Break Down the Walls!

By Samantha Pack, 7th and 8th Grade English Teacher

What if none of our classrooms had any walls?

Aside from the potential for off-the-charts noise levels, what would students’ learning look like in a school defined by completely open, flexible space, a school that simply did not believe in walls? What messages would kids receive if they could experience this fluidity – literally and metaphorically – between their classrooms?

On a typical day in a typical school, middle school students travel from room to room, finding themselves boxed in on all four sides by the walls that separate one classroom, one academic subject, even one part of their brains, from another. They seat themselves according to established seating charts, a teacher’s directions as they walk in, or in some cases, nothing at all. They take out their subject-specific materials: calculator, English binder, Science notebook. And they look up at the front of the room expectantly, waiting to see what the next 40 minutes will bring.

On a typical day at Hillel, many middle school students experience a hybrid of the typical classroom experience. They walk into their “regular” classrooms and perform some variation on the aforementioned routine: take a seat, pull out their binders, wait for instructions.

But Hillel middle school students also experience something quite different. When they walk into a Co-lab, their teacher might instruct them to wheel over a chair and set it up so that they can see the board, preparing them to envision how they will organize the space based on the learning that she has in store for them. Or, their teacher might randomly select students to sit in different spots, predicting the optimal configuration for the learning that day – and either finding out that his assumptions were correct, or that he was completely off-base.

Colab photo1

Which brings us once again to the question of the walls. How, I wonder, are Hillel students internalizing their experience in the Co-lab? What walls are they breaking down – or building – consciously or otherwise?

Can our students translate the experience they are having in the Co-lab when they walk in and seat themselves in a “regular” classroom?

CoLabphoto2

The eighth grade students are already voicing their preferences for one space over another. I am hearing: “Ugh. I just sort of…float away on those chairs!”, as well as, “I totally work better on the floor.” When a teacher in a standard classroom directs them to move to space that works for them, what do they do? What is reasonable for us to expect them to do? Does the fact that the chairs in a regular classroom do not have wheels impede the students’ ability to apply their growing self-awareness of themselves as learners, to break down those walls? Should it?

As we continue exploring learning in the co-lab, these are just some of the zillion questions that arise. I think, above all, the question we should be asking ourselves is this:

What would – better yet, what could – learning be if we broke down those walls that separate our learning spaces, in students’ minds as well as in our own?

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