Designed to accommodate one teacher in the main groove and up to six students around the outside, that table has been in my classroom since the first day I taught fifth grade fourteen years ago. Truth be told, that same kind of table was in my classroom when I WAS a fifth grader forty-some years ago.
It’s gone through several incarnations: the back table, the universal access table, the pull-out table. Regardless of the moniker, it’s been the place for small group interventions, meaning everyone knows that if you have been called to sit there, you need help. There’s an unspoken stigma to having to go back to the kidney-shaped table. And I started thinking, when my students see that table, what kind of environment have I created?
What other messages are we sending our students when they walk into our classrooms?
- Individual desks in neat rows: You’re on your own.
- Teacher’s desk in front, separating teacher from students: I’m big, you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
- Walls covered with pre-made posters: Your work isn’t good enough to put up on the walls.
- All seats facing the front: Don’t even think of talking to your neighbors.
On the first day of school, I stand at my door and greet each child with a big smile and a handshake as he or she enters my room. Once seated, we discuss how we think a classroom should be run, and then we create classroom rules for which we make posters that stay up on the wall until after everyone has left on the last day of school. We play games and laugh together so we get to know each other and begin learning how to collaborate.
But does my classroom layout send a different message? And if it does, won’t that confuse my students?
Common Core Standards call for students to “build on others’ ideas, articulate their own ideas, and confirm they have been understood.” (English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Publication Version, page 6)
If I expect my students to collaborate, shouldn’t my classroom look like a place for collaboration and not isolation?
On that first day of school, they must also see that the classroom itself reflects both our shared lessons and my high expectations.
From Mystery Skyping to Minecraft to Microsoft Sway & Mix, I’ve got some big plans for my students in this upcoming year. I’ve been trying to craft big questions that will allow them to research and problem-solve their way to big answers. I want them to realize they are capable of working hard, working together and finding joy in both.
So until I can afford new classroom furniture, our desks will be in collaborative groups of four. We’ll have a conference area with four unique chairs and a connected monitor where students can go to brainstorm as a group. My desk will be in the back of the room, more a storage area than a place to sit.
And I’ve asked my custodian to get rid of that kidney-shaped table.
To get inspired for the new school year, try watching Rita F. Pierson’s TED in EDUCATION talk. Not only must our rooms be ready for our students, must we must be ready, too. Ready to teach, inspire, engage and champion our students.