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Albemarle County Public Schools

Grades K-12 | Albemarle County, VA

Flexible Classrooms: Providing the Learning Environment That Kids Need

At Albemarle County Public Schools, flexible classrooms empower student choice, increase student engagement, and improve student participation.
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Transcript

Flexible Classrooms: Providing the Learning Environment That Kids Need (Transcript)

Pam: The transformation of space has completely elevated student engagement.

How do we provide the environments that kids need? Sometimes to be in their caves and be private. Sometimes to be at the watering hole, and working in small collaborative groups. And sometimes in a cross-pollination where they're able to really share their work and work with each other.

Katie: My kids love to be under things, behind things, around things. We have five-gallon buckets in my room that we sit on. We sit on crate seating that I made in my backyard out of a crate and some plywood and some foam. And I also just threw a lot of pillows on the floor.

Offspring is like a baby, like a baby squirrel. Is that something that might be important to your research? It might be important.

From Day 1, I've said, "You may sit anywhere you like as long as you're safe in our classroom."

Teacher: That's working out really well. Keep on going.

Becky: We're really looking at how do we support kids working collaboratively? And we can't do it if we're isolated in rows, and every kid's an island.

Lisa: The first thing that has to happen is the teacher has to have a vision for their room, and a willingness to say, "I'm going to throw out some of this stuff. I don't need this traditional schooling equipment."

Becky: When you walk into a room that we have done, you'll see tables. You don't see individual student workspaces. In some classrooms, you'll see at least three kinds of seating. You'll see flexible bookshelves that are mobile that can be moved, so that the room can be totally opened up, or little nooks and crannies can be created.

Teacher: What do you know about soil, Lilly?

Becky: So that everybody can see everybody, and we can participate as a community.

Student: It helps plants grow.

Teacher: Good!

Becky: How can you do it on a dime? What we found is teachers are really hitting the streets the week that college kids leave town, and seeing what they can buy for their classroom.

Cheryl: This is what I'd like you to accomplish today.

The beginning of the year is a good time to ask, "If any of you have a couch or a chair that you have just sitting around, the kids would like to read on it, and it could be a Reading Corner." And that's how I started. And then it grew and grew, because it was so successful.

Student: Different nooks.

Teacher: And you're good at finding facts and she's good at typing.

Student: Yeah.

Cheryl: When the students walk in the room, I'll say, "Sit where you work the best.

Justin: When I like get down into a couch and more comfortable, it's almost like it's a bit distracting, like it's not exactly the environment I want to be working in. But for the other people, clearly they have their optimum working environments.

Krishan: Well, Miss Harris lets us like choose. And also since she lets us choose, we ultimately choose what's best for us. We work better together and individually.

Katie: I've seen the kids not only be a lot more engaged, but they seem happier, they seem more likely to engage in conversation.

Cheryl: Because the space in this room has evolved throughout the year, the students work has improved immensely. Their grades have improved. Just the conversations that they have with each other are so invigorating to hear.

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  • Producer: Kristin Atkins
  • Field Producer: Sarita Khurana
  • Web Video Producer: Christian Amundson
  • Managing Producer/Editor: Julie Konop
  • Editors: Daniel Jarvis, Douglas Keely
  • Production Coordinator: Julia Lee
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Overview

Providing the Learning Environment That Kids Need

Flexible classrooms give students a choice in what kind of learning space works best for them, and help them to work collaboratively, communicate, and engage in critical thinking.

Since implementing flexible classrooms, Albemarle County Public Schools have noticed that:

  • Their students' grades have improved.
  • Their students seem happier and more engaged.
  • Their students are participating more and having more invigorating conversations.

How It's Done

Giving Students a Choice in How They Learn

"From day one, I've said, 'You may sit anywhere you like as long as you're safe in our classroom,'" says Katie Collins, a Woodbrook Elementary School second grade teacher.

Becky Fisher, the director of educational technology at Albemarle County Public Schools, is interested in learning about the thinking that drives student choice. "What we're really striving for are those choices that have a lot of thought behind them. We want kids to really be strategic about where they go," Fisher says.

She painted the picture of walking into a classroom and seeing kids:

  • Lying on the floor
  • Sitting at low tables on their knees
  • Standing up

When Fisher walks into a classroom, she asks the students the reasoning behind why they choose their particular learning space.

"Why are you standing right now?" she asks one TK student.

"Well," says the student, "we're using math manipulatives, and I move better when I'm standing up than when I'm sitting down."

Fisher once heard a kindergarten student articulate that she was a belly reader. She loved reading on the floor while lying on her belly, her class was reading, and that's why she was sprawled out on the floor. "That's awesome that, at five or six years old, you know your preferences," Fisher says. And that's critical to their work.

Justin, a seventh grade student from Sutherland Middle School, was also able to articulate his preferred learning environment. He chooses a table and chair, unlike the couch that many of his fellow students choose. "When I get down into a couch and am more comfortable, it's almost like it's a bit distracting. It's not exactly the environment I want to be working in, but for the other people, clearly they have their optimum working environments," Justin says.

Krishan, also in seventh grade at Sutherland, likes that his teacher gives him a choice in how he works. "Since she lets us choose, we ultimately choose what's best for us. We work better together and individually," Krishan says.

The First Step

According to Lisa Molinaro, the principal of Woodbrook Elementary School, the first thing that needs to happen for Albemarle teachers to successfully create a flexible classroom is:

  • The teacher must have a vision for his or her room.
  • The teacher must be willing to say, "I'm going to throw out some of this stuff. I don't need this traditional schooling equipment."

Design a Collaborative Learning Space

"We’re really looking at how we support kids working collaboratively," Fisher says. "And we can't do it if we're isolated in rows and every kid is an island."

She believes that Albemarle classrooms work well with these design elements:

  • They have at least three kinds of classroom seating.
  • They use flexible bookshelves.
  • Instead of individual workspaces, they use large round or rectangular tables, or put four desks together to form a more collaborative space.

"You'll see flexible bookshelves that can be moved so that the room can be totally opened up -- or little nooks and crannies can be created -- so that everybody can see everybody, and we can participate as a community," Fisher says.

Create a Variety of Seating Options

"My kids love to be under things, behind things, around things," says Collins about her second grade classroom. "We have five-gallon buckets in my room that we sit on. We sit on crate seating that I made in my backyard out of a crate and some plywood and some foam. And I also just threw a lot of pillows on the floor."

For classroom seating, Collins also uses:

  • Couches
  • Chairs
  • Bunk beds
  • Canoes

Fund Your Flexible Classroom: The DIY Approach

Teachers at Albemarle use these low- to no-cost strategies to furnish their classrooms:

  1. Seasonal purchase: Teachers purchase furniture from college students the week that they leave campus after graduation or for the summer. This is the time when students often want to get rid of most of their belongings, and they will give them away or sell them at a cheap price.

  2. Parent donations: Teachers ask parents for furniture. Cheryl Harris, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Sutherland, asks her parents to donate furniture at the beginning of the year. She started to build her collection by saying, "If any of you have a couch or a chair that you have just sitting around, the kids would like to read on it, and it could be a reading corner." The flow of donations grew and grew from there because parents wanted to contribute to their kids' learning environment.

  3. Previously used: Teachers purchase items in good condition from a Salvation Army or Goodwill. Second-hand shops in upscale neighborhoods or college towns will usually house quality finds.

  4. Crowdsourcing: Teachers set up a crowdfunding campaign, like DonorsChoose, Classwish, or GoFundMe, and have their students send their online campaign to family, friends, and parents to raise money for classroom furniture.

Fund Your Flexible Classroom: The District Approach

Over the past ten years, Albermarle district leadership has been very intentional in changing the physical nature of classrooms. Although not every classroom in its 26 schools has gotten a makeover, when the district budgets for a furniture-replacement cycle, there are some core pieces to redesigning a classroom. Before picking those core pieces, teachers need a vision for redesigning a classroom, and they should be willing to get rid of the traditional school furniture for more innovative pieces.

When comparing quotes for traditional and more innovative furniture, Fisher was delighted to learn that the cost is almost the same. "You pay roughly the same amount, and our durability has been good. There has been no reason to not go in that direction," she says.

When Albemarle "does" a room, you’ll see:

  • Flexible seating: Albemarle provides at least three different choices of seating for students -- so you might see a stool, a beanbag, or chairs that look more traditional but allow kids to rock without tipping over.

  • Teacher stations, not teacher corners: Instead of a teacher corner taking up 25 percent of the classroom, teachers have workspaces similar to students' workspaces. The amount of real estate teachers now use is minimal, giving more space in the classroom for creating student corners, or the ability to move furniture around.

  • Flexible tables: Many tables have wheels on them, making it easy to reconfigure a room. Albemarle also chooses big tables, round or rectangular, to support collaborative work. Tables can be written on, as well as flipped up, converting them into whiteboards. They also come in different heights -- some are standing desks, others are more traditional heights, and some are low to the ground.

Evolving the classroom space to meet students’ individual needs impacts how they learn, how they interact, and the entire classroom experience. Moran has noticed that when a learning space evolves, students' work improves immensely, their grades improve, and “just the conversations they have with each other are so invigorating to hear,” Moran says.

Resources

Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Hi HScheid! I teach middle school, so it's similar to your high school situation -- I have 5 groups of 32 students moving in and out of my room. All of my desk/chairs are on wheels, plus we have some extra seating around the edges of the room, like ottomans, wobbly stools, tops of bookshelves for standing work, and a couple tables and chairs. When we arrive each morning, all the desk/chairs have been pushed into a corner by the custodians -- the wheels make it a lot easier for them to clean the room, but then we need to get the desks back in some kind of order. Because I need to be able to take attendance quickly, I do have a seating chart for the start of each period. Each desk/chair has a number on it, and students are responsible for finding their chair and moving it to the assigned row for attendance. Once I take roll and finish any whole-class teaching for the period, students are able to move around the room to whatever location/seating works best for them. At the end of class, they know to roll them back to the attendance rows. We spend time in the first weeks practicing a variety of arrangements to make it easier each time we need to move: rows, partners, groups, big circle, horseshoe, etc. Those wheels make all that so much easier and quieter!

(1)
HScheid's picture
HScheid
9-12th Grade - Sr Seminar Human Sexuality, Spanish 1, P.E. in Southern IL

Thanks for your feedback! That info is helping me visualize the possibility a little bit better. I especially like the idea of a few high tables along the walls for standing work and wheels on everything. Have a great year!

Younes's picture

Thanks for the video, of course it's definitely a creative way to keep kids more attracted to their learning. But, I'm asking my self and everybody concerned, what 's next!? the learning environment is a huge arena in which the whole society should be involved in, not only the school.

Ira Socol's picture
Ira Socol
Public School Educational Technology and Innovation Director, Researcher, UDL, SpEd, History, Motivations

We are changing - slowly - all 1000 K-12 classrooms in Albemarle County. Using the floor is critical. Changing heights. Trying different seating. Start by throwing out those old desks

CKL_Lit17's picture

Thank you for this resource. I enjoy reading about new strategies and examples from other classrooms. I believe in setting up a classroom as an open space that the students feel comfortable in and know it is their classroom. I enjoyed the idea to have tables that can move to create a larger space for the students.

Ana's picture

Thanks a lot for sharing this resource , I loved every single idea but it's true that our economic reality leaves us far from settling on most of them , but just to start small I select the flexible bookshelves as feasible and easy to carry out.

Shalaya_S's picture

Love this resource! I just observed a classroom similar to this one. The children were engaged and on task. I really like how comfortable the students are. It makes a difference when the student truly knows that the teacher is concerned about what is best for them. I believe what is best about this resource is that it highlights the fact that everyone learns different.

Susan's picture

I have students that need that flexible learning space as well. I teach second grade and some of my students sit in rocking chairs during some lessons. That just seems to work for them. Other just grap a clipboard and come to the floor. My students know that they need to move to where they can learn the best. Some seem to know that their neighbor my bug them with their movements or that they just do not do well in a desk. Desks can be made taller if you have students that perfer to stand as well.

Rebekah Price's picture

I love this resource! As I was watching the video, the students seem to be genuinely engaged in their learning.

Cathy Martinez's picture

Thomas-SC: I can't wait to be able to find resources that can help me do something new in my classroom. My students are sensory driven and these ideas are amazing.

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