Sunday, October 3, 2010

Classroom Arrangements

As a district Instructional Technologist, I am not assigned to a single school site but instead make visits to various schools throughout the district at the elementary, middle school and high school level. Over the past three weeks, I have been in three middle schools and four elementary schools. Room arrangements vary between schools and within individual school sites. In general there are higher percentages of traditional room arrangements in middle and high school classrooms than in elementary classrooms, but I have seen various types of arrangements at each level.

Although room arrangements are often a clue to the teacher’s primary teaching style, his/her predominant instructional strategies and preferences for students working independently or collaboratively, it not always correct to assume a particular teaching style based upon one walkthrough. In many classrooms, room arrangements are not static and desks, tables, other furniture, and equipment can be rearranged regularly to facilitate whole class direct instruction, collaborative group work, centers, presentations, hands-on science, etc. In smaller or more crowded rooms, teachers and students may push desks together with a partner/buddy or with three or more students to do group work and then separate desks during assessment. In larger rooms, the space may be sufficient to allow a section for whole class instruction, tables for small groups, a reading center, computer center, etc. at the same time.

Some room arrangements are subject specific (especially science) or are designed for specific programs or instructional models. Our district uses Scholastic’s Read 180, a reading intervention program, in quite a few of our secondary schools. The instructional model for this program is a 90 minute time block in which the first 20 minutes are whole class instruction followed by students split into three groups and rotating between small group instruction with the teacher, independent reading on couches or bean bags in the reading/listening center and one third of the students on computers using the interactive, adaptive software. This program requires a large room with the three areas for rotations, plus an area for whole class instruction.

Observations of connections between room arrangement and teaching style:

I did make several visits last week to Parker Elementary school, assisting teachers with their Interactive Whiteboard and software setup in preparation for a training I will be doing at the site next week. Six out of twelve classrooms are now equipped with IWBs. Three of the rooms have had boards for almost two years and the other three were installed around the middle of the last school year. Two of the teachers are returning teachers and have experience with the IWBs. The other teachers are either new to the school and/or have an IWB in their room for the first time. One teacher is a first year teacher. In most of the rooms I looked into, the arrangement of desks were in tables or clusters or were in a horseshoe or semi-horseshoe with one or more openings in the horseshoe to facilitate traffic. All rooms had at least one separate table for small group instruction. The teacher's desk was usually off to the side or in the back. Some rooms had an open center area with a rug.

One of the teachers who had used her IWB extensively last year and had started this year using the board, had the projector bulb burn out and unfortunately, there were no extra bulbs on hand. I assisted the principal in ordering new bulbs and then went to observe the teacher and let her know that bulbs were ordered. I was dismayed to see that the double-desks were rearranged in traditional neat rows, turned to face the regular low-tech whiteboard. Each desk-table consists of two connected desks with one tabletop. The lesson I observed was an Open Court reading lesson with choral reading. It was almost entirely teacher-directed. Students participated but were not deeply engaged in the reading selection. Ms. S moved around the room assisting students, but it was apparent that she was somewhat frustrated and not at ease. She had become reliant on the technology and without it she fell back on a very traditional arrangement and methodology. I am hoping to observe this teacher again to 1) see if the instructional strategy was more a function of the Open Court routine for that day of the week, 2) to see if the room arrangement and the strategies are different when the IWB is back up and running, and 3) to ask if she would like any assistance or suggestions.

In the second IWB classroom I visited on the same day, the teacher had arranged the double desks (two connected desks with one top) in a semi-horseshoe configuration. This teacher had minimal training on the IWB, but she had a flipchart lesson displayed. She used a variety of tools and techniques to engage the students (shoulder buddies, think-pair-share, individual wipe-off whiteboards, questioning techniques, echo and choral answering) in addition to the IWB and she utilized the desk configuration to be in the center of the students, moving freely around them. Students were not particularly still in their seats, but they were engaged and there was a lot of energy in the room. Ms. M enhanced the lesson through technology and she used the room set up to increase her ability to interact with all of the students. More than the room arrangement or the technology, the greatest effect was through the teacher’s strong and solid pedagogy.