A space to call their own (part 1)

I want to spend some posts discussing the spaces in which we teach and learn. And I want to keep these posts short because, well, life, and I’d like you to actually read them and not skim, scan, browse, sweep, or any of the multitude of reading skills our brains have perfected in the age of social media.

So…we’re asking our students to spend 8+ hours each day in our spaces and it seems to me that any discussion of student agency should include those tangible walls, floors, and ceilings.

At my school here in southern California we’re in the midst of a space makeover with an eye on emphasizing 21st century learning and interdisciplinary units. In this backdrop, a couple of recent experiences has me thinking about how our spaces could be used in a way that truly foster student voice and agency:

  1. I had the opportunity to visit High Tech High, a K-12 school in San Diego. If you’ve seen the documentaries Beyond Measure or Most Likely To Succeed than you already have an idea what this school is all about — intense PBL, no letter grades or report cards, and student empowerment. In terms of space, High Tech High’s minimalist, no-frills approach is a refreshing (and, quite frankly, jarring) departure from the often manicured setting that classrooms can become. There are no posters or bulletin boards that no student ever looks at, and no collection of dusty books that no student ever wants to read. There is lots of white space, lots of empty physical space. Lots of opportunity.
  2. Dovetailing nicely on this visit, I picked up The Space by Rebecca Hare and Robert Dillon. It’s a wonderfully concise and thoughtful book that challenges teachers and administrators to consider the goal of every inch of the classroom. Like High Tech High, the authors preach minimalism, and they also emphasize student voice in designing and maintaining the space. I highly recommend this book.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about how our teaching and learning spaces can promote student agency. I’d love to hear your ideas, especially if they are concrete, tangible risks you’ve taken in your own spaces. For example, here’s one simple thing I did recently: I asked our head custodian to create a white board desk for me–I call it my ‘brainstorming desk’– out of a broken white board and an old desk.


I’m not totally satisfied with the results, since my 8th graders often just want to doodle on it, though I think with more modeling and emphasis on how it connects to the ATLs (Use brainstorming and mind mapping to generate new ideas and inquiries) it could be the start of something really special. One message that both The Space and High Tech High have made abundantly clear: more writeable surfaces!

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