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A writing class that’s ‘way more than that’

Students take survey to help design better learning environment

Forest Hills — Central High senior John Foster didn’t think administrators would be much interested in what he and his classmates thought about how and where they learn.

But having a few of their ears recently “kind of pushed me past” that thinking, he said.

John was one of nearly 30 students in English teacher Anne Keller’s senior composition class who spent about a month working on a proposal to improve the learning environment at their school.

They presented their findings recently to Principal Steve Passinault, Board of Education President Mary Vonck and Vice-president Marti Atwater, and others.

At the top of the wish list for Central High School students: faster Wi-Fi, comfy seating that can be easily moved around for collaboration or focused studying, and lighting that doesn’t cause headaches.

What they would get rid of if they could: front-facing, hard-seated desk-chair classroom combos, overhead fluorescents and sloooow internet.

Furniture upgrades at the school are not expected for another five years or so, Keller told her students. 

“I just thought, instead of having them do a traditional research paper, I wanted them to have more of a real-world experience,” she said. “It’s been really good just for them to be able to see that writing is everywhere, and the traditional research paper, that’s not what people do” in a post-educational setting.

Results of the senior composition class’ survey of current students

Project-based Writing Class

Seniors worked in three groups, each with a single focus — furniture, spaces design and technology. They made a survey available to all students at the school to get their opinions on what learning currently is like in the three areas, and how they thought it could be improved.

Next, they toured the Ada Township branch of Kent District Library, the Grand Rapids Downtown Market and Innovation High School on the Kent ISD campus and learned from facilities directors there about what went into designing those spaces. 

Then they put all their work together in a multimedia presentation, and before winter break pitched their research and findings to Passinault, Vonck and Atwater, as well as Michael Posthumus, senior learning designer at Fielding International, an education design firm, who lent guidance to the project.

The presentation included survey results such as 97% of students saying they want more seating options. A majority cited comfortable seating as most important when it comes to furnishings, as well as cost information, longevity of materials and sustainability measures taken or promised by specific companies.

Proposed improvements were not only meant to be aesthetically pleasing, but were backed up by sources that show improved student focus and test scores, as well as energy cost savings.

Student Voice, Heard

Passinault said several points made by Central High students align with work that went into the design of and recent additions at Eastern High, as well as bond work recently completed at Northern High. He told them that lighting improvements could be addressed “possibly as early as this summer.”

Vonck called the presentation “incredible throughout,” and recommended they share it with a wider audience.

Said Keller: “It’s so important to help students feel heard and be a part of decision-making. Trying to give them voice and agency is a huge motivator for the way I am shaping the research project.”

She gave them props for their work, too.

“I was hoping that the nature of the project and the presentation would highlight how learning should be — pulling in from different disciplines, adding field research, forming community partnerships … all the good stuff that the world requires from people, and good for seniors heading into that world.”

For John, the project had additional value besides feeling heard. He went into the senior composition class thinking he would just be learning how to format and write better essays. 

“I got out (of it) way more than that,” he said. “I’m not a great public speaker, so that also was another benefit. And one big thing we saw is that there are a lot of viewpoints, and different paths of research you can come across.” 

And while writing isn’t his strong suit, John admitted, latching onto one aspect of the project – learning about volatile organic compounds – piqued his interest. “I like science, so learning new things really inspired me to keep going. That’s why I was intrigued.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Kent ISD, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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