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Building a Better Classroom Culture

Written on April 24th, 2017

When entering the grade six classroom at Chatham Christian School, you might wonder if you’ve mistakenly entered a student lounge, or perhaps an activity room of sorts. Several students are seated on couches and bean bag chairs having a discussion. Another group is gathered around a table, collaboratively working on project designs. Still others are researching individually on laptops while laying on the carpet, snuggled under a blanket in a corner, or perched on an exercise ball.

Noticeably missing from the classroom are the traditional desks and chairs that students are accustomed to in their intermediate classrooms. Instead, grade six teacher Marianne Visser has been intentional about designing spaces that provide a variety of learning environments for her students.

“There’s a place for everyone here!” shared Olivia. “Some people like desks, others like couches, comfy chairs, exercise balls, or being under a table somewhere—we all find somewhere that’s comfortable for us to learn.”

Classroom design is something that Ms. Visser has been thinking about for several years already but was forced to begin experimenting with last year. “I had thirty-two students in a room that couldn’t physically fit that many desks in it,” she shared. “My classroom wasn’t conducive to learning—it just wasn’t working.” As a result, Ms. Visser began to think creatively, moving out desks and purchasing couches and chairs that she could fit against the walls along the outside of the classroom to provide more comfortable seating for her students.

The grade six teacher was thrilled to discover the benefits that coincided with her new classroom learning spaces, and over the summer she began to collect more pieces of furniture from garage sales and thrift stores. This year, there are only a few desks in the room that she has designed for her grade six class. Her goal was to provide learning spaces that were conducive to different types of learners and to create a culture of community for her students.

In one corner, there is a large carpet with brightly coloured stuffed chairs for those who enjoy stretching out to read or listen. On the wall is a blackboard which students have dubbed the “Quotation Station”. On it, they can write meaningful quotes or messages that they wish to share with their classmates. In another corner is a couch with three ergonomic chairs that students can use to have group discussions or listen to presentations. One large table and a few round tables are placed around the room, providing surfaces for students to use when writing or drawing. Futons, a coffee table, and a fish tank create yet another cozy area for students to gather and work. And for those seeking solitude, there are cushions and blankets available for them to get comfortable in a nook or corner of their choice.

“My favorite place in the classroom is in the back, in one of the quieter spots,” shared Avery. “I’m a private person, and in a regular classroom it feels like you’re always under a spotlight—like the teacher and other students are constantly looking at each other. In this classroom, you can find a place where you blend into the furniture, and I learn much better that way.”

“Before you can even begin to teach, you have to create an environment that is safe, cozy, and comfortable,” Ms. Visser emphasized. “It’s essential for a teacher to create relationships with her students, and their environment is such a key part in being able to do that. Once you do that, you can begin to do your job as a teacher.”

Another key element in establishing a culture that is conducive to learning in a more relaxed classroom setting was establishing group norms with students early in the year.  “We got together in the first week of school and talked about our classroom goals for the year and what rules we needed to have,” shared Abigail. “The number one thing is respect—that no matter what happens in our day, our classroom is our safe place in the school.”

“We also have to make sure that we can see the teacher and that she can see us,” added Saveena, “and that we can get our work done. If we can’t, we take our seat and move it to a place where we can.”

“I really like that we can help each other out so easily in this setting,” added Kaylee. “The learning is collaborative—we’re a community, so it’s not just about ourselves.”

Ms. Visser was amazed at how quickly students took ownership of the new spaces in the classroom. Students came to her, asking if they could add things to the classroom. Maddy thought it would be nice to have a tea station, so she brought in a kettle. Each student brought in their own mug so they can make tea or hot chocolate in the morning. Others have added things like a breakfast station, where students can make oatmeal or dip apples in cinnamon and sugar for a snack. A popcorn machine is also available for students who are craving a warm treat in the afternoon.

When there are concerns about the classroom, or if something isn’t working, the students take time out after devotions to share with the group, so that they can collectively come up with a solution. “I wasn’t sure about the classroom at first because I really don’t like messes, and I wondered if things would be too scattered,” admitted Adriana. “But we talked about our concerns as a class, and we’ve been really good about keeping things organized.

“I discovered that if things feel out-of-hand, I can take the tray of tea cups to the kitchen and wash them,” she added with a smile. “It makes me feel good about cleaning something up!”

“It’s not ‘my’ classroom—it’s ‘our’ classroom,” shared Ms. Visser. “When the students are involved in the process of creating their learning environment, it empowers them, it develops community, and it increases their motivation to learn.”

“We feel a bit more like adults,” shared Abigail. “We get to make choices for ourselves, and that involves learning to make good decisions.”

“At the same time, I feel like I can still be a kid,” added Saveena. “You can’t help still feeling a bit more like a kid when you’re sitting in a bean bag chair or on an exercise ball!”

Ms. Visser is thankful that things have gone so well in her newly designed classroom this year. She plans to continue building on her ideas and improving the space in the upcoming years.

“The students that come into our classrooms every year are all so different,” she shared, “and they all bring in their issues and concerns—health issues, things that are going on in their homes, concerns about their faith—the list feels endless sometimes. That’s why it’s so important for them to find places in the classroom where they feel safe and comfortable. Once that has been established, learning can happen.”

“It’s not about me or about what I’m doing,” she added. “I’ve simply created a space that allows for my students to develop a community within their classroom, and that allows room for God to work in and through each other.”