While volunteering recently in a 3/4 split class, I had the pleasure of supporting some students while they completed a culminating activity for their Social Studies unit. The 3s were challenged to write, perform, record and present a project revealing how the Anishinaabe or Wendat tribes lived before colonization. No, the focus of this post is not about First Nations content or curriculum. Its also not about teaching a split class and no, its not even about project-based learning. I’m talking about learning spaces. The actual physical space in which children learn.
The assignment was open – students had already completed a slideshow presentation on Google Docs to present to their class on the SmartBoard in the room (love the tech here – so not the problem). The second part of their task was to enact a skit of a “day in the life” of one of these Tribes to show case the student’s learnings over the course of the unit. Instead of simply presenting the skit live in front of the class, the students decided they’d rather do a screenplay, collect actual props, memorize lines and video record their presentations to be projected on the LCD projector, at a later time, for their classmates.
The reason that this post has anything to do with learning spaces is that it has been my observation that most schools are lacking big open areas where students can get zany and loud and not be scolded for doing so. Scolded here can be anything from an aggressive “Shhshing” to a warning to pack up, shape up or ship out. The library is a sanctuary of silence. The gym is for fitness and pep rallies and assemblies and is hardly ever free. The great outdoors is too hard to supervise and can be dicey for a variety of reasons (Canadian weather, U/V index, creeps). I digress.
This being a split class, where two curriculums are being delivered at once, the 3s were (gasp!) sent out in the hallway (full-size camping tent with them as a stand-in for a longhouse) along with a coolpix camera to video record their skits. They had raccoon hand puppets, fishing rods (all right, maybe not everything was historically accurate) the whole kit and caboodle. In the hallway things got real very fast. I’m certain fire codes and clear pathways were being broken. There were people yelling from one end of the hallway to the next. Nearby classrooms had teacher’s peeking their heads out to see what was up, issuing mild cut-eye and angrily slamming doors.
Why, you may ask, were they sent into the hallway in the first place? Because the grade 4s were completing a quiet assignment inside the walls of the classroom and because the teacher was unable to clone himself to be in five places at once. I say five places at once because there were four grade 3 groups (and of course the quiet Grade 4 lot inside the class). So the video producing 3s were in three of four stairwells and the other group was using the entire junior hallway. You may be reading this, assessing the situation and boiling it down to mismanagement of time, or disorganization, or blatant disregard for the learning process of others, but actually, it was a brilliant lesson, assignment and plan because you’ve never SEEN such engagement. The kids were so into it and their final projects were out of this world. True learning and creativity is fun, messy and yes, loud!
Sending students into the hallway to finish up is an age old practice. As is sending them to the hallway to take a moment to cool down or regroup or sit in silence while they reflect on their wrongdoings. I’m not condoning any of these, I’m just saying. But what about using the hallway as an extension to your classroom? Is it okay? Is it a log jam? Does leadership approve? Do other teacher’s approve? Is it a community practice that is embraced? Personalized learning means many things, but to me, it mainly means taking your student’s learning styles into account and catering your teaching to that. Some students need quiet, others need a din to focus, some students work best in groups, others independently. How can we manage all of these preferences and configurations without occasionally spilling over into the hallway?
Whether or not you could glean this from what you have read so far, I am writing to reflect on whether or not our learning spaces are aligning with the principles we, as a system, embrace. Our vision of cooperative learning, collaboration, creativity and project-based education is excellent, but I would argue that our work spaces (and the rules within them) don’t always support this vision. As a system we are doing a good job of coming up with innovative pedagogical approaches to execute this vision. We are finding enticing problems to engage the students. The tasks are rich with learning opportunities and the technology to carry out these projects is even popping up more regularly than before! Great success! But there isn’t enough space for some of these things to happen. Pods aren’t in all schools. Computer labs are usually booked 500 years in advance and there isn’t such a thing as an empty classroom available at ones beck and call. Hallways seem like a good option until the complaints start rolling in. What we need, it seems, are more open learning spaces geared to creativity – workshops and production rooms, stages, green screens (okay maybe I’m going overboard with that one). Any other ideas?