“Where Are the Desks Going to Go?”
“Where are the desks going to go?”
The house was still just bones and plywood when our friend Dave asked that. We brought him up the stairs and showed him and his fabulous wife the classroom loft. He has three girls, two of whom are still in high school. He spends a lot of time at a high school for someone who graduated in the 1990s. High school means desks, right? Why would (yet-to-be-named) Peace Valley School be any different?
Which is sort of emblematic of my whole experience with starting a high school. Most people picture the high school they went to, then look at the farm house and say…Where are the desks going to go? The answer is that we won’t have any desks, at least not the “one-armed bandits” or the formica goliaths that groan like bored teenagers every time you want to move the desks into groups. The learning environment is a different fish than it was in the nineties. They are all supposed to look like Starbucks now.
Educators have been revolutionizing elementary education ever since they figured out that little kids don’t learn that well when you make them sit in rows staring in the same direction all the time. A number of blogs about these amazing classrooms can be found on the internet.
And, unsurprising to any parent or teacher, what is good for the littles is actually good for all humans. So why are so many high schools still sticking to the desks?
For me, as a high school student and as a classroom teacher, it was obvious that no one ever asked the students. I don’t know about you, but the BEST classrooms at my high school had a couch in the back. It was usually some nasty loveseat that our teacher picked up outside the local college at the end of the year, but we really didn’t care. We would run for the not-a-desk the first chance we could. In my own classroom, my students would vie for my desk chair or my stool. In the leaner years, when my classroom was not provided by the district with enough desks for each student, they would fight for the chance to sit in a regular chair and hold a clipboard. Click here to find out what happens when you do ask the students.
School districts only have so much money provided them for infrastructure and traditional high schools are quickly becoming over-populated. So it is a numbers game: As an administrator with tenuous career stability, do you first try to tackle the safety issues, the HVAC system, or the rooms that are actually falling apart? If you do try to make a change, which classes to you select to flip and which professional learning community (that means group of teachers) do you assign researching adaptable learning spaces, vendors, and budget? When you are dealing with 60-100 classrooms in multiple buildings (including “learning cottages”/trailers), all accommodating different populations and different subjects, plus factoring “floating” teachers who teach in multiple classrooms, where do you begin?
Change is slowly coming to mainstream American high schools, but the numbers problem is still there. How to you fit 30+ teenagers in a cinderblock room with waxable tile floors so that they won’t hurt you or each other and they can pass the tests they need to take to graduate? Friendly bloggers will provide you with options like this:
Now replace that question using the Peace Valley model: How do you fit 12 teenagers in a sun-filled loft (with cork floors and vaulted ceilings) so that they can find the learning space that meets their needs for the task at hand? Look! I drew a picture of our classroom:
We don’t have a numbers problem at Peace Valley School. Our model only allows for 12 students in a classroom. The entire system is set up to be accommodating, flexible, and sustainable. And research, my own experience, and common sense backs this concept up: When students have ownership over their environment, when they can move their bodies throughout the day and adjust to accommodate their individual cognitive and emotional needs, they will be better humans.
Read the other blogs I linked here or take a look at what New Zealand is doing, for more research and opinions about flexible learning environments, some of them literally make my teacher heart sing! For me, the best part was designing the classroom and finding the furniture for it. I learned sketch-up and projected my graph-paper dreams and Internet shopping into a 3D model that the builders (Nathan and Nat) can actually use to make me the resource storage of my dreams. I found affordable, durable, adjustable, flip-able, roll-able furniture that can be arranged for dance parties, seminars, or board games. Man it was fun.
For those of my former classroom students who read this—yes I still have my Muhammad Ali poster, and yes it will be the first thing up on the wall, just like every year.
Want to help? Visit the wish list to see what we have our budgetary hearts set on! Donate, email us with suggestions, or sign up for our newsletter to find out when tours will begin! We are planning to begin tours in late February…stay tuned.
Molly is the Founder/Director of Peace Valley School. Her vision of helping young people create a healthy community and world is now being realized in the opening of Peace Valley School.