The soft cinema cave in the Danish Freeschool Bornholm supports multiple learning styles.

Transforming “My Classroom” into “Our Classroom”

By Matt O’Donnell

Matt is a Tech Innovation Specialist and one of the Geniuses at our Learning Space Genius Bar at SXSWedu 2018. This week, he shares with us some simple hacks for bringing student voice into the classroom.

Walking into a classroom, you might see a banner from a sports team, a movie poster, or knick knack from a band. Most of the time, these objects give you a clue into the teacher’s hobbies or interests outside of school. Most teachers have freedom to give their classroom a personal touch since it is where they spend most of their day.

But what about students? They are often restricted to a specific seat, let alone have say in designing their school environments. In many cases, they can’t even decorate their locker.

We know students do much better when they have a voice at school. According to Dr. Russell Qualia’s Student Voice Report, students who have a voice at school are:

  • 4x more likely to experience self-worth in school
  • 8x more likely to experience engagement in school
  • 9x more likely to experience a sense of purpose in school

Clearly, it’s important that students feel ownership over their learning experience in school. The good news is — you can give students voice without giving up oversight of the classroom. And, you can make changes incrementally, as we learned from architect Aaron Jobson last week.

Here are 5 simple hacks to make your students feel at home in the classroom.

Start with language.

Teacher often say “my classroom,” especially when enforcing rules. Simply by saying “our classroom,” you can acknowledge your students as part owners of the classroom space. This can make students feel more welcome and opens up a conversation

Wareham Middle School students redesigning their classroom space to fit their needs.

Choice in Seating

Shifting classroom furniture around to suit the learning activity is great, but we should not stop there. Students need seating that fits their body size. School seating is mostly designed for the average student and we know there is no average student. (Watch this great Ted Talk by Todd Rose to learn more about the ‘Myth of Average.” ) Students also have different movement needs throughout the day, so having options is important. Can they switch between sitting and standing? Or soft and hard furniture? All these options allow students to self-regulate so they can attend to the learning.

This 4th grade classroom at Jordan Elementary School has a variety of seating options.

Hack the Wall Space

Wall space is at a premium in classrooms. Often, you’ll see them filled with posters about class content and a bulletin board with past student work. In high school classes where multiple groups of students use the classroom throughout the day, there is rarely anything that represents an individual student on the walls. One simple way to provide student representation on the walls is through digital displays. You can use a TV monitor with an attached chromecast to customize backgrounds. With the Google Home app, you can link a digital display to a shared Google Photos folder. This folder can contain images that the students choose to represent them and their work, and can cycle throughout the period or day on the monitor.

Laptops and digital displays are constantly used in the Danish Freeschool Bornholm.

Another way to hack the wall space is with LED lighting. You might not be able to re-paint your classroom walls, but you can probably put up LED light strips that can be set to different colors. The light strips are not very expensive and it is easy to change colors with a remote. Students can pick different colors for different times of the day or learning situations. Some LED lights can be triggered to change colors automatically at a certain time or customized event. Using IFTTT, students can get really creative in how and when lights change.

Mix up the Audio

Add a bluetooth speaker to the classroom and and/or and aux cable so students can play their music when it is appropriate for the learning activity. You can even game-ify this and set this as a reward for students.

At the school level, you can change the bells to audio files where different student can pick the music during passing times.

Reset

The nice thing about all of these classroom changes is they can all be temporary. The furniture can be moved back, the light color can be changed or turned off, they digital display can go to a new folder and the classroom can be ready for a new set of users in under a minute. Co-creating a classroom is an iterative process — not everything will work out, but you won’t know the results until you try it!

What are some ways you make the classroom more homey? Share with us by uploading photos on www.room2learn.org or tag us on Instagram (@room2learn). We love’d love to feature your classroom design and layout on our profile!

Matt is currently the Tech Innovation Specialist at the Sonoma County Office of Education. His work focuses on 21st century learning including technology integration, classroom redesign for student-centered learning, multimedia, design thinking, school communication, STEAM, and maker education. Prior to joining SCOE, Matt spent 15 years as a middle and high school social studies teacher and school administrator in Atlanta, Georgia and in Marin and Sonoma Counties. His experience includes serving as grade level chair, department chair, dean of students, and academic dean. He also served as a trustee for the Oak Grove Union School District.

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