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Transforming Classroom Space

by | Jan 22, 2020 | Space Winter 2020 | 0 comments

The classroom represents a space for learning, growth, and development for students over the course of a school year.  It is a haven within an active school building; a “home base” for students to keep their belongings, to feel grounded, to feel welcome, to feel secure.  Therefore the focus and attention to detail paid to the architecture of the space goes a long way in creating a stable environment within which students get to become the active ingredients and the agents of change.

As a homeroom teacher, my goal is to shape a space that will enhance the students’ intellectual, physical, emotional, and spiritual progress over the course of ten months; as an architect, my goal is to shape a space that is aesthetically pleasing, calming, organized that will become the backdrop for the learning.  To do this requires a deep understanding of students’ needs as well as flexibility to adapt an existing space to meet these unique learners’ needs.

To create opportunities for students to become engaged learners in the environment means being open to new ideas while also maintaining a solid framework within which they can operate. As expressed by Sarah Menin and Flora Samuel:

Just as a person cannot be fully understood through the physical realm alone, so the physical place-making does not live fully if the metaphysical nature of the created place (be it psycho-social or the spiritual) is ignored.

Through my training as both an architect and a teacher, I draw on my unique expertise to create a minimal, beautiful, calm space conducive to learning. As such, the architecture of my classroom at the Toronto Heschel classroom reflects a rigorous approach to both pedagogy and design.  I design the classroom based on the principles I utilized as an architect and the educational theories I have studied: ensuring each element is purposeful and intentional, using natural materials, and minimizing ornament. In this way, my classroom has been optimized for maximum learning, adaptability, and student development throughout each school year.

Unlike a high school classroom dedicated to a single subject, elementary school classrooms transition between several functions within the course of a single school day. The space hosts a series of constants which can be rearranged in different permutations, and students understand it as a backdrop – something that sets context – for their engagement within; space and time unfold around them at first as a writer’s workshop, then a science lab, lunch spot, art gallery, mock Parliament, or lecture hall.  Creating multiple, complex opportunities for learning within a single space requires as much flexibility as it does rigor.

Like architecture itself, I design my classroom to be both artfully composed and precisely implemented. It takes on a pleasing, harmonious sensibility arising from its grounding in precise, technical systems and nurtures a precise style; I have developed a clear aesthetic and palette that I deploy consistently to create a holistic environment.  The walls are lined with paper to enhance artwork placed upon it, and woven baskets and glass jars hold classroom tools.  Signage is clear and legible, and uses a consistent font. Student artwork has been carefully mounted with accompanying signage in specific zones both in and out of the classroom space. Student binders are neatly arranged in identical cubbies which students regularly organize and declutter. Even the whiteboards remain mostly clean and unadorned; the daily schedule, homework, and dates all reside in consistent locations, and a rotating daily message that connects to the Middat HaShavuah (values gleaned from the weekly Torah portion) sits prominently at the front of the class, greeting students when they arrive each morning.  Most critically in creating a harmonious environment for learning, students maintain a clean classroom environment; they keep their desks uncluttered save for the materials needed for each class, and work collaboratively to pick up garbage throughout the day.  This maintains visual order and stability, as well as giving students ownership and responsibility over their own learning environment.  Through these interventions I have shaped a space that I can feel comfortable in, and one that students can thrive in.

Revered American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase that “form follows function.”  My classrooms reflect this axiom.  In younger grades, students sit in groupings to allow for easy collaboration, communication, and community.  As they get older, the class sits in a het (ח)-shape to foster dialogue and democracy.  Both of these spatial configurations facilitate a flexible use of space and organic movement within the classroom as students learn to work both independently and in learning groups of varying sizes.  Placing the seating in a u-shape allows students to make eye contact with each other during class-wide conversations, but is flexible enough for chairs to be moved to the inside during small-group activities or even lunch.

Lisa Rendely

Lisa Rendely teaches Grade 5 and visual art at The Toronto Heschel School. She studied and practiced architecture before pursuing a career in education, and integrates art and design in her daily classroom teaching.

See all the previous issues of Jewish Educational Leadership

Highlighting works of art is particularly strategic in helping students to build their knowledge and make connections.  Each unit of study, integrated across multiple curricula, features a corresponding artwork and table of artifacts that relate to it thematically or concretely.  Students see this artwork through the duration of their exploration, and are thereby afforded the time and space to make deeper and more meaningful connections, test hypotheses, and revisit the artwork to make additional, critical observations as they progress through their learning.  They engage physically with carefully selected artifacts like books, tools, typewriters, stones, plants, and other tangible objects.  This tactile manipulation sees students explore the themes not only visually, as through the artwork, but by drawing on all of their senses to make authentic and lasting connections to curricula.

To deepen the connection to the environment, and in concert with the Reggio Emilia approach to understanding the environment as a “third teacher” (https://www.reggiochildren.it/?lang=en), students grow and nurture plants in each classroom. Students assume responsibility for living things outside of themselves, tracking growth and progress, and solving problems that arise.  The metaphor extends beyond the plants and the students learn to apply these methodical and responsible principles to caring for one another, for the school community, for the broader community, and for the environment. 

Creating a minimal yet naturalized aesthetic sets up a climate for learning on multiple levels. It places the focus on the importance of the actions within its walls and shifts student’ focus towards the task at hand.  The walls of the classroom reflect learning by reducing visual clutter to highlight and illustrate important vocabulary and ideas.

The Heschel classroom, then, becomes a metaphor for the students’ broader existence.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the school’s namesake, instructs us to build our life “as if it were a work of art.”  My classroom reflects this in its duality of aesthetic rigor and methodical approach; left brain systems and right brain flexibility.  The balance demonstrates the Heschelian approach to curriculum, and, by extension, the balance inherent within the classroom’s architecture.

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