Back in my school days classrooms were pretty standard: double desks with a small built-in space for your backpack, the teacher’s desk at the front, a blackboard, a country map, two or three hanging pots with leafy green plants and a waste basket. If the teacher was lucky enough to have a larger classroom then there would also be a small cabinet to store some basic stationery and teaching materials.
Regardless of the learning activity, students had to stay put all day long, in the same seat. It wasn’t quite fair, considering the desks were bolted to the floor and couldn’t be moved.
Another thing that wasn’t fair was that the seating arrangements were mostly based on students’ height. Short students got the front rows of desks, while taller students got the back ones. The only exception were the short-sighted students, who sat in the front rows no matter their height.
Since I was tall and my eyesight was perfect, I was stuck in the back of the classroom my entire school life. The only times I got the chance to go to the front of the class was when I had to showcase my great knowledge and write it on the blackboard — or when I did not pay attention.
And sometimes, my tall desk mates made it rather hard for me to focus on the lesson. Of course, I hated the situation. Just because two students have the same height, it doesn’t mean they share the same interests or learning styles.
From bolted desks to wheels and flexibility
Now that I don't have to worry about fixed classroom desks or tall desk mates, I kind of envy today's students, who don't have to worry about these things either. I doubt they know how lucky they are.
Schools nowadays have more and more beautifully structured classrooms, where each kid has his/her own desk, a small space just for him/herself, and there are more display spaces and storage units. Some desks are still placed in rows, but there’s a lot more space to walk around and interact.
More and more teachers realize that all classrooms should have flexibility and diversity, and they set the wheels in motion in order to create this new learning environment that is definitely student-centered. Just go to YouTube and be amazed by all the videos about flexible classrooms and modern furniture:
- everything is on wheels and can be rearranged for each project or lesson;
- kids sit on mattresses and work together on projects in the classroom;
- there are reading corners, or “fish tanks” for those who want to work in silence.
Entire schools are redesigned this way, or are even built from scratch to ensure the best functionality for teaching, learning, collaboration and creativity.
But that’s expensive, I know. Not all schools have the means or the possibility to redesign the whole structure.
However, modern furniture and a team of high class designers is not all what makes a classroom great. Above all else, classrooms need to meet the needs of students, to give them the space and the opportunity to learn and practice.
Any ordinary classroom can be turned around to create a learning space that is fun, engaging, versatile and safe. Teachers can take matters into their own hands and redesign their classroom with a smaller budget. All they need is the school's support, and a few great ideas.
Thinking about the classroom space
No matter how you’ll choose to change things in your classroom, you have to think strategically. There are plenty of activities going on during a class and your changes need to cover them all.
When students work in groups, they want to get closer to each other and be able to make eye contact and interact with each group member. When they want to work alone, they need some space away from others. If you want to keep them motivated you know a wall of fame with their best work can do miracles. And when one learning activity ends, the materials used for it must not be a distraction for the next one.
So your redesign project has to cover four types of classroom spaces:
Space for collaboration
Desks and tables definitely have a place in this space.The Knights of the Round Table could contribute equally to the conversations and decisions made at that table. Why shouldn’t your students be able to do that as well?
See if you can replace some individual desks with bigger tables — round or not. If that isn’t an option, you could just add a set of wheels to the desks. It will make it a lot easier for you and your students to rearrange the whole classroom settings just by rolling and grouping their desks. And if you want to make things even more interesting, you could add a new layer of non-toxic paint and be bold with the colors.
Space for individual work
Every student should have the chance to work alone for some projects, to really get to the root of what they learn. Intense focus only happens inside one's brain. Big and round tables won’t work in these situations.
Individual desks and reading nooks on the other hand can do the trick. If you have a bookshelf in your classroom, try to make it part of a quiet corner. Storage cabinets or a simple folding screen can mark the limits of this corner. Add a cozy armchair or a small sofa, one or two beanbags or a few sitting pillows or chair cushions inside it, and your students will be able to work individually when in this space.
Space for storage
There are so many learning materials in the modern classroom. I’m talking not only about the basic stationery and art supplies, but also about laptops, notepads, projectors, headsets, whiteboards, books and so on. It can get pretty chaotic and messy if the classroom doesn’t have a designated place for every of these things.
Take off the doors of those cabinets by the wall and blow some life into them. Paint their interior with the same colorful non-toxic paint you used for the desks, or use some fun-print fabric and some double-sided tape. Also, cheap storage baskets or bins — colorful or transparent — and some fun labels can take you a long way. They will look more spacious and everyone will be able to find everything a lot quicker.
Space for display
Students should be able to showcase in the classroom their projects, messages, art works and so on, besides any materials you as a teacher will put there. Having a school paper on display in front of all classmates is a serious reason for a student to be proud of his/her work.
The old boring-brown cork board can be reanimated with a little colored paint, or with the same fun-printed fabric you used for the storage cabinets. Also, whiteboards can be used for drawing, brainstorming and sharing ideas where everyone can see them.
Cheap or free hacks to redesign your classroom
So, if you’re an open-minded teacher who feels that students could have a lot more to gain from being in your redesigned classroom, keep on reading. I have a few great starting points coming your way.
Step 1: Start with what you have
The first step is to assess what you already have in the classroom and can be reused or repurposed to respond to the above-mentioned types of spaces. Maybe your old storage cabinets can become the new lively ones. Maybe some desks and chairs can still be used. Maybe your bookshelf can host a few storage bins on its lower shelves.
Step 2: Make a list
The second step is to identify what’s missing, or what needs to be improved in your classroom. Start a list with the things you’ll have to get. You’ll probably need some paint, paint brushes small wheels, nails, hammers, extra glue sticks, storage boxes of different sizes, and so on.
Step 3: Go for the bargain
Take a trip to Goodwill, Target, Wal-Mart and IKEA. You’ll find plenty of brand new things and great storage solutions for a convenient price. Check out the flea markets and garage sales in your area; you’ll definitely find amazing things there that were not on your list but you’ll take them anyway. Last but not least, check out the end-of-the-year sales that college kids organize. They have really good and cheap stuff when it comes to armchairs and sofas, portable desks, laptop trays and many more.
Step 4: Rally the troops
Ask your students to bring at school pillows, small mattresses, foam floor puzzles or other things they don’t use at home any more. Tell the parents your redesigning plans and ask for their support as well. They are usually happy to help make something better for their kids, and some of them might even be able to offer some professional assistance for free. Also, your fellow teachers might be willing to pitch in with ideas, materials and even a helping hand.
Building a better learning environment for your students doesn’t have to expensive, but it has to be done with the student needs in mind. There are so many things that can be reused or revived with very little budget.
If you need inspiration and want to find like-minded colleagues I recommend to get yourself a Pinterest account. You’ll find there the ultimate collection of ideas, DIYs, hacks and challenges on this subject, of everything you can wrap your mind around. Go wild and pin all the ideas that appeal to you on a board and then see what you need to bring them to life in your classroom. Pinterest can actually be a great tool for teachers.
P.S. I cannot be made responsible for the amount of time you spend on Pinterest after typing classroom ideas or the way-too-many ideas you will get afterwards.
P.P.S. I do accept credit for the joy your students will get, the feeling of freedom and empowerment they will experience once they enter your newly redesigned classroom.