A Liberated Classroom

This past summer, I came to school re-energized to teach—the perfectly refreshed teacher ready to save the world yet again. I knew it all, and was ready to continue the progress from the year before. Sound familiar? After arranging my room in the way I wanted, I decided to stop, take a break, and have a seat while I considered what small changes I should make to my curriculum for the coming year. As I sat in that seat, which looked just like every other seat in the room, I couldn’t help but feel trapped. I did not feel comfortable as I could not freely move my legs or body because of the industrialized chair attached to the desk. I noticed that this could not easily be moved in order to work with other people. In that seat, I did not feel I was able to express myself fully. Nor did I even feel welcome in the environment. Small changes only? Sound familiar? I am the teacher. What on earth did my students think?

So, I changed. In a big way. A paradigm shift for my classroom was on the horizon. I aimed to reach every student in a way that made them not only enjoy learning but also want to learn. To not be restrained but instead unrestricted.

This seemed like a daunting task, but I decided to simplify it by focusing on the classroom culture, furniture, and technology.

I wanted to create a safe space where students felt welcome. I could not expect my students to collaborate if I didn’t kindle a classroom culture of student worth—every student should feel valuable and worthy of sharing their talents and ideas with others. In order to accomplish this, I created a running slideshow that would display student birthdays, pictures of students that appear in the newspapers, and other instances of student success. The band won a competition, so I put it on my slideshow. A student won an entrepreneurial challenge, so it was displayed on the screen. A girl had her poem published in a magazine, which was celebrated every 60 seconds on a slide in the room. I also made it my goal to write every single student a handwritten note of congratulations for something, no matter how small, throughout the year. I bought a set of literary postcards on which I could write notes to students for various occasions.

While the mental environment is important, I also understood that the physical space needed to be conducive to learning for all—why not try a variety of options for seating? I applied for an Innovation Grant from my school district and was awarded $16,000 for a classroom makeover. Yes, I cried when I received the news. I immediately began planning out my room with everything I wanted to create the space. I knew it all, right? Sound familiar? Thankfully, one of my coworkers reminded me that I needed to gather student input and actually ask my students how they would like to learn. So, after consulting my students and a classroom designer from Virco, I ordered furniture for what I hoped would be the most collaborative classroom in the state of Kentucky. Notice the results:

Notice their engagement. How comfortable they look. The smiles on their faces. While learning. An authentic, natural, personalized learning experience was starting to come together. While this may seem daunting or impossible to achieve without a large grant, there are plenty of easy ways to add flexible seating options to ones classroom. Any sense of variety and choice will help students feel both welcomed and empowered.

The third element of my approach to personalized learning was utilizing technology in order to give students a variety of options into how they learned the material. My school district is advanced technologically, so every student has a Chromebook; we rely heavily upon the Google Education suite and the SAMR model. Utilizing Google Forms, I created a “choose your own learning adventure” where students were given an option on how they learned. If they wanted a traditional classroom experience, I was set up with my slideshow in a corner of the room, ready to teach them. On the other hand, they could choose to conduct their own research on the topic. Perhaps they wanted to watch online videos through Youtube or the Khan Academy. Some wanted to read online sources provided for them. These four options were provided and students were actually given a choice for how to learn. Notice the breakdown for which options were selected:

At first my feelings were hurt that over 60% of the class chose to learn in a method other than my teaching. However, I realized I was still teaching them; better, I was doing it in a way that catered to their individual needs. How silly the ego can seem at times. 100% of students said they liked learning this way, 100% of students said they hoped to learn this way in the future, and, most importantly, 100% of students responded that they felt adequately prepared for the test over the material they learned that day.

I began to speak with my colleagues about other options that could be added. One co-worker suggested that I look into game-based lessons for more variety. So, I looked for ways to add that to my next lesson. I also asked students what they would like to see. “I just want the textbooks from middle school back,” one student responded. Yep, that’s right. That fraying-at-the-edges textbook that many students gladly returned without looking back still appealed to some. So, I added that method as well.

While this is certainly still a work in progress, I am starting to see favorable results, both in the opinions of my students and in their scores on exit slips and common assessments.

In a survey about this new method, one student who said she liked to learn in such a way mentioned that “[d]ifferent people learn in different ways and different speeds."

"It was also very liberating to get to have a choice."

Liberating. Who knew that simply providing students ownership in their learning process would make them feel free inside of the classroom?

The other day, I sat back down in a seat among my students. Sound familiar? As I looked around the room, I noticed how truly liberated they all seemed. They were working with one another, or on their own, or watching videos, or sitting upside down reading a book, or relaxing on a couch while typing an essay, but they all had one thing in common: they were learning. Learning in a way catered to them and created by them. It was a magical, freeing experience that was anything but familiar, and something I hope to replicate for years to come.