As much as I loved my space and the kiddos that I shared it with each and every day, there was a part of me that always thought it could be better. There were small things here and there that just didn't work as well as I thought they could.
I loved our cooperative learning tables, but they took up so much room. It felt like we were navagating around a sea of tables, and often the journey would be treachorous with jackets or bags in the way. Other times, the kiddos would not even sit at them at all, preferring to sit around the room during our reading and writing workshops.
The students that could find their comfy spot and begin reading or writing were often the most focused, leaving those that were at the tables to be reminded to get back on track. I knew there had to be a better way to do these things, but I didn't know how.
Last November changed that for me...I attended the annual Arkansas Reading Conference with my friend, Dawn from Teach to Each. During our two days of visiting and learning at the conference, Dawn told me all about her plans to pull the desks/tables from her room.
Wait! What? We can do that? No tables? No desks?
Where would the kiddos work? What would they write on? We can do that?
You mean the kiddos can have freedom to move around and get comfy? Learn in a way that is suited for them? READ, READ, READ the way I do at home, all snuggled and comfortable? We can do that?
WHY oh WHY hadn't I thought of that
sooner at all? Oh my... I couldn't sleep for all the possiblities dancing in my head!
I must say that I am very blessed to have a principal open to trying new things, so I went to her practically bouncing in my excitment with this new idea about classroom design given to me by Dawn. My principal gave me the go ahead to open up my room, and I couldn't rip those tables out quick enough.
We started in that November with hardly any furniture and kiddos simply sitting on the available bean bags or the floor. Even though I left two tables and brought in a coffee table, most kiddos still chose the floor, and you know what? They LOVED it! I LOVED it! The whole vibe of the room changed, and the kiddos came in pumped and ready to get down to business.
As lucky as I am to have such a supportive principal, I was even luckier to have such supportive and giving parents. You see...when I decided to take out all of my tables and desks, it was not simply to make more room (though that was a huge plus) or have my kiddos sitting on the floor (though that is all they wanted to do) but because I only teach language arts, I could just picture a cozy cafe or a reading nook at Barnes and Noble. I couldn't get that picture out of my head. In February, one of my kiddo's parents donated furniture to our room. Not just any furniture - beautiful furniture! And other parents donated bean bags and pillows. It just grew and became an amazing classroom environment.
Throughout this new journey my kiddos and I began to notice quite a few changes. When I say our environment changed, I mean it didn't feel so much like a classroom but felt more like a home. Dawn talked about it too, here. But the magic of it was that not only did the quality of our space change: the quality of our learning changed AND the quality of our relationships changed.
That one student that had been moved to every table in the room to try and find a place he could focus ~ well he found it on his own. He picked his very own favorite spot and you could more than likely find him there everyday with a thick book in his hand. Most of the kiddos knew it was his spot, and because he was no longer interrupting their learning if he was there, they left him to his own devices. He and I developed a closer relationship when I didn't have to correct him so often, and the book recommendations I could make! He plowed through so many different series, and soon I was pulling him up to find new books on Amazon. He truly became one of my most favorite people because I could see him for who he was and not someone that had to be redirected ALL the time.
Friends that I had never sat together at the tables because I just KNEW they would spend all their time talking began to sit together. And you know what...they did talk. ALL the time, but it was about the things that we were learning about in my classroom. The academically stronger of the friends found ways to mentor and guide their friends in ways that the kiddos would have never let me do. Watching their friendships grow as they helped each other was so inspiring and enlightening to me as their teacher.
Quiet students that had been happy to sit wherever I placed them and follow the lead of others began to stick their necks out and try new things. It was like just having the choice to sit and work with whomever they wanted made them stretch out of their comfort zones, and I could see new leaders coming into their own by the end of the year.
Just the same, the students that often were the strongest and tended to bulldoze their way through conversations and relationships began to see that when people had a choice, they often didn't choose to sit next to someone that didn't value listening as much as speaking. They became better friends when they knew their friends had a choice to sit next to someone else. They became better little people when they could see how their behavior and attitude impacted those around them, especially if they ended up sitting alone because of those behaviors.
Seating in our room was first come first serve, so the tardiness stopped. Before, I couldn't count how many times kiddos wandered in late - DAILY! As the kiddos began to understand that the prime seating would be taken if they didn't make it in early, they began to come in early! As an added bonus, when they did come in, they went directly to their choosen spot and began reading. There was a point in time that although they had the same task, reading at the tables first thing each morning was challenging for them, and often students had to be reminded to stay focused. However, for whatever reason, I found that when kiddos could come in and sit where they wanted, they tended to get where they needed to be and began reading without the unnecessary visiting.
Watching the kiddos as we undertook this new and fun journey taught me as much as it taught them. I could see new friendships and strengths, both socially and academically, that I might not have ever seen. I discovered new strategies to guide their learning, and I gave a lot of the responsibility of student learning back to the kiddos. The amazing part is the rose to the challange and accepted much of the responsibility, becoming better learners, learning what works for them.
But here is the kicker... through it all, I knew it could be even better. It became my mission this summer to do all I could to create my vision. Over time the vision has changed to become what it is now, but I COULD NOT be happier with the results!
I have tried to include as many different seating options as possible to address as many different learning styles as possible. I have tables for those that still need them and comfy rockers for those that prefer to snuggle in to read. There are soft and cushy pillows for those that want to spread out on the floor and stools that can provide hard writing surfaces for them. As I continue to learn about each new year of kiddos, I will modify and adjust the room to their needs, and each time I hope they come to love it as much as I do.
Tossing those tables out of my rooom was the very best thing I ever did as a teacher; I only wish I had done it sooner! And YES, YES, YES ~ I love my classroom even more now than before!