I’m piloting a new program at my high school called N.E.W. School. The acronym N.E.W. stands for Next Evolution in Work-based Learning. Instead of teaching 9th and 10th grade English, which I’ve done for the last 15 years, I am co-teaching three classes–English, science, and technology. My teaching partner, Marika Neto, and I share 60 students in two adjoining rooms for 3 block periods every other day.
Instead of teaching the three classes in isolation and shuttling students from English to science to technology. We teach the three classes in concert around big topics. The first unit focused on nutrition, food production, and health. Students read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and conducted labs to learn about the digestive system and what happens in the body when we consume different types of food. They published digital notebooks, recorded podcasts, designed infographics and documented all their work online.
N.E.W. School is project-based and student-centered. Our goal is to help students see the connections between what they are learning and their lives beyond the classroom. It is only when learning is student-centered, hands-on, inquiry-based, and relevant that students will truly understand, apply, and retain information. Our goal is to cultivate curious, confident learners who can drive the learning and assessment happening in the classroom.
This is where the design of the classroom space becomes incredibly important. As Marika put it so eloquently, “the first step in creating is creating your learning environment.” As we designed N.E.W. School, we imagined a very different classroom environment. Instead of clunky desks and traditional chairs, we wanted to create a variety of spaces with moveable furniture that allowed for easy collaboration. We wanted our students to move the furniture to create the best learning environment for the task they were working on at that exact moment.
Too often furniture is a hurdle that must be overcome. Students must move around the furniture, push bulky desks together, and squeeze chairs into uncomfortable positions to work together. The result is a learning environment where furniture impedes learning instead of improving it.
In N.E.W. School we wanted to ditch traditional one-size-fits-all furniture and embrace variety. Unfortunately, my school board decided not to fund my proposal for alternative furniture. So, we wrote a Donor’s Choose project requesting soft seating and light-weight stools, which was funded. We also turned our classroom into a makerspace and students transformed milk crates into ottomans.
Despite our creative attempts to introduce alternative seating options, most of our furniture is still the traditional two-seater desks and chairs that were purchased when the school was built almost 20 years ago. However, to be truly effective, the classroom environment must be an extension of the learning philosophy. Both the furniture and curriculum design must strive to place students at the center of learning. Right now, my students are making do with what we have, but the learning environment presents challenges instead of solutions.
Editor’s Note: MeTEOR Education began working with Catlin and Marika on the design and implementation of N.E.W. School 2.0 in the fall of 2016. The result is an environment that supports their educational paradigm to encourage collaboration and student-driven learning.
About the Author: Catlin Tucker is a Google Certified Teacher, bestselling author, international trainer, and frequent EdTech speaker, who currently teaches in Sonoma County where she was named Teacher of the Year in 2010. Catlin’s first book Blended Learning in Grades 4-12 is a bestseller and her second book Creatively Teach the Common Core Literacy Standards with Technology was published in June 2015. Her newest book Blended Learning In Action was published in September 2016. Catlin writes the “Techy Teacher” column for ASCD’s Educational Leadership. She is active on Twitter @Catlin_Tucker and writes an internationally ranked education blog at CatlinTucker.com.