A Willingness to Do Better

For one teacher, innovative space is key—and her stats show it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Julie Marshall

credit-steelcase-classroomMost classrooms are furnished with stationary desks in neat rows and columns. They’ve been this way since I started teaching more than three decades ago, and I’ve long felt constrained by the traditional physical classroom space. I lectured from the front of the room as students mindlessly copied notes and completed drill and kill worksheets. They used to raise their hands to ask permission to speak or leave their seat. This was long before iPads, smartphones and the internet changed the way today’s students are learning and today’s teachers are teaching.

The modern design of my room is the link between new technology, new pedagogy, and student participation.

Learning happens everywhere and it certainly does not have to take place seated at a desk inside four brick walls. Over the years I’ve tried many things to better engage students. I augmented my classroom with throw pillows, beanbags and even a claw foot tub creating a comfortable but interactive space where students were encouraged to collaborate. I often assembled and conducted class under a large oak tree furthering the concept that learning better takes place in a relaxed yet structured setting.

After 30 years of teaching, last year, following the installation of an active learning classroom [made possible by a grant from Steelcase Education], I saw my students engage and succeed at a new level. I finally have the classroom technology to match my educational philosophy. Tables and chairs, equipped with wheels, are easily assembled and re-assembled into groupings to facilitate the day’s learning needs whether involving the whole class, small group or individual study. Lecture, note taking and drills have been replaced with project-based multi-disciplinary units anchored by state standards. Hurrah!

My students are re-energized and collaborate in ways that simulate today’s work environment. I utilize the interactive white board to introduce the fundamental blocks of each lesson, making it easy to incorporate video clips and historical quotes and keep kids interested. One-to-one technology (iPad, laptop) places the world at the student’s fingertips as they research self-selected topics. Personal dry-erase boards are used to capture initial ideas, develop basic outlines and encourage group discussion. Students are learning from each other, respectfully questioning and challenging opinions as they re-think possible solutions together.

I decided to track and analyze three quantitative measures of student performance:

  • Percentage of completed work;
  • Growth in MAP scores; and
  • Change in end-of-year grade.

Data was available from my 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 language arts classes. Upon analysis, the overall percentage of assignments completed nearly doubled from 54 to 96.46 percent. The percentage of students exceeding their Northwest Evaluation Association reading goal also almost doubled, increasing from 35 to 62. The percentage of students not meeting their NWEA reading goal decreased from 47 to 22. Finally, the percentage of students increasing their end of year grade from the previous year climbed from 81 to 95, a 17 percent increase with an average grade point improvement of 5.8.

Nearly every day, students are giving multimedia presentations of their work. They are truly showing they understand class materials and sharing their knowledge with their classmates and adapting as they will need to throughout their life.

The modern design of my room is the link between new technology, new pedagogy, and student participation. Something as simple as a more engaging space has had a significant impact on my student’s success.

The outdated environment and regimented practice did not match my vision of a borderless classroom where open conversation and collaboration is welcome. Many teachers still use traditional classroom settings, methodologies and resources; whether out of insecurity or fear of professional evaluations and test scores. My classroom is proof that needs of the 21st century learner are better met in an innovative environment. Space impacts behavior and daily behavior in the classroom leads to success.

Learning is no longer a series of mindless, meaningless tasks as students visualize how education applies to their life and future. As a teacher, my role is to facilitate student ownership of the learning process as they attack real world problems through research, critical thinking and problem solving. Learning for understanding is important, but the ultimate goal of education is to teach students how to adapt to change, utilize technology and succeed in whatever they do. These active learning classrooms support that goal.

Julie Marshall, Ed.D., serves as a seventh-grade Language Arts teacher at Saluda Trail Middle in Rock Hill, SC, and an adjunct professor in the Richard C. Riley College of Education at Winthrop University. She has over 25 years of classroom experience at elementary and middle school levels in conjunction with seven years at the university level. Julie is an avid grant writer and was one of the inaugural recipients of the Steelcase Active Learning Center grants including Eno technology, innovative furniture, and staff development. Write to: jmarshal@rhmail.org

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