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Ann Marie Lynam has been a teacher in Long Island’s Baldwin Schools for 14 years, but this year she says her teaching has changed drastically. She supports much more student collaboration and autonomy, and not because of any revolutionary training session she attended but because of a classroom redesign that has fundamentally altered the way she does her job.
That was always the goal. Shari Camhi, Baldwin’s superintendent, invited staff members to apply to redesign their classrooms last year as a strategy for bringing more innovative instruction to the district.
“It is almost impossible to teach traditionally in physical space that is designed around innovation and creativity,” Camhi said.
So far almost two dozen classrooms have new designs, along with common spaces in each of the district’s seven schools. As the district finds available money in its budget, Camhi is funneling it into the project, and 47 additional classrooms should have a new look by the fall.
Lynam teaches seventh-grade social studies five periods each day, to students with severe special needs, to a mix of general and special education students, and to kids who are academically advanced. She needed a multi-functional classroom and wanted a layout that was completely mobile. The room has no “front,” and everything is on wheels. A “genius bar,” à la Apple stores, seats six students at a time at a raised, kidney-shaped table and has facilitated more small-group teaching than Lynam did in the past. The rest of the classrooms’ desks are arranged in groups to facilitate conversations on class assignments, and each group also has a comfortable ottoman or cushioned seat with a back to choose from. Sofas offer a final seating choice for students, whom Lynam trusts to make decisions that work best for them.
“A lot of them really do make the right decision,” Lynam said. And when they don’t, Lynam doesn’t jump to a reprimand, instead suggesting that her students might be more productive elsewhere, giving them the respect and autonomy to move on their own.
Because she thought too much technology in the classroom would minimize student interaction, Lynam doesn’t have laptops for every student, but she does have a projector that creates a large, shared computer screen on a white board and a large, mounted computer.
One of the biggest differences she has noticed is among the students. The group seating sets them up as resources for each other as they work on assignments and Lynam finds the whole room setup invites conversation.
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“Some students I taught last year, they were diligent, but you would never hear their voice,” Lynam said. “Now to see them talking to someone else, it’s just mind-blowing. I think that component cannot be undervalued.”
At nearby Plaza Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Tricia Wilder opted for more flexible seating in her redesigned classroom and a “theater nook” that creates the space for kids to act out stories from their favorite books or scenes from the history that they learn about in class.
Wilder, who has been teaching for 21 years, said she feels like a first-year teacher again because of the way her new classroom has made her re-think her lessons. More technology in the classroom — including laptops, Kindles, a touch-screen TV and a smart board — has led to more individualized instruction for students.
Wilder said the new classroom has forced her to relinquish some control. It was a leap, for example, to acknowledge that students can listen to a story while lying down on a couch instead of sitting cross-legged on a rug, dutifully looking at the reader. She said her lessons are different, and that the dedicated theater space has made acting a bigger part of her curriculum.
Camhi likes the fact that every redesigned classroom in the district looks different, curated to meet the needs of the specific teacher and his or her students. The process starts with an application, where teachers describe their instructional goals and connect the classroom design to meeting them. The planning process proceeds from there.
“It’s about the learning,” Camhi said. “The furnishing is the cherry on top, but the conversation is always about learning.”