools for 21st century teaching and learning.

How do you use space as a tool in your teaching? What struggles do you face in reaching your teaching and learning goals? What does 21st century learning look like to you?

Join the conversation, and stay tuned for hacks, layouts, and school designs on the room2learn platform. With your help, let’s bring learning back to the classroom.

They deserve space that is welcoming and safe. My students deserve a room to learn.

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