A third-grade student transferred to Luria from a more traditional environment. On the first day, he approached the teacher and said, “Where is my desk?” The teacher explained that we don’t have assigned desks at Luria, but there will be opportunities for him to sit in lots of different places. He asked again with some anxiety in his voice, “but how will I know where to sit, how will I decide?”
As educators, we spend time carefully crafting so many of the moments that occur during the school day. We design lessons that meet students’ needs, support our students while pushing them to take risks and try new things. We prepare for meetings with parents, gathering student data so we can accurately share progress and work together to brainstorm next steps. As school leaders, we thoughtfully prepare meetings for our faculty. We reflect on what’s not working throughout our schools so we can design agendas that target the change we hope to see. We set up furniture in small circles so teachers can interact with one another to go deeper in their own learning.
What would it look like to put the same energy into preparing our classroom environment for our students? What if instead of letting the confines of the walls around us and the furniture in front of us determine our spaces, we were the architects and the designers of our spaces? How can we craft spaces that reflect our educational values and our goals for how our students interact with one another? What would it look like to take a student-centered approach to classroom design?
Maria Montessori introduced us to the concept of a prepared environment - an environment designed to facilitate maximum independent learning and exploration by the child. Students should be able to move freely throughout the space, working at their own pace, easily navigating materials that meet their developmental needs.
At Luria Academy of Brooklyn, we were presented with the gift of a clean slate, converting a warehouse into a school. Our task was to take large industrial rectangles and turn them into warm, inviting, engaging spaces. We want our students to walk into their classrooms and feel welcome, feel ownership and a sense of belonging, and to experience feeling both supported and challenged not only by the people around them, but by the walls, the furniture, and the material on the shelves.
We started from our values. What does a classroom look like that supports the whole child? How can our spaces encourage a student-led approach to learning, where students work collaboratively, and diverse learners are fully and intentionally integrated into the classroom community?
There are several values that guide our teaching and influence how we prepare our environment at Luria. The first is a commitment to understanding the learner. To appropriately plan for our students, we must get to know them as learners - their style, their needs, academic and emotional. The same is true as we plan for physical space. One student works best when peers are nearby to encourage their focus while another student needs an individual desk to stay focused. We work hard to understand them and to respond to their needs, while simultaneously helping them understand themselves as learners and ultimately be responsible for their own learning and learning environment.
We want our students to grow in confidence, to be self-directed learners that can make good choices. We design spaces that they can easily navigate on their own without having to depend on the grown-ups in the room. Content areas are clearly labeled and resources are accessible in moments of difficulty. We want students to feel safe to take risks. They can make mistakes quietly and privately in the nooks of the classroom, so instead of feeling embarrassed, they just pick themselves up and try again. If they are feeling strong, they can work on their own, if they’re feeling confused, they can sit near a friend, if they are overwhelmed, they can find a place to take a break. The space is safe and welcoming, and it is theirs.
And we design spaces that encourage community. Our students learn to be in relationship with one another, to be curious and kind, to clean up their messes and help others with theirs. They learn to consider how their interactions with the space impacts the group. They find joy and value in learning collaboratively, supporting the friend working next to them who is stuck on a math problem, even if it means setting aside their own work.
Designing physical spaces means planning the layout of a classroom in addition to the furniture that goes in it. We install sliding doors to create flexible spaces allowing for large group or small group work. We use furniture to section off parts of the room by placing bookshelves perpendicular to walls rather than parallel. We create nooks so that students who struggle with attention can choose to do their work in more enclosed spaces. We create cozy corners with comfortable furniture for students who need a space to calm their body.
Classrooms have individual desks, tables for two, four, or six. Sometimes the teachers help students decide where is a good spot to work, sometimes they figure it out independently or they work with their group on a project that requires a table. There are different size rugs to support flexible groupings, lessons on the floor, working while laying down, or spreading out your work so you can look at it from lots of angles. There is always one rug large enough to support the whole class to come together as a community. There are lap desks that can be used while working on the rug. There is real value in learning to navigate the room, learning to make thoughtful choices depending on what you’re working on, who you’re working with, and how you learn best. Skills that continue to be useful as students grow into adults and are presented with opportunities to design and care for their own spaces.
How we organize the space directly impacts how students experience the classroom. A well-organized space helps students settle in and feel organized themselves. Knowing where to put things, where to find things, and what opportunities are available to them helps them feel settled and welcome in the room, to feel like it’s their room - they are partners in the space. Shelves are content-specific, so students know where to find what they are looking for. Lessons for each subject area take place near their content area shelves, giving students visual cues to support lessons and follow up work. The environment is a partner in teaching our students. If set up thoughtfully, the environment can support student learning, guide them through moments of uncertainty, even provide scaffolding as students strive towards independent learning.
As educators, we create lessons that nurture and educate the whole child. We are thoughtful about who the child is, what excites them, what interests them, what challenges them. And we think about how they learn best, planning our lessons to meet their needs. Designing physical spaces that align with our educational values is just as important in setting our students up for success. The skills students acquire from learning to thoughtfully navigate and engage with their environment are skills that stay with them and grow them as people, not just as learners. This is perhaps our most important job.
by Amanda Pogany
Amanda Pogany is Head of School at Luria Academy of Brooklyn. She has worked in the field of Jewish education as a teacher, consultant, mentor and coach. Amanda is a graduate of the Pardes Educators Program, has a Masters in Jewish Education from Hebrew University and a BA from Barnard College. Amanda is a member of the Advisory Board of Jewish Educational Leadership.