Engineers are never satisfied. There's always something to be tweaked, an iefficiency to close, a procedure that could be done better. At a certain point you have to ship, or you'll sit there playing around with ideas forever. Each summer and winter break gives me the opportunity to examine what has worked and not worked and if there are any adjustments to make. The arrangement of my room is an ongoing engineering problem. The given conditions keep changing: increasing class size, evolved teaching methods, more technology, etc. My room has changed along the way, shifting to match my teaching style and contributing to a shift in my teaching style at the same time. Let's take a stroll down memory lane.
Average Class Size: 18
Commonly known as the "I have no idea what I'm doing" arrangment. At the time I was focusing on figuring out how to manage a classroom, teach lessons, and make sure what I was saying was correct. I also lacked all the fancy toys I had today, so I didn't mess with the "traditional" classroom model. Students in rows, dutifully copying notes off the board. It's boring, but I think it's all something we have to experience or you'll just go crazy trying to do too many things when you get started. This setting works fine for testing, but is a nightmare for groups. I did very few things with groups because a) I was new and b) planning them was a nightmare because I wanted to assign groups properly to make sure everyone worked well together. So many areas of my classroom wound up as wasted space. I had these beautiful tables with nothing really on them and a very congested central area for the calculators. By the end of the year I had decided that too many kids were relegated to a back row far far from the board, which spawned...
Average Class Size: 21
The Roman Forum. This arrangement decreased the number of kids that were in the back and added some space in the front row. The desks had a tendency to migrate out of position and it was difficult to remember how I had it all arranged when I needed to break things down for state testing days. Overall this was like a B- because while it increased visibility a little, the kids were cramped, it encouraged copying during tests, and I had the desks numbered 1-27 making it very hard to keep track of where the desks were because the setup was so haphazard. This year I was also becoming aware of the real problem: having every student try to look at one screen, possibly with 4-5 people in front of them. It made the bottom 15% of the board was useless, because the kids in the back can't see that low through all the heads. We still have the calculator congestion and I still was wasting my beautiful tables. Voting devices lived on the desks, and were constantly face planting on the floor. Though this was the year I discovered SBG and notebooks. And soon...
Average Class Size: 27
The Dawn of Groups. This solved a lot of problems. My class sizes were rising but this gave me a great way to keep track of the room mentally. Instead of trying to remember which desk was #18, it was lightning quick to recall who was in Red 3. Having the natural group arrangement lead to a lot more group work. Kids were talking to each other more. A natural aisle developed between the front groups and the back, which spawned the television era. Calculators and voting devices went local, in small buckets easily accessible from the seats. Notebooks found a home on my tables, creating a new form of congestion, but not a disruptive one (kids are clogged up there before the bell rings, not when we're in the middle of something). Visibility was improving, the "front row" had a lot more seats, and kids were looking passed fewer heads to see the board. White is a bit of a wasteland. But there's still work to be done...
Average Class Size: 28
Absorb the Masses. I had to find a way to add greater capacity to the same amount of space (what engineers were born to do). I knew I was going to have full groups most class periods. So I found some places to up membership from 5 to 6, shrunk the teacher area, and shrunk the footprint of two groups. I converted the tables into seating areas (see Year In Photos) to reduce clutter. A second tv came into the mix after Spring Break in Year 3 to help with visibility in the back. A small monitor is off the right to help the Reds. There are still a few issues to address. Most kids have a good line of sight to the board. The monitor for Red really only helps the two desks next to it, the other four are kind of in no man's land. Increasing the depth of the B/Y/W area from 2 desks to 3 desks limits the impact of the TVs. The kids on the very back row still have to bob and weave a little bit, or just try to squint at the main screen. White is a little more habitable, but still not great. What's starting to bug me now is how well the Purple and Green kids are able to work together. Sharing an iPad isn't an issue, working on a poster isn't an issue, there's space to go around and it's easier to look on with someone else. The other groups always have some kid way out of range of an iPad, or unable to join in the group discussion because the kids can't really communicate well when seated in rows. Testing is a little troublesome, but with two preps I can't really have a "testing arrangement" as there's no guarantee they all test the same day. Telling 32 kids to spread out when they're on top of each other already doesn't work. Deep down I know that the tables have to become the norm. The problem now is acquiring the tables. It's my hope to have a solution in place by Year 5.
It's always worth your time to examine your procedures. It can really impact the other aspects of your teaching for the better. I would not be able to deliver the lessons I give today if I was still dealing with neatly ordered rows. Don't be scared that something won't work. The only way to know for sure is to test it. I have to imagine my room will only continue to evolve, it is the Engineer Way.