What works for you
So, obviously I'm not the first person to write about this. There are books and trademarks and slogans and whole education movements around learning / teaching spaces. I always find it funny when people walk into my classroom and say things like "Ooooh, You're very 'Reggio'"... or "You've read the third teacher! wow!"
No, I'm not a small village in Italy, and No, I haven't read 'The Third Teacher', but I'm sure it's very good. I have however been in education for a while now, and know what works for me. I have always believed that most of the teaching in my room is done through the culture and environment. So whenever I set up a room, I always have my vision in mind and I consider every aspect of the room and how it serves my vision and the experience of my learners. This is why I don't believe you can fully throw yourself into a 'movement' or bestseller or philosophy, unless it completely resonates with you and your best practice. You can learn from them and adjust your practice, but unless you have completely internalised the pedagogy or vision behind the change, it will be like wearing clothes that don't quite fit and will not serve you or your learners.
With that being said, I would love to describe how I set up this learning space. My vision, and how it is outworked in the physical environment, and how that environment teaches with me.
I am an Art Teacher for children aged 5-13yrs old. At times I teach older and younger, but the focus of my space is this age. I believe that means that I have to inspire students to love art, love creating and love expressing themselves through visual art. I have a responsibility to teach skills and techniques and I have a responsibility to inspire students to see themselves as creative and expressive. That is my vision. If a practice devalues the confidence they have in their own ability to create or express then that practice does not serve my vision. If my teaching space communicates to them that to be creative you have to do things a certain way, or interpret a colour or line or texture in a certain way, then it does not serve my vision. I want them to walk out feeling more creative, more expressive and more confident, not less.
I have a fairly small teaching space and can fit 16 students at the tables and bar seating. I want students to always be able to find a place to work within the space that is comfortable for them, so have different heights, a lounge area, movable tables, and tables that can be split apart or combined for collaboration.
I love the idea of an antique shop or old curiosity shop, where there are treasures open in boxes and vases and jars. I remember walking into these shops as a child and the excitement of finding something new in a hidden corner. So have modelled the way I present materials in this way. Nothing is packed away in a 'store' or cupboard. Everything that might be used or can be used is able to be found. I love this, because it inspires creativity. It creates a sense of wonder, with students interested in how bottle tops or leafs or vines or crushed glass, clay, paint, sponge, balloons, leather strapping, acorns, marbles, chalk, charcoal, straws, feathers, ink, glue guns, buckets, rollers, texture wands, and everything else can be used. Not only does it inspire amazing mixed media artworks, it also helps them envision art as more than one didactic technique and medium in isolation. This layout is also really helpful when it comes to set up and pack-down; students are embraced by this environment. There is no separation from them and the tools they use, or will be using, it's like a teppanyaki bar or a open working kitchen. They have to duck and weave and move around the room to get materials and pack up, and this always seems to create a sense of ownership. They love to grab what they need and are quick to return leftovers and tools. It may look chaotic, but it's also organised to the point of obsession. All the different zones are well marked out with big handmade signs and are easy to find with sculpture, printmaking, paper, ceramics, jewellery making, fabric and so on,
Access is always an important thing to consider. When thinking outside of the box, you need to reflect on whether you are overvaluing style over substance or vice versa. Are your systems so rigid that they kill imagination? Or are your systems so creative that they kill practicality? I once went through a phase where my room was so creatively set out, that if a student needed a brush, they had to go to a table that could only fit 3-4 bodies around it. With 22 students needing over 100 brushes between them, this became problematic very quickly.
Although I have materials hanging from walls and ceilings, and in buckets and tubs, access is now something that I consider at every point. It is important to be aware of who will need what, when and how many students need to access one point at any one time. This will help lessons flow and also makes the environment one that also manages behaviour. If students are not waiting around or frustrated, then they are less likely to act in disruptive ways :)
I'm comfortable with mess and noise and giving the kids control and know this style of teaching is within my comfort zone. I remember when I was in university, I had a teaching practicum assessment, where a lecturer came to watch me teach a lesson that involved students creating large installations with scrunched up newspaper and paper tape. The room was a foot deep with mess, and the kids had worked up themselves to a frenzy of excitement. The lecturer was dumbfounded, when 4 minutes before the end of the lesson, I put on a thumping loud techno song and announced that they had 3 minutes to get the room prefect and clean up. I then relaxed in the corner by a couple large rubbish bags, and occasionally pointed our areas that needed attention. The kids did an amazing job of cleaning up, and I passed the practicum. The comment I received was that she was amazed it worked... not everyone (including her) can be comfortable working in that way. You need to find a zone that works best for you, and you also need to find the vision that partners with you and your zone.
Write a list, brainstorm, get some friends in to move furniture, do a PMI and list the positives and minuses or what you are doing. Stand in every space in your room and ask your self "why?".
"Why are may tables like this?"
"Does this help children learn in the way I believe that they learn best?"
"Does this help my students get to their learning quickly?"
"Will my students feel safe, calm, inspired, curious, excited, motivated, trusted, confident, loved, capable, supported, peaceful, mindful, anxious, worried, nervous, incapable, isolated... in this space? (Add your own words)
...and so on.
I can not give you all the answers, but I hope I can start some conversations and thoughts in your own internal dialogue, and also amongst your peers.
Thanks for reading.
Have an incredible week