A few years ago we had someone from outside our school community do a walkthrough of classrooms in our building, to help us figure out how we could create better learning environments for students. Our K-5 school is large, with 83 teachers and specialists. We’ve outgrown the original space, to the point where we have 21 mobile units included on the school grounds.
The viewpoint of an outsider was helpful as we set goals and determined next steps for improving the literacy and learning environment throughout the school. We decide to devote a staff meeting to the issue of classroom environments, and we wanted to come up with a format that wouldn’t be threatening to the staff, but at the same time would get everyone thinking about ways they might change their classroom libraries and other learning spaces.
Setting Up Classroom Tours
The activity we choose was classroom tours, setting up triads of teachers to tour together. Everyone who teaches in the school was included, so P.E. teachers and specialists would know their environment was as important as the classroom teachers’ when it came to student learning.
The school principal and I selected the triads before the staff meeting — we made sure we didn’t have two “dart throwers” in any one group, and we wanted to mix grade levels. We knew that 5th grade teachers would find themselves surprised at how much there was to learn from a kindergarten teacher’s environment, and vice versa.
We began the one-hour staff meeting by posting the list of triads, and then explaining the format. Each team would have approximately 40 minutes to visit the three classrooms, so they would need to plan on 10-12 minutes in each classroom with time to travel between classrooms across our large school.
In each classroom, the classroom teacher would serve as the “tour guide.” Another person in the triad would be designated as the questioner for that classroom, ensuring that the questions we listed were answered by the classroom teacher “tour guide.” A recorder would jot down the tour guide’s responses to the questions, so that there were notes on each room and discussion.
The principal and I decided in advance to tackle the issue of “soft spaces” for learning in these tours, based on the feedback we’d received in the earlier walkthrough of areas we might work to improve in the school. We’d already moved away from desks in rows to clusters of desks and tables, but we knew we could do more with softer lighting, inviting gathering spaces, and places with rugs, pillows or rocking chairs that encouraged students to curl up with a book or chat about books with peers. We wanted to heed Franki Sibberson and Karen Szymusiak’s advice from Still Learning to Read to look at bookstores, to see how they create spaces that invite readers of all ages to pause, relax, and enjoy their reading and writing.
Beginning with Questions
You can come up with any list of questions that fits the goals you have for improving the learning environment in your school. We found that more than 3-4 questions is probably too much — a small number of questions gives a focus to the classroom visits and notes, but it also allows time to discuss other environmental issues that emerge. Questions to distribute might include:
- What do you notice about the physical environment of the classroom?
- What do you notice about the organization of the classroom library?
- What do you notice about the teaching space?
- What’s the teaching intention of this part of the room? Can you determine that without kids in the room?
After the classroom tours, we had everyone back in the large group look at the notes from their own visit written by the recorder. After this brief silent reflection period, we had small groups of two triads meet to discuss what they noticed during the tours of other classrooms, and what they might want to try in their own classrooms.
I remember in particular one teacher who worked in one of the mobile classrooms. These classrooms are a difficult space in the best of circumstances, but this teacher’s room was particularly dreary. She bubbled with enthusiasm as she described the lighting, plants, and soft areas she’d observed, and within a couple of weeks had brought in boxes of greenery, lights and pillows. This teacher even became an innovator, and was the first to separate the fiction and nonfiction titles in her classroom library — something that many of her colleagues soon tried successfully.
What the classroom tours activity does is get teachers into each others’ classrooms, talking collaboratively about how environment impacts learning. We believe we saw far more change, more quickly, than if we had tried to mandate or require specific environmental changes. Our larger goal was to get teachers started with ongoing conversations across grade levels about the links between room arrangement and literacy instruction. We wanted them to ask each other, “Why did you arrange the area in that way?” or “Why did you make that instructional decision?” We did hear these questions, and we saw these discussions continuing for weeks after the tours. It was an hour of staff time that was time well spent.