This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 Harker Quarterly.
Harker’s middle school students have enthusiastically welcomed the transformation of several classrooms into contemporary flexible learning spaces. The recent ergonomic make-overs provide positive in-class outlets for their natural energy – including the ability to stand, swivel, slide and even bounce while learning.
These innovative “moveable classrooms” were designed within the last couple of years to bene t middle schoolers, who often have a hard time sitting still for extended periods of time. The redesign has been a labor of love for three forward-thinking middle school teachers: Patricia Lai Burrows, English; Scott Kley Contini, computer science; and Thomas Artiss, biology.
Their students, meanwhile, report they nd it easier to stay on task and learn in class. Among the most popular items in the moveable classrooms are swivel chairs, stand-up desks, yoga balls, bouncy bands and podiums that students can use with either a stool or yoga ball.
“At some point in classes, you need to move around,” said Cameron Main, grade 6. He called the new moveable classrooms “relaxing” and said they help keep him focused, “unlike unmovable furniture.”
Classmate Minali Kapadia agreed. “I love it! I always feel really squirmy in classes and nd it hard to pay attention. The chairs make me feel comfortable. I feel like I’m more relaxed, and that is the reason my grades are significantly better than previous years,” she said.
Burrows said she was inspired to change her room after reading articles about people – both adults and children – spending so much time sitting. She wanted to create an environment that would enable her students to move and wiggle since “that is what their bodies want to do.”
So she brought in a variety of items that would allow students to expend energy in class without disturbing others, including yoga balls for students to use instead of chairs, bouncy bands (resembling giant rubber bands) and bicycle pedals that attach to the front legs of the traditional student desks.
She noted that some of her best classroom discussions now take place as students gather in a circle and sit either on yoga balls or on the floor. She also said she loves using swivel chairs on wheels because she and the students can easily wheel them around for small or large group discussions, or simply move them out of the way for added floor space.
Her classroom also contains podiums, which students can opt to use with a chair, stool or simply by standing. “The students seem jazzed about coming to class because it feels a little more like play than work, but at the same time, when they are working, they are doing so with focus and diligence,” she said.
Kley Contini, who in addition to teaching computer science is also the middle school’s director of learning, innovation and design, shared that he has been having much success using flexible space desks with moveable chairs. He said he appreciates that they allow for individual and group work to occur fluidly.
He first got the idea for the new classroom set-up after present- ing at the Merit Conference at the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College. “I fell in love with the center’s flexible classrooms. one item that I really liked was a moveable desk on rollers with an adjustable work surface. I was able to redesign the look of the room in minutes and enjoyed watching participants completely change the layout to their own comfort by either moving closer to the presentation, nearer to a window, toward an available outlet or to be closer to colleagues,” he recalled.
“By allowing students to have the mobility and flexibility in their own learning space, I feel that the needs of both the teacher and the students are best met. Students are able to swivel, shake, roll … whatever they need to stay focused without interfering with other students. By releasing them from the rigid rows of traditional desks, they have been allowed to relax, nd their best zone of focus and contribute to the learning more efficiently,” he said.
Artiss agreed, reporting that his biology classroom has really benefited from the addition of standing desks. He had been thinking about incorporating the desks ever since his previous job as a department head at a private school in Seattle.
“Back then, we went through a complete redesign in the science department there. We were considering what desks to put into our newly renovated classrooms. At the time, there were stories in the news about desks that were high, had stools instead of fixed chairs and had foot swings, which we ultimately chose,” he said.
“Whoever made fixed chairs and desks has never taught middle school!” he said, adding that kids are restless and fidgety as well as really kinetic. “Forcing them to sit in immovable chairs and tiny desks doesn’t make sense. The foot swings also allow students to get rid of excess energy that might go other places. Kids love the foot swings. Students from other classes and other grades come into my classroom at lunch just to sit and try them out. And parents loved them at Back to School Night.”
Not only are the tall stools and option to stand at their desk better for students’ posture, but it also seems to keep them awake and focused, Artiss pointed out. Students particularly like standing at their desks while they are working together. “The desks are big – sort of like drafting tables – and students really like their space,” he said.
According to pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, the ability to sit still for an extended duration is counterintuitive to the middle school student’s normal need for movement. In an article (http://wapo.st/1PQE8E5) in The Washington Post, she reported that if middle schoolers have to learn by staying in their seats most of the day, their brains will naturally tune out after awhile. “Why do we assume that children don’t need time to move or play once they reach sixth grade?” she questions in the article, noting that “learning doesn’t have to be done in a chair.”
Although moveable classrooms are a deviation from more rigid traditional ones, Kley Contini believes they can be a welcome addition for both students and teachers alike. “I am looking forward to helping more teachers, when they are ready, to move into the flexible learning environment. They just need to roll on over and ask!” he said
Award-Winning Design Firm Visits Harker Classroom
Back in the fall, representatives from IDEO, an award- winning global design and consulting firm, visited Burrows’ classroom as part of their research into the various teaching environments of middle school classes both in the United States and abroad. Burrows recalled that during their visit, the IDEO team pointed out that the new chairs in her room had been ones they, in fact, had helped to create. “It was a complete surprise!” recalled Burrows.
“For this particular project, we are designing something to help students have a more individualized education,” explained Miki Heller, an educational designer at IDEO.
“At this early point, we are visiting schools to learn both what the needs are (from the teachers’ and the students’ perspectives) and to get inspiration by seeing what others are doing well.
“It was such a treat to visit Harker! We saw so many interesting and creative ways that Ms. Burrows and her students are innovating in their classroom. We all left incredibly inspired,” added Heller, whose visit to the middle school was arranged by fellow IDEO colleague Rohini Venkatraman ’06, a Harker alumna. Venkatraman began working as a business designer at IDEO last year.
“I collaborate with teams of designers to help clients solve customer problems in ways that also meet their business goals,” said Venkatraman. “The work has been both fun and challenging, and I am continually learning from and inspired by the people here. The Harker visit is a great example of what we do at IDEO; we go into the field to talk to real people and better understand the lives of the target customer. This project was one focused on the teaching space.”