About 30 fifth-graders spread out on the carpet, Chromebooks on their laps and facing a Google Docs page projected on a screen. They’re in a library, but teacher Rachelle Alvarez has made it a classroom for the afternoon. “Our goal for the day is to define why government is important,” Alvarez tells her class at Cedar View Elementary School.
She’s brought them into this spacious room so they can work on their assignment unhindered by the physical restrictions of her classroom. It’s called the 21st Century Learning Lab, a new kind of facility opened this fall for a new kind of teaching and learning.
‘We’re asking teachers to teach so differently than we did 10 years ago’ – Andrew Secor, principal
Alvarez tells the students to get out their notebooks from class, and write a short essay on Google Docs on the usefulness of government. She then invites them to relocate as they wish to any part of the room where they would feel most comfortable.
Students scatter in all directions – to couches, tables, stand-up workstations or the floor. Some work in groups, some alone. Layla Reza picks a table of her own, where she thoughtfully composes her essay on the laptop.
“It’s very independent and quiet,” Layla says of her chosen space. “It gives me some room to concentrate and try to get my work done.”
As for her assignment, Layla notes, “Without government, the world would be chaos.”
But there is nothing chaotic about the Learning Lab. For the better part of an hour, it’s orderly and exudes the soft hum of studying.
A Coffee Shop for 11-Year-Olds
The Learning Lab was the brainchild of Principal Andrew Secor, as a way to help Cedar View’s 540 students work and learn in the ways a high-tech world demands. He teamed with Alvarez to redesign a traditional library with underutilized space into a place that still has the books but is filled with Ikea furniture, area rugs and study pods.
“I wanted a coffee shop/college experience feel,” says Alvarez, who was a Cedar View instructional coach until this year. Secor calls it “a coffee shop for 11-year-olds.”
The lab enables teachers to do whole-class instruction, small-group and individual work all in one place, options not available in relatively cramped classrooms, Secor says. The largest room in the building, the lab lets students work in different ways at the same time – collaboratively, on their own or with a teacher.
“We’re asking teachers to teach so differently than we did 10 years ago,” he says, recalling when students sat at desks in rows facing a teacher and chalkboard. “This allows teachers to come down here a couple times a week and use all this space the way we’re expecting them to teach.”
Once the school district gave the go-ahead, Secor secured $7,000 from the Cedar View PTO for furnishings and about $8,000 from the Cedar Springs Education Foundation for 32 Chromebooks. Teachers and parents assembled the furniture while maintenance staff moved shelves and repainted the room, whose color scheme was designed by teacher Erin Cairy.
OK Google, Let’s Write
Besides teachers signing out the room for lessons, it’s used for staff meetings, student organizations and tutoring. Its cart of Chromebooks also greatly increases student access to computers – a must for today’s learners, Alvarez says.
She increasingly has students turn in their work on Google Docs. Before, they didn’t have email addresses that allowed them to use the format.
“Now we’re beginning to see kids interact, and not substitute their learning, but create new learning,” Alvarez adds. “They’re creating and sharing their documents with me. It raises the excitement, and honestly it prepares them for the world we live in.”