This week on the podcast we sat down with Jessica Martin and Jamaica Ross to talk about the importance of classroom design. In Jessica’s new book, Strategic Classroom Design, Jessica reveals just how important a classroom environment is. She writes, “The attention you give to the layout of your classroom provides everyone with a greater sense of belonging and more opportunities to become an engaged, focused, and collaborative community of learners.”
The conversation began with why it’s so important to focus on design…
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Jessica: One of the things that kids need to feel successful and to feel confident is to belong. When we spend time considering how we set up our spaces and we put our attention towards what we know in terms of how people learn best, and if we create spaces that have places to move, or if we create different spaces for whole group opportunities, small group opportunities, and places where kids can peel off and work one on one, then we start to imagine a place where everyone can feel they belong, and then when we also think about what we know about color and we know about light, it helps to think about that when we're designing a space because we don't want to overstimulate kids, and there's enough distraction happening already with 34 kids in a classroom, so if we can create a space that feels calm and comforting and cohesive, then it allows kids to relax and be themselves, and feel they have something to contribute, and ways to work positively and cooperatively.
Brett: How do the social emotional needs of our students fit into the classroom environment?
Jessica: I think that kids come to school with feelings about school already, and depending on their experiences, or depending even on that morning, we come with a lot of emotion, and our kids come with a lot of emotion, and I think that if we can mitigate the stressors of school, whether it be assignments that feel unrelated or challenging, or friendships that can be challenging, or a seat that doesn't feel comfortable, if we can figure out how to give kids more choice in how they work and move and collaborate, I think it allows for them to relax. Again, get back to the decreases anxiety, allows for them to express themselves in ways that sometimes they don't even realize. Sometimes they surprise themselves on what they can do, so putting them into or creating spaces where kids can share out who they are and how they feel, and time to talk and work those out.
That's a lot of the work I know Jamaica's been doing in her classroom, and then having that time and space to talk and think and process feelings allows kids to identify, notice how they feel, identify those feelings in others too, and then gives them ways to interact with one another so that when we get to the academic learning, they've had opportunities to see one another and talk with one another and negotiate things with one another, and to ideally learn to like one another, at least find ways to connect, and then learning is easy. That's why I think the emotional intelligence piece and the socioemotional learning piece is exactly the pieces we're trying to tap into when we think about classroom design, so that all the other stuff is cake after that.
Brett: Jamaica, you're featured in the book.
Brett: Tell us a little bit about your classroom.
Jamaica: I would say I was thinking about what Jessica was saying as far as the coming into the space and starting. In my classroom we start the day in play, and as they enter the room, not only is it a space that they come in and they can breathe into, and they're comfortable there, because it's soft and it's appealing to the eye, but it's also, like Jessica was saying, it's a space they know they come in and they have relationships that are built there, and that they're working on relationships. I feel in my classroom, a lot of the work that we do is around, it peels back a lot of the hard work that then they're allowed to open up to do academically, if that makes sense.
So because they're able to play and they're able to communicate and they're able to work together playing UNO, then when it comes time to collaborate during math, or it comes time to talk about a book, a lot of the layers are already peeled back, so it's a safe space for them to be in. It's a place where asking questions is encouraged. It's a space where we're always negotiating, where we meet in circle and we're always trying to figure out how we can take responsibility for ourselves. So I would say my room is a student-centered space where they know that it's theirs, they own the space.
Brett: That's such an important, that collaboration between teacher and student, for the student to know that space. Something that Jessica writes about in the book is the traffic jams in the transitions from either going to recess or coming back from recess. How does that work in your classroom? How do you manage the traffic jams and the transitions with students?
Jamaica: I think the place that there was the most traffic jamming was in the cubbies as we were trying to get set up in using cubbies, and for a while it was kind of like, "How do you think we should do it? Is it too crowded? Are you having a hard time getting your things?" So if I notice something that's happening or that might be slowing us down, or that might be causing friction, then we talk about it together. "So what do you think is the best solution for that?" And they will say like, "Maybe half of us go at one time." Or, "The top row goes and then the bottom row goes."
Then we just alternate back and forth if I can remember who went first the last time, which not usually, but they're very patient with that. Then eventually they figure out how then to, we don't do that anymore, because now they've learned how to wait their turn. Now they learned how to say, "Oh, that person above me is already there. I'll come back in a second. I'll go get something else on my way," or whatever it might be. But the space is so open that there are so many options of different ways to go that we don't tend to have a lot of traffic jamming.
Brett: It can be overwhelming for some to set off to do a redesign within a classroom. What is your advice for how to get started and manage that anxiety around the redesign?
Jessica: So teachers say this to me all the time, "What's the best way to get started?" I always think about asking them to think about, "What do you want to work on?" Or, "What seems to be something that you think you would like to talk with your kids about in terms of a challenge?" Or I like to say an opportunity and start there, and that's when they'll say things like clutter, or "I want to try flexible seating, but I'm worried that disagreements or fights might erupt over a balance ball or something like that, or a stool." That keeps teachers from taking those steps sometimes. "I don't have any space to store things." Or, "I can't open my blinds." So then it's more about just, "Where would you like to start? What seems like an opportunity to dig into and practice and play with for a couple of weeks, and see what happens?"
That's where we'll usually land on something, and then I encourage the teacher to bring it to the classroom to get feedback and to co-author either the plan or, "How can we get started? How can we work together to figure out the traffic jam?" Or, "How can we figure out who gets to use the balance ball or the stool?" It doesn't feel like the teacher's making all the decisions, because then it feels very much like then the teacher has to do all of the consequences and all of the problem solving, and we get into this, "It's not worth it to make any changes." So I just encourage teachers to identify something they want to work on with their students, and the with is really important, and then start to brainstorm with them, brainstorm with the parent community, brainstorm with colleagues.
Brett: One of the things you write about pretty early on in the book is that if you were starting your first day as the teacher walking into the school, you would expect someone to give you a tour of the building. You would expect someone to show you where different things are. You say that's just as important on the first day of school, or when you do a redesign with your students, you say to teach into the physical environment. Why is that so important?
Jessica: I think grounding yourself in the space, becoming familiar with how it feels to walk and to be in it is important. I mean, I did that even presenting here at NTTE. I got here a little early, went to the room, looked at the space, walked around a little bit just to orientate myself to the surroundings, the feel of it, the bigness or the littleness of it.
Jamaica: Yeah, I definitely think that the room tour, and for me I feel you need to talk about the room and the space and where everything is. Because I think when I do that with my class, they realize, "This is all ours." I think that's really powerful for kids. I've even had kids say, "Well, where's your workspace? So where's your desk?" I'm like, "Oh, well, it's back over there. But when you leave, I work on this table that you work on during the day." But I feel what it creates for the kids is they realize everything is out right where they need it, and all this, "You could sit here or you could sit there," and it really makes them feel I could definitely say that my students know it's their classroom. It's definitely not my classroom in that sense. It's our classroom. That's why I think it's important to tour the room.
On the first day of school, I had some kids that were the same as last year and some kids that were new, and the very first day was, "What do you notice about the classroom? What do you wonder about the classroom? So just take a minute and look around the room. What is it that you're noticing? How does it feel for you?" So having that conversation with them is really important too. Now, every day they walk in, they know it's theirs, they know where everything is, they know they're allowed to be anywhere in this space.
Brett: Well, you mentioned something too, there, Jamaica, that I think is really important, is the teacher space. Jessica, you write it's important to not forget or not neglect the teacher's space. So Jamaica, maybe you can explain a little bit about your space in your classroom.
Jamaica: Yeah. The space that we created in this classroom, this space lot in my last year's classroom, that's more in the book, it was the space that we all shared together. So there were areas that were books that I would use in small groups, and materials that I might use more that were centered around a space in the room. The circle table was still theirs. It was actually really funny because sometimes I didn't keep on top of my own neatness and then they would come in the morning and they would realize that Ms. Ross didn't clean up her space, and they would just pile everything up in a pile and push it to the middle of the table and take their space around the table. It didn't phase them at all because again, it was their space.
This year is a little bit different. The room is a little bit different. So my personal space is behind a closet door where I get to put my own belongings, and I think it's important, Jessica's taught me too, during the day when the kids are there, I'm teaching the kids. I'm with the kids. I'm not sitting at a table trying to do work. So if I do need to do work, I pull out my little piles, keeps me more organized and keeps me more on top of my own stuff. I sit at a table and I do my work at lunch time or after school, I pull it out, and then I also have to be responsible to put it away. My room is beautiful. It's always clean, it's always tidy. Everything's put away, and I don't do it. So I also have to stay on top of that for myself, right? So it's a lot of self-reflection that way.
Jamaica: That's not my strength. So having to do that because I expect of them, so we expect of each other.
Brett: So good modeling, really.
Jamaica: It is.
Jamaica: They model for me really well.
Brett: They're modeling for you.
Brett: I love that they're modeling for you.
Jamaica: They model for me. Yeah.
Brett: That's great.
Jamaica: But there's not a ton of space, but there is space for, we've created curtained spaces so the stuff that's not used all the time doesn't need to be all the time. So let's put away and when I need it, I know where it is. It's kept me very organized.
Brett: Jessica, you mentioned earlier it's important to not get too stressed about the budget. What would your advice be for someone who's looking at this and they're reading your book and to thinking about how to best approach this with a small budget or maybe no budget or what's your thinking there?
Jessica: I loved what happened when we worked on Jamaica's classroom makeover, which was, we first went in and made friends with the custodial staff because they know where everything is and they know where things are that you don't even think about. So when we first got there, making friends with the folks that know where everything is, is key so that you don't have to reinvent the wheel or spend money on things that schools have hidden away somewhere. That first ask or that first airing out of like, "Here's what we're trying to do." All of a sudden there were two round tables that showed up in our classroom ... I said our classroom ... In her classroom. Once the word got out that what Jamaica was trying to do with her space, teachers would come by and say, "I've got a shelf, if you like the shelf."
We're like, "Let's go take a look." It was lovely how folks shared things. So the first thing is not to go buy anything. The first thing is to be really resourceful about seeing what's already available. Jamaica went to the district warehouse to see what teachers had turned in and so that you could mark or was it tag things that maybe you might want and they would deliver it to your classroom. I'm notorious for the second hand shops and that's where I was able to find things like baskets and pillow cases and things that you could repurpose. Just being really thrifty and keep your eye open, even for folks that live in a neighborhood where there's apartment buildings and so sometimes at the end of the month people will leave their stool out or things like that.
So my kids know that I'm going to stop if I see a stool, I'm stopping and throwing it in the back seat or in the back of the trunk. Because those are ways to make it doable, aesthetically pleasing, affordable. If you're after trying to rethink your color scheme and if you're after thinking about lighting, some of these, the secondhand shops and your colleagues are really and parents too, love to help out and they love to share some of the things- You can be picky, that's the thing too. You can turn things away, but it helps with folks who want to do some of those things in a way that feels affordable because teachers don't make a ton of money. So having that expectation of "I'm going to refurnish everything with tables and and baskets and materials is not reasonable and it's not equitable either." So how do we get smart about design in ways that feel practical and helpful?
Jamaica: I would say start with what you have.
Jamaica: I think back to way back in the day before I even realized what I was doing maybe, that I was like, "I want to have all tables in my room." So across the few years I worked on getting all five tables in my room and I just put all the desks around the outside of the room. So I had a very furnished room but as that school closed, I brought all the tables with me and then I took a leave of absence. When I came back it was like, "You start with what you have." I had 35 desks again, so I just turned the desks the opposite way and pushed them together and created longer table groups and where children could sit at different places. So it wasn't like this is my desk. So you just start where you are with what you have and over many summers of going to Savers and going to the thrift shops and going on Facebook pages and the buying sites and yeah, all those places, right? You can do grants and such.
I didn't so much do that, but you can find a lot and you accumulate over time and teachers are really good at accumulating a lot of stuff over time. So if we pick the things we accumulate then it could work. It works out pretty quickly.
Brett: Jessica, one of the things that I love in the book is you have, throughout the book, these teaching into moments and then if then scenarios wondering if you could maybe just take a minute and just explain to us what you're doing it with those in the book and just how to approach the book.
Jessica: I usually get a lot of questions about how to make this happen or how to get started after sharing ideas or even in some of my usual work around literacy or math. I might make some connections to making tools accessible and creating spaces where kids can make choices about what they need. So in that, teachers will say, "Well, what are some ways I can do that are affordable? What are some ways ... How do I talk to my administration about supplies or creating a space for tools or I don't have any tools, how could I make that happen?" So the if then section of the book is really meant for, it's more a frequently asked question type of a format. I think a place that also allows for sharing of ideas that I've heard around the way, that are tried and true and work for teachers.
So I tried to incorporate a section that some of my most recent conversations and thoughts with teachers and just basically great idea sharing and it felt like something that was at the end of the chapter. So folks, I know sometimes it's easier to connect with an if then scenario than it is some of the other content because it feels quick and it answers my question. It feels very like, "This is my issue, this is my topic." Very present. So that was the idea behind it.
Brett: The book has tons of photos, a lot of graphic elements. The book itself is beautifully designed in addition to being a great design book. Talk folks through a little bit about how the book is laid out and your thinking that went into how the book is designed.
Jessica: Yeah, I'm so grateful that the way it turned out, I mean the photos are gorgeous. Just really so respectful of all the hard work that the teachers and students put into those spaces. I think that we tried to imagine creating a book where we started with just thinking about space on its own and the importance of creating different kinds of space in the classroom. So chapter one is about the essential spaces for when you want to meet with your students as a whole, as a community and then some smaller breakout spaces because so important, especially in today's teaching, that there are opportunities for kids to collaborate and break out and in smaller more intimate spaces for them to be intimate with one another in terms of thinking and talking and sharing. The idea was to be really intentional with smaller types of spaces where kids could be together.
Then what I've noticed too lately is kids saying, "I just want to work on my own too." That was really important to imagine, "Where are the nooks and crannies in your room that kids could gather their thoughts or ground themselves and then join the group? Or if I needed a minute to step out of the group, where are there spaces in the classroom that I can feel safe and be able to do that, regulate myself even, and then join the group again." So chapter one is all about that space consideration. Then chapter two we bring to light some of the work teachers have done around additional areas in the room. So if you're doing inquiry work, if you are thinking about math or if you wanted to create space for display and tools and supplies, how are you organizing your space so that kids can access the things they need quickly, they don't have to walk across the room to get a pencil.
There's lots of spaces for kids to access supplies. It talks a little bit about how you're displaying work so that it doesn't feel chaotic. So chapter two is what are the other spaces to consider? Then chapter three, which was the hardest chapter to write, is about moving in the space and creating agreements around how we're going to work together as a community because there isn't one right way. It really begins with how you are ... This culture that you're trying to create and making sure kids voices are heard. How do you set the parameters and how do you set the scene for kids to make mistakes and try things out and take risks? Which to make us so great at negotiate when you need things. That's what chapter three is about. I thought it was important because that's what teachers asked, "How do you handle disagreements and sharing?" That part that's dearest to me, but it's also for some reason it just felt more challenging to write about but important. Then chapter four is about the design element work.
So that's where we get into color and light and naturalness, flexibility. That was fun to write about because there's so much research on what matters most to how we learn and what matters most in terms of performance. We know things like having well lit areas helps kids focus more and also perform better on their tests and their assessments and things. So we get into the nitty gritty of some of the research based design elements. Then we end with chapter five, which is a closer look at one teacher's journey. We really wanted to make it feel doable and practical and interesting. We did a lot of before the school even started, we were in there thinking and talking and dreaming and designing two weeks in. So we had a blank slate and then we took pictures at different stages. So you could see how this space evolved once the kids arrived because the space really did change.
She had her own ideas about movement and accessibility and making sure everyone felt they belonged. Then she worked on that and we laid that out, but then when the kids came, we saw that they had some different needs and things needed to be moved and shifted and so we wanted to make sure that we documented all of that because it was happening in real time. Do we need more space for this or less clutter here? The kids piled your stuff up and took over this area. One of the biggest things was we had these pillows and kids wanted to hug them versus sit on them. So it was lovely and challenging and I thought the chapter came together really nicely because it was a real true journey of someone's adventure into flexible seating and design.
Brett: Jamaica, we'll end with you. How do you best maintain it throughout the school year? How do you keep it going?
Jamaica: Well to reflect on last year, I think the keeping it going was being flexible with it. At one point in the year we did say, "Do you guys mind if I move these this way?" We had a conversation, "Can I move these cabinets in a different place? What do you think? Can we try it out for the day?" I think having that constant conversation with kids is a way to keep it going, to keep it fresh. I think that one of the most beautiful things about the room is that it keeps itself going because no day is the same because they get to make a different choice every day and they get to move around and they're working in different teams and partnerships and whole group and small group. I'm definitely one who is not really great at sticking to a specific schedule. We like to co-construct a schedule and every eight weeks or so, talk about what's going well and what's not going well and when are you learning the most and when do you feel you're not learning the most.
There's a lot of, from my part that's a type of teacher that I am, is very reflective and always thinking about what's going well, what's not going well and how can we make it even better and even better and even better learning wise and space wise. I guess that's the answer, is just constantly reflecting and being flexible to be able to change things and then letting them have a voice and a say in it because it's so flexible every day. I feel that maintains it, right? They don't have to come in and sit in the same exact spot every single day, and if we want to have a change, it's this big huge desk. I remember desk changes, it was a 45 minute period of time when everybody's pulling their desks around, moving them all around the room, and it was this big ordeal. Now it's like every day they get a desk change. They get an opportunity for a different vantage point in this space, and that keeps it going.
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Jessica Martin (@growingjessica, @groweducators) is a former classroom teacher, a former resident advisor at UCLA’s Teacher Education Program Center X, and a former staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Columbia University. Jessica now leads a small consulting team that partners with K-12 schools in English Language Arts (ELA), Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) math, and inquiry-based content-area instruction. She is grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with educators and learning communities committed to co-creating incredible spaces, amplifying student voices, and implementing equitable learning opportunities for all learners. When she is not in schools, you can usually find her with her family on a basketball court shooting hoops.