Holiday Reprise: The Class of a Thousand Spaces

One of my more popular postings appeared exactly eighteen months ago. For the holiday I offer it again here.

The best and most versatile classroom I taught in was the emptiest one, the one with the most usable space inside and nearby, the one with the least of mandated clutter, the one with the fewest gadgets. It also had highly rearrangeable furniture that could be adapted to any number of needs.

(My desk, a hand-me-down from a principal, was the size of an aircraft carrier. That was inconvenient. Even its spacious desktop, seemingly a blessing, was a trap, tending to swallow up small or even not-so-small items and to allow the formation of geological features if neglected. The way I handled the inconvenience of the desk was to put it at one end of the room and ignore it whenever possible. I didn’t teach from it.)

A bad classroom is not necessarily a cheap classroom, nor is an excellent one necessarily expensive. The question I have of any classroom is Will you adapt to the needs of the lessons given, or must the teacher adapt his lessons to your design? The more the classroom’s features are fixed or assembled, the less they can be harmonized with a teacher’s plan.

If a course is going to embrace Socratic discussion, a conference table would be ideal, but in a flexible classroom serving a number of pedagogical purposes there can’t be such a big thing. My classroom had small tables shaped in half-hexagons and free-standing chairs. The tables could be arranged in a somewhat ungainly but workable ring that served as a conference table, and that was the “default setting” of the classroom, or its arrangement at rest. Everyone was in the front row: the perfect setting for colloquia, seminars, and the spotting of surreptitious texting and game-playing. And, if needed, I could get up to make a point, come into the center of the “table,” and do a little theater-in-the-round.

I sometimes put a hexagon in the center for demonstrations. After my Theory of Knowledge classes had read about the “need to know” in José Ortega y Gasset, I would have them gather around the hexagon, and I would throw five dice, playing “Petals around the Rose”. The class’s task was to figure out how I got the number that I called out after each roll. Students who didn’t need to know could sit on the periphery, but most had an interest, and some became obsessed. It becomes easier to understand how Andrew Wiles could take eight years to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem if you have had a problem eat away at you and just had to solve it.

Sometimes the room filled with hexagons, or at any rate the conference table divided in pieces. The I. B. English A1 students had to study poems and a Shakespeare play in detail, and their examination was a twelve-minute talk given in private to the teacher after having been prepared in twenty minutes on an extract from one of the works studied. The presentation was followed by three minutes of questions and answers or conversation with the teacher. The students were not to know which extract they would speak on, and they could not use books or any notes prepared by them before the examination. It was a daunting challenge, and one thing they had to be able to do was talk in their own words about what they had read. The ideas had to be their own, not downloaded ones. How else to have this happen but get the kids to work over the poems in detail and talk about them with each other and me, taking notes as they worked? The classes would break into small groups with guiding questions set by me. After studying the poems or play at home, they discussed them with each other, taking notes on their work and answering my questions. I would stroll around the class, “eavesdropping,” as I put it, on their endeavors, guiding as needed. Of course, where a lecture became necessary I could talk to the class as a whole, re-establishing the conference table or having them face the blackboard, where I would write things down.

The whiteboard was available for what used to be called blackboard work by students, who would come up and write answers, solve problems, or fix bad sentences. Students usually enjoy that and feel a bit of an edge knowing that they are going to produce an answer in writing in front of their classmates. Whiteboard work also gives the more fidgety and restless students a chance to do something. (They are the same students who volunteer to pass out dictionaries and to rearrange tables: at last a break from sitting down.)

I could use a collapsible lectern, too, for formal speeches, and have the class face the speaker. This minimalist classroom had no facilities for Power Point talks, which I liked. Power Point has a way of homogenizing discourse, and it diverts attention from the speaker. (My colleague the geography teacher had a New Yorker cartoon posted on his classroom door. An executive devil in hell is interviewing a job-applicant devil, who is sitting attentively. The executive devil says, “I need someone well versed in the arts of torture. Do you know Power Point?”) It is also frustrating to have the almost inevitable delays as things that don’t work properly have to be fixed. Time is short and knowledge is great, and we don’t need this.

Along one side of the room was a counter at above-knee height. At one end was the classroom’s computer. In the center were reference books: a classroom set of hardbound “college dictionaries,” the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Fowler, a thesaurus (old-fashioned arrangement), the American Heritage Dictionary, The King’s English by Kingsley Amis, and Modern American Usage by Wilson Follett (and edited by Jacques Barzun, Carlos Baker, Dudley Fitts, James Hart, Phyllis McGinley, and Lionel Trilling!). I also had a set of national flags the size of index cards, each on a small pole with a stand. Students would place their national flag in a display area on the counter. I usually had between thirty and forty flags on display.

But all this could be swept aside at need. 9th-graders did set designs of The Admirable Crichton or The Miracle Worker and had the choice of 2- or 3-D designs. The 3-D designs, sometimes really elaborate constructions, had to rest on the counter during their period of display. (All of them were judged for faithfulness to stage directions and artistic flair by the art teacher and me.) And sometimes students used the counter as part of a classroom stage.

We also used space outside the classroom. On one side was a walk shaded by very large lilac trees and an apple tree, good places for practicing scenes or working up notes on poems. On the other was a quadrangle of lawn with two or three shade trees. A walk up to the next building had a balcony that could be used for, say, Balcony Scenes. I had two pairs of students volunteer to learn and enact the entire Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet instead of doing smaller excerpts. One of the boys even wore a doublet and hose (“those pouffy things and tights”) for the show. When students chose to do the Breakfast Table Scene from The Miracle Worker, we could use a large nearby porch and have pitchers of water and a bowl of scrambled eggs from the cafeteria. The whole thing could be hosed down after the show. Students working on scenes from plays could work outdoors, staying out of each other’s hair and keeping their presentations at least a bit under wraps. The seniors, in the run-up to their I. B. exams, could work under the shade-trees on their final review. I would circulate among the groups, making suggestions and telling them stuff I thought they needed to know.

The ranks-and-files devotees might think that this would be an inchoate jumble, but it was not. They might also wonder whether  students bothered those in neighboring classrooms, and here too the answer was (usually) not. After a period of some years, a competent teacher learns how to manage things by being subtly omnipresent and taking a dozen pulses more or less simultaneously. For their part, students who have the modicum of manners and sense not to turn a flexible system into a barroom brawl or a donnybrook appreciate the chance to have flexibility in their classroom and lessons. So did I.


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