From the Classroom: Reimagining Learning Spaces—The Third Teacher
By Tricia Ebarvia
A few years ago, I started to rethink my classroom space. I wondered, What does this room say about me as a teacher, or my students as learners? Is the space working in the best ways it can? Although I don’t think I realized it then, I now know that those questions stemmed, in part, from being in my own children’s classrooms.
As a parent with three boys in elementary school, I am always amazed on back-to-school nights. Every classroom is bright and cheerful. The moment I walk in, I know that this is a place where children are valued—where their voices are heard and their spirits nurtured. Every space in the room is meaningful. Inspirational quotes line the walls alongside student work. Other spaces feature word walls, classroom jobs, anchor charts, learning stations, reading nooks, a class pet, and cozy chairs.
Although you certainly don’t need to be a parent to be a good teacher, in my personal experience, seeing school through my children’s eyes shifted my thinking in subtle but significant ways. When I became a parent, I became a better teacher. For one, I became more compassionate; when I think about the 15- and 17-year-olds sitting in my classroom, I see them not only as my students but also as someone else’s children. When I make instructional decisions, I can’t help wonder, Would I want this for my own boys?
Which brings me back to my classroom. When I got my first classroom many years ago, I couldn’t wait to decorate it. I bought all sorts of posters—posters that featured the books we would be reading, wise and pithy sayings, and famous art and artists. I covered the walls with colorful non-fade bulletin board paper and arranged the desks in neat groups of four. Over the years, my classroom has been through various iterations, but for the most part, the key pieces—decorative posters and desk quads—stayed the same. If you walked into my classroom, you would have found it to be a generally pleasant place to spend 43 minutes.
But pleasant isn’t enough.
Having a pleasant place to be is a nice but it’s not enough. What’s a pleasant place to be if isn’t an inspiring place to learn? And what’s an inspiring place to learn if it isn’t personalized to the learner?
The Third Teacher
Last year when I researching classroom design, I came across a wonderful book titled The Third Teacher, a collaborative work by Abrams books. The authors—from three different global design firms—argue that in any classroom there are three teachers. First, there is the teacher. Then other students. The environment is “the third teacher.” Combining design principles with research in education, psychology, and cognitive science, the authors make an argument for the importance of the learning environment. What messages about teaching and learning do our students see when they walk into our classrooms? Desks arranged in separate rows tells students that working individually is what’s valued. Desks arranged in groups tell students that working together is valued instead. And desks, whether in rows or groups that all face the teacher tell them who the most important person is in the room.
Or consider the one-size-fits-all message that identical desks and seats send—that even though some students may be bigger or smaller than others, or that some students learn better standing versus sitting—that everyone needs to learn the same way. We differentiate our instruction, but imagine how powerful differentiation could be if we differentiated our learning environment.
As we all know, most of our schools and classrooms were built for a different time. As Michael Waldin notes in The Third Teacher:
The industrial revolution model of education was actually very successful. It churned out carbon-copy mentalities at a time when society prized conformity. As we start to prize creativity instead, we need to look at how creativity can be fostered, and developed, and encouraged. There are technical and physical aspects to that, but also emotional and values-based ones.
Likewise, Sir Ken Robinson adds:
An institution is the people and their ways of thinking. If you really want to shift a culture, it’s two things: its habits and its habitats—the habits of mind, and the physical environment in which people operate.
Of course, because construction and furniture are expensive (and sturdy), alternative spaces may seem out of reach. But if we are serious about creating spaces for creativity and not conformity, then perhaps there are small but significant changes we can make. So as you head back to your classroom this fall, here are a few things—some small, others big—that might help us rethink our spaces for the 21st century learner.
1. Turn the lights off.
Let the light in. Research has shown that the overhead fluorescent lighting is not conducive to learning. I’ve had students complain that the lights give them headaches. Whenever I can—especially during independent reading or writer’s workshop—I leave the lights off and allow window light to fill the room. The entire mood of the room shifts to one that is peaceful and calming. I am fortunate to teach in a classroom with a lot of light, but I know many teachers who aren’t so lucky. Instead, they bring in variety of floor and desk lamps to use occasionally. On the other hand, sometimes the window light during harsh winter months is too strong, so I use sheers to soften the glare.
2. Use color purposefully.
Most designers will tell you that anything more than 2-3 colors in a single space is overwhelming. Instead, use a palette of colors that complement each other. Knowing a little bit about color theory can be informative here. For example, warm colors like red and orange are associated with energy and creativity. That said, such colors can easily become over-stimulating. In fact, researchers at Texas Tech University examined the effects of color on learning environments and found that strong or primary colors should be limited but that “softer colors such as green or blue may be used in other areas within the classroom.” The study also found that starting with a neutral palette and then integrating students’ color preferences can be beneficial.
The key is to find the right balance. When considering color schemes, think not as a teacher, but as a designer. And what do designers do? They flip through magazines like House Beautiful and Architectural Digest and consult color experts like Pantone, which determines the latest trends and recommends stylish color combinations (they also have a great series of articles on colors, like this one on blue). As the authors of The Third Teacher argue:
Everyone can be a designer. Look to many sources for inspiration. Teachers and students, as well as architects and designers, have ideas about their ideal learning environment.
Google “Ikea classroom” and you’ll see many teachers who have been inspired by the Swedish company’s sense of style. Next time you’re in Barnes and Noble, flip through magazines like Real Simple or Dwell to gather ideas. Though I have never done this myself, I know teachers in other schools who have gotten special permission from their building administration to even have their walls repainted.
3. Make your room bigger.
Or at least seem like it. On the walls, keep some things at eye-level, but don’t forget to use the space high on the walls. Carefully selected items placed higher up will force our eyes upward, thus expanding the classroom space and make the room feel bigger, the ceilings higher. Similarly, use inexpensive hooks to hang things from the ceiling.
4. Limit the purely decorative.
When I first started teaching, I wanted to put anything and everything remotely related to teaching up on the walls. But research has consistently shown that classrooms that are over-decorated can be overstimulating and lead to more off-task behavior. Just as in writing, editing matters. Choosing wisely is best when it comes to crafting a learning environment. That said, while you want to limit what’s purely decorative…
5. Create spaces of beauty.
One suggestion in The Third Teacher is to think about the classroom like a museum, a place rich with evocative and beautiful objects. Identify limited but powerful places in your classroom for things that can inspire aesthetic appreciation. For years I’ve hung simple (and inexpensive) paper lanterns by the window. The white color maintains a clean look and reflects the window light while the varying shapes create interest. Every year, students comment on how much they appreciate looking at them.
6. Let the walls teach.
While I would love to say that my students paid attention 100% of the time, I know that’s not true. So when their eyes wander, where will they go? In my classroom, I use the walls to teach. I once heard Kate Roberts, author of Fall in Love with Close Reading and D.I.Y Literacy, say that “pointing is one of our most powerful teaching tools.” Above the whiteboard, I have list of powerful verbs. I point to them whenever my students are writing an analysis, but I also hope that their eyes wander up there on their own.
A few years ago, I created punctuation posters inspired by Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style and posted them in the back the classroom. Beneath those posters, and immediately above the bookshelves, I posted the six fiction signposts from Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s Notice and Note to remind students about close reading. On the windows, I posted the six traits of writing, and during the school year, we use large sticky posters beneath each one to keep track of examples and tips related to each of them.
7. Let the walls inspire.
While I love using the walls to teach ideas and skills directly related to my instruction, I also post inspirational quotes from books. Part of my goal as an English teacher is to show students the ways in which reading can inspire us to think about the world and ourselves in new and better ways. With that in mind, I keep this Harry Potter quote up: “It is our choices that show who we truly are far more than our abilities.” At the same time, a little humor can go a long way, too, as in my “Let’s eat Grandma!” sign (below). I also use my Upside Down Map of the world to spark conversations about perspective.
8. Create mystery, spark curiosity.
Sometimes I hang things on the wall that don’t make a lot of sense to students… at first. Students will ask me what something means, and I respond with my knowing-teacher look and say, “You’ll see.” Like many experienced teachers, I can anticipate some of the conversations that will happen at some point during the year. One of my favorite signs in my room has one word on it: Yet (see above). I know that at some point during the year, a student will say something like “I don’t like reading…” or “I’m not good at…” That’s when I can point to the sign and ask that student to add the word “yet” to the end of that sentence.
9. Steal space.
As large as my room is, I don’t have a lot of wall space. I covered up the only large bulletin board I had with all my bookshelves (which I don’t regret a bit!). So I got creative. I post things on the cabinets and above the whiteboards. I also use the windows to post anchor charts (the white poster paper is translucent enough to still allow light to filter in). In the past, in a lesson on word choice, I had students use permanent markers on clear overhead projector sheets to write their favorite words. I then used clear tape to post these sheets to the windows. I also use one of my whiteboards like a bulletin board: throughout the year, I post student work to the whiteboard by using tape or magnets.
10. Match the walls to current learning.
While I’ve always loved my Catcher in the Rye faux movie poster, how much instructional value does it really have? While we read Catcher, I might point to the poster and ask students to think about the extent to which its design elements reflect the themes of the novel. The poster might even serve as a mentor text for a poster students could create themselves. But before or after the unit on Catcher, that poster serves little instructional purpose. Be sure to change up the walls as instruction changes. After all, you wouldn’t keep your Christmas decorations up all year, right?
11. Create systems for learning.
Here’s something that most elementary teachers already know, but I think most secondary teachers take for granted. Students need to know where to go in the classroom when they need something so that they can act independently. In my classroom, my students learn quickly how the classroom library is organized, how to check out a book, how to return a book, how to mark and how to turn in late work, where to sign out to use the restroom, where to go for extra pencils and pens, where to find the hole puncher and stapler, and how do find and do almost anything they might need to do during the year. I borrow Nancie Atwell’s suggestion from In the Middle and send students on a scavenger hunt around the classroom so that they can begin learning these systems immediately.
12. Leave space for student work.
As much as I love to fill my classroom space with inspirational, instructional materials, it’s important to leave as much space as you can for student work. While posting student work can send messages of value and inclusion—as it does in my own boys’ classrooms and many elementary schools—as a high school teacher, the student work that I like to post is work-in-action—things like class created anchor charts or group notes on large sticky poster paper. By making space for these on the walls (or the windows), we can keep students’ thinking visible and documented beyond a single class period.
13. Honor your teaching histories.
Over the years, our classrooms fill with stories of our students and our teaching. I like to keep previous student projects to use not just for teaching but for display. I’ve also had students give me art, photographs, books. Choose student artifacts from previous years to share. Many years ago, I had one group of students create props for a play they performed for our class. One of the props was a large painted tree made out of several cardboard boxes. I still have it. Inevitably, one of my students will ask, “Why do you have that tree?” I share the story of those students, their creativity and passion. (The tree also comes in handy as a prop when we do our drama unit.)
14. Carve out time and space for flexible seating.
If you are connected educator on Twitter, you might know that there’s a small but growing movement to #ditchthedesks and #Starbucksmyclassroom. The idea is that learning spaces should feel more inviting, more like a home than a factory. Students all learn differently, and our classrooms should reflect that. As I searched online, I found many, many teachers who were ditching their desks and creating beautiful spaces, like the at the right by Erin Klein.
The problem, I quickly realized, is that a lot of the flexible seating arrangements I was seeing were geared toward elementary school students. It’s not that flexible seating can’t work in high school, but it looks different. My students, after all, are just bigger. Their desk areas take more space. They take up more space. So what did flexible seating look like for me?
This year, I have been fortunate enough to get brand new mobile tables and chairs for my classroom. For years, I had desks that were certainly functional enough, but that didn’t allow for many different types of arrangements because the seats were attached to the desks (in other words, no more than two desks could ever be arranged side-by-side).
With new mobile chairs and desks, my students and I can now rearrange the furniture to best meet our learning needs. Again, from The Third Teacher: “Make classrooms agile. A learning space that can be reconfigured on a dime will engage different kind of learners and teachers.”
However, reconfiguring desks between class periods, especially if you are high school teacher with at least five different classes a day like I am, may seem too much of a hassle. It’s easier to find one arrangement that works and then to fit your instruction to meet that arrangement. Even with mobile tables and chairs, taking even a few minutes to rearrange them can take away precious time in a 43-minute period. But matching the learning environment to the learning—instead of the other way around—is important.
To solve this problem, I created a series of seating arrangement diagrams. I can project the seating arrangement for the next class as soon as one class ends. I always have students trickling into my classroom ahead of the bell, and as more students enter the room, they can be the ones who take charge of rearranging the desks. As one person, it would take me several minutes trying to rearrange the furniture, but a classroom of students could do it in almost no time. Here are few examples of various arrangements I would project:
And here are three of them in action:
Even if you don’t have mobile tables and chairs, projecting a go-to list of seating diagrams like these would still come in handy, perhaps even more so.
Another way to include more flexible seating is to provide students with more options. Even when I had all desks in my room, I tried to carve out a few spaces for alternative seating for use during independent reading time. I had a mix of rolling chairs, saucer chairs, and a pair of padded chairs I purchased at a church sale. Several years ago I also purchased some small rugs on clearance at Ikea. Students love using these little rugs to sit on the floor during independent reading time or take them into the hallways for writing response groups. This year, I’ve added a pair of outdoor plastic chairs, also from Ikea. Because of the back counter I have in my room, I can tuck some of these chairs away when not in use. Other teachers, especially at the elementary level, get creative with crate seats, bouncy balls, and flexible stools for seating. Research on the health benefits of standing desks is also gaining a lot of traction.
If you are interested in learning more about alternative desk arrangements, be sure to check out the hashtag #flexibleseating or #Starbucksmyclassroom on Twitter. Also useful are #ditchthedesks and #classroomcribs, and Edutopia has many resources. Last spring during his Educator Collaborative presentation with Sara Ahmed, Smoke Daniels remarked that our classrooms should “feel more like living rooms instead of industrialized spaces.” Many of the classrooms featuring the hashtags listed will attest to this powerful observation. One of my favorite posts on flexible seating is this one from Jennifer Gonzales on cultofpedagogy.com.
15. Goodbye, Teacher Desk.
In my classroom, I have always had three desks—a desk in the front of the room and two desks in the back. I consider the two desks in the back of the room my workspace. One desk is for my computer, while the other is for writing, grading, planning, etc. I could not function without either of these two desks. That said, I have always taught with a teacher desk in the front of the room. Yet I know many teachers who have gotten rid of that desk and never looked back. Eliminating the designated teacher desk (and chair) forces you to move around the room. The lack of designated teacher desk also decentralizes the room so that the focus is less on the teacher and more on the students. So I’m giving it a try this year. I still need a place for my keyboard and mouse, which control the front computer and projector, so I replaced my desk with a mobile laptop station. Now I can wheel around anywhere in the room (a wireless keyboard and mouse are key here) and become much more of the “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage.”
16. What’s the big message?
Try this. Enter your classroom as if you were a student. Even before students enter your room, what do they see? I want students to know that this is a room that will be a safe place for each of them to learn, which is why I have had this sign on the my front door for more than a decade. Now, I know that what matters more than any sign is what happens inside the classroom, but we know that words can be powerful. A sign like this not only tells students what they can expect, but I read that sign every day, too. It’s a reminder to me that the first responsibility I have as a teacher is to provide a safe learning environment for my students.
I also have two questions posted on my door window that send important messages about expectations: What are you reading? What are you working on? I also keep a dry-erase sign with “Mrs. Ebarvia is currently reading…” that I update during the year (in fact, our entire English department will have these signs posted this year). My hope is that as students walk in and out of the classroom, or linger by the door before class starts, that they’ll see these signs and begin to internalize their implicit messages of lifelong learning. I know other teachers who like to post pictures of all the books that they’ve read on their doors, too.
Once you enter your classroom, pause a moment to look around. When your students walk into your room, what is the first thing they notice? What’s the big message? When students walk into my room, the first thing they notice are books, books, and more books. Students know that reading will be a priority in this classroom. My colleague next door has large block letters that spell out the word L-O-V-E. He wants his space to be one that fosters a shared love of learning and community of people who care about each other. What do students see when they walk into your room?
As most teachers know, time is one of our most valuable resources in teaching. The other is often space. While I’m very fortunate to have supportive administration and to teach in a large classroom, I know many teachers who do amazing things with half the room. It’s about making every space in the room count—and count for learning. Not all learners are the same, and all classrooms shouldn’t be the same either. Make the space work for not just how you teach but how your students learn. How can we maximize the space we have in ways that inspire today’s learners? Please ask questions or share any ideas you have below.
Tricia Ebarvia currently teaches 9th grade world literature and AP English Language & Composition at Conestoga High School in Berwyn, PA. This year, she continues her quest to inspire a love for reading in her students by integrating more independent reading and free choice. She admits that her heart skips a beat whenever she sees a student with a book in his hand she’s recommended. She can also be found on Twitter @triciaebarvia or on her website at triciaebarvia.org.