New Addition or New Edition?

One thing I love about my school district, is that I have opportunities to engage in the work with others on so many different levels.  We’re large enough that there is ALWAYS something going on that is amazing and we are small enough that there’s a good probability I am at least aware of these amazing things and often involved in them beyond just my awareness.

One thing that is going on right now that is of particular interest to me is yet another construction project at Greer Elementary.  Greer underwent Phase I of this renovation in 2008-2009 and the School Board received an update on Phase II at its April 14, 2011 meeting.

My personal reflections on a planning meeting at Greer with Matt Landhal (@mlandahl, principal) and some of his teachers led to me kicking this blog post around with the current title intact.  Talking with Matt and his teachers about how they want kids to interact with space, content, each other, media, and the world in the new addition and how they are looking to connect it back to what happens (currently and in the future) in the current physical space has me kicking around a ton of questions –  how can we use a new addition as a platform for thinking through and envisioning a new edition?  How do we leverage the new space without creating inequities for students who are assigned to the “old” space? Will some kids be “better off” in the old space or the new space?  How could we possibly know?  Where does the space drop out of the equation and the teacher come in to it?  How will we decide who is assigned to what space?  What difference will that make?

All of these questions and some I haven’t been able to get out of my head and to my keyboard come back to a larger question of how space influences learning or not.  This leads to a larger question of what influences a teacher’s decision-making.  I don’t believe any of us would argue that if you put someone who doesn’t know the curriculum and is either unskilled at or uninterested in connecting kids to said curriculum in to the “perfect learning space” that great things will happen.  I do not believe the space (including all of the stuff in the space) is at all causal, but I do believe it is influential.  So, now the question becomes, what influence do we want the space to have on the learning?

This question strangely connects me to my visit to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum shortly after it opened in 1993.  This museum has set the standard for how to use space to influence emotions and interactions.  I remember the changing lights and sounds changing my expectations of what was to come next.  I remember how the ducking and the turning made me feel herded and manipulated.  I remember watching out for the 70 plus students I had taken with me and noticing who was crying when and who was standing in silence and awe to pay more attention to what.  I remember this disbelief and disgust.  I remember the day as my single most rewarding day as a teacher.

I felt some of this same space-caused emotional roller coaster when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum – enough that I wasn’t disappointed but not enough to feel like I had sat at the back of a bus long enough. 

I was so disappointed when I went to the National Museum of the American Indian shortly after it opened.  After my last conversation with my half-blooded grandmother before she died, I was expecting a Trail of Tears exhibit that jerked me around like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Instead, I found nothing about what my family had lived through on “the Trail.”  I call it “The Museum for the Commercialization of the American Indian.”

Why did I go from thinking about new Kindergarten spaces to thinking about museums?  The central question of “what influence do we want the space to have on the learning?” connects these in my mind.  These Kindergarten classrooms will impact what decisions teachers can and do make and how kids react to these decisions.  What impact do we want to have?  If the walls open up and two classrooms can be connected through a portal, what will happen differently than if the kids actually had to go through a traditional doorway, out in the hallway, and through another traditional doorway to walk between classrooms?  How did I feel when I had to walk through a box car to get from one room to another, knowing that thousands of people had ridden this same box car from being rounded up to being murdered?  The pathway between two spaces matters on how the two spaces are perceived.

As I think about all of the questions and information tossed out between teachers and architects on that afternoon in the Greer library, I am humbled by the shear number of decisions at hand.  I am also intrigued by how those decisions will be made and then how they will influence what kids and teachers do in the “magical” spaces.

While I don’t think of Kindergarten classrooms as museums, the purpose of having the portal between the two classrooms took me back to my experience at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Then, my mind shifted to the places in my division where I know opening a portal between two classrooms is possible and I thought about who uses this utility and to what end.  I am convinced that who gets put on either side of the moveable wall determines whether or not the wall will ever move and what the purposes of the movements are.  That the walls move simply represents an opportunity.  Whether the opportunity is realized is dependent upon the teachers.  Whether the “right” teachers are located on either side of the wall is primarily a principal decision that represents attention to a vision or not.

Should we plan for cubbies in the classroom or should we plan for them in the hallway?  If we put them in the hallway, do we need to put doors on them to provide a little protection and ensure they stay neat and tidy?  If we put them in the classroom, can we do it in a way that doesn’t take away flexibility in how we use the space around the cubby?  How does snack time look differently if the cubbies are in the room or in the hallway?  How will we manage the traffic flow and monitor the students?  This line of questioning took me back to a visit I made to another school when I went to three Kindergarten classrooms in the five minutes before shifting from class activities to specials.  One teacher put on a clean up song, and like salivating dogs the kids responded in a very well-conditioned manner and started cleaning up.  Another teacher clapped a pattern and flicked the lights and told the kids to start cleaning up and then began doling out strategic praise statements like, “I like the way Jack is cleaning up his space.”  The third teacher said, “Class, it’s almost time for PE.  What do we need to do to ensure our math supplies are where we can all find them tomorrow?”  In unison, the students shouted, “Put them away!”  and started working to make sure the needs of the classroom community were met.  Three different strategies with the same short-term end result in mind, but representing three very different visions.  The storage compartment shape, size, and location had nothing to do with these differences.

So, how can we use a new addition as a platform for thinking through and envisioning a new edition?  What about what we are currently doing or not doing would we like to change?  What would we like to have remain the same?  Why?  How do we envision five year olds interacting with the world five years from now?  How do they interact now?  How does school prohibit, permit or promote this natural interaction with the world?  What role does space and stuff play in this?

Where will the teaching wall be?  Do we want a teaching wall or multiple teaching spaces?  Who is going to be teaching whom?  How often would we expect to see 4 or 5 students gathered around a teaching space engaging in something?  What would they need access to when they do this?  Would you design a teaching space differently than you would design a learning space?  What kids of interactions do you foresee?  “Teacher” to “learners”?  “Learners” to each other?  Everyone to content?

In many cases, there will be trade-offs we don’t really want to make.  If we don’t have a whole class teaching/learning space, how/where will we hold morning meeting?  If we do, how can we make it flexible so we can re-purpose it easily when we don’t need it to accommodate the whole class?  Overall, I would say the challenge is to provide the capability to do everything while not forcing anything.  Choice and flexibility for the teacher occupying the space so that he or she can provide choice and flexibility to the learners.  How can we provide this without a gazillion dollars per square foot?

One thing I know about all of these questions as well as the ones that never made it from my finger tips to your eyes is that there are no easy answers.  Perhaps the challenge is not to answer the questions but in understanding the questions we are asking.  Are we asking questions that point to “student-centered, inquiry-driven learning” or are we asking questions that point to something else?  What if we had kids come along with us on this journey?  Would they be asking the same questions or a whole different class of questions?  Will this be a new addition or a pathway to a new edition?  How will we know?

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  Albert Einstein

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