Ditch that textbook

Ditch that Textbook by Matt miller

I am a big fan of Matt Miller and his book/blog Ditch that Textbook.  He has a ton of great stories and ideas for going above and beyond what is covered in the textbook.  His blog is always a treasure trove of ideas and different thinking.  I share it all often.  This week a post of his popped into my inbox on what the ideal 21st Century classroom would look like.  The post had me thinking and about what I would do with my own classroom if I had the chance to build it as I would want it.  He started his post out with the perfect response,

“I think an important aspect is to know what the goals of the teacher/school/district are before crafting that classroom.”

I love that the knee-jerk reaction is “whatever works for what the teacher, school or district is doing.”  The environment should always support the learning goals and styles for how the students will best learn.  Learning is king so we must put that first.  Once that is considered you can look at the layout and the tools that help achieve those goals.

In my own math classroom, we spent a great deal of time collaborating, presenting and creating models of what we were learning in addition to my own explanations ( yes I am guilty of a bit of lecturing as well).  The classroom that would fit our learning style would have to allow all of these things and goes a little something like this…

Tables/Work Areas

Our classroom has always had desks pushed together to create collaboration spaces and to better space the room.  The problem with them was always that if we wanted to redesign the space for an activity it would take some significant lifting or screeching of desks across the room.  The new classroom would have tables that would have locking wheels but would also be able to be folded down to allow for the slimmest storage.  The chairs or stools would also have to be wiggle-ready for the bodies that cannot just sit still.  Students are always leaning back and moving around so if you embrace that activity and allow it to happen without driving everybody else crazy, I am all for it.  If you could also design it so slouching was impossible; even better.  I would take it another step and get those desks with the bicycle pedals in them but the jury is still out on the noise and distraction level.  Aside from the main work areas, there would be a standing bar or ledge on three of the four walls to allow for standing and working, displaying work or to set up centers.  With all of the mobility and possibilities these work areas would provide, we could configure our learning space any way we want.

Walls

Almost every classroom has chalkboards, oddly placed bulletin boards or permanent structures that create an obstacle for the teacher.  Being resourceful, the teacher has found creative ways to still use that space.  For our purposes, we need as much wall space as possible for our group breakouts, posters and presenting.  Aside from the closets and hopefully a good amount of windows, every inch of the walls should either be a writing surface or bulletin boards   (I am all for whiteboard cabinets and plastic film on windows to extend those as well.)  Three of those walls should be bulletin boards with one wall, designated as the presentation wall, covered in whiteboard material.  That wall should be floor to ceiling whiteboard so anything can be projected on it in addition to it being a great place to brainstorm ideas.  The projector should be hung at just the right angle so students could write on top of the image.  (This is my kind of interactive board.) If every inch of the room can be incorporated into the beautiful mess that is collaborative work then we truly have a room ready for whatever the student mind can throw at it.

Tech

The educational technology in the classroom would be less about what device but more about having devices in the room, ready to go at all times.  Having enough devices for all students tucked in a mounted cabinet, charged and ready is a dream of most folks.  Whether they are used for a few key items or integrated into every activity, the fact that they are readily available is most important.  The key pieces in choosing those devices are that they should be able to support Google Apps (G Suite now), Google Classroom or whatever learning platform you use and be able to interface with the class presentation system.  That system would include the projector, a booming speaker set and a dedicated computer to run anything and everything and a document camera.  (I am also curious about the iPad on a stand solution as a one piece av station.)  The last piece of tech would be a station for music creation and recording.  Music is a wonderful vehicle for learning and documenting it is just as valuable. Having an additional workstation or two in the room can be handy as well.  That might all seem like a lot but it boils down to enough devices for the students and a way to present.  Almost anything else you can do can be done using these devices.  I am not a huge fan of printing, paper nor plastic, so no need for any form of that in my vision.  (Makers, don’t slay me. 3D printing is cool and valuable but I am not ready to bring it into every classroom just yet.) Ultimately tech would be just like any other tool, available for use, to support the learning goals, not just the latest and greatest. Although I enjoy that cool, new and shiny toy, I have often seen great expense sit on the sidelines because it was a good deal and not a good fit.  The right tool is more important than if it is the most current tool.  These are the ones that fit our workflow best of all.

Materials and Other

Aside from the physical aspects of the room there are a few more essential pieces to our classroom.  There should be a classroom library of interesting and leveled reading for students to peruse and pull from.  Even in my math classroom, I encourage reading despite it not being a direct skill that I am teaching.  I know that the more the students read, the more likely they will be better readers and more apt to comprehend the word problems they will see.  Now while word problems are not the bulk of what we do, the better they can read the easier just about everything in school is, so I push it.  In addition to my selfish reasons for wanting better readers, if the math department can push reading just as hard as everyone else, the message will get through as we define ourselves as a school that reads well.

There should also be a healthy supply of materials to draw, build and create; art supplies, blocks, legos, construction paper and whatever else can be stored, ready to go.  This is where the maker movement crosses my classroom.  I love for students to build or create the things we are talking about so it makes the abstract a little more tangible.  It is also a whole lot of fun to bust out the crayons, glue sticks, and paper on a regular basis.  It is fun to let learning get messy if the students can get to understanding that way versus another.  The more ways we can approach learning, the better.

If you can add a classroom sink, with water fountain and a bathroom directly connected to the classroom I think you would also satisfy all human needs and your students would never have an excuse to leave class.  Talk about paradise!

The Most Important Thing

All of this stuff together makes for a great environment for learning, in the way I see fit, but Matt Miller is right in reminding us that it all needs to support the learning goals or it is worthless. The environment should fit the goals and make it easy to do so.  Really, when it comes down to it, if you had a plain room with space for students to think, discuss and do in a supportive place then learning will surely happen.  Without a supportive and open environment, all the gear and fancy do-dads will not get students any closer to learning.  Keep it all focussed on the students’ learning and you cannot go wrong.  The incorporation of the above items in a well supportive environment would make for a great learning space.  What does your ideal classroom look like?

Please take a look at the Ditch that Textbook blog and the other resources listed on Matt’s site.  Follow him on Twitter and read his book.  You will get more than a few gems from doing so and we will all keep working towards better learning for our students.