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Intentional spaces inspire and connect students

Educators make space for skills that last a lifetime

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series about how school districts in Kent County are part of a national trend of making the design of schools and classrooms an integral part of the teaching process. In today’s installment, School News Network examines how teachers can make creative adaptations of older classrooms to enhance student learning. 

Photos by Dianne Carroll Burdick 

Multiple districts — Third-graders in Morgan Everingham’s Kent City Elementary classroom enjoy math challenges. She intentionally designs her room to help students meet them. 

For instance, student Kiera Trebian said she loved working with a subtraction problem using number-line models drawn onto dry-erase tables, “because you find out new strategies in math. I love messing around with numbers.” 

Creating knowledge about numbers is also an opportunity to tap into fellow students’ understanding. After puzzling over a math problem, Rodney Flores eagerly shared his perceptions of collaboration around the new tables in his classroom, echoing the value of group seating and of working well together: “We usually team up,” Rodney said. “We learn from each other.”

Everingham uses her classroom space to help support communication and collaboration skills — a need she has seen since students have returned to in-person instruction. 

STEM teacher Nicole Andreas sings ‘Two Hands on the Keyboard’ to the tune of ‘Jingle Bells’

Instead of moving desks and students farther apart to reduce social and behavioral challenges, she asked her principal for new tables that stay together in groups. That way, students can more easily practice things like being a kind friend and disagreeing respectfully throughout the day. She says the tables alone have made a difference in her classroom. 

“Collaboration happens when students can sit around a table and have authentic ‘dinner table’ conversations,” Everingham says of her class, whom she calls the “Kindness Crew.”

Merely by tweaking the arrangement of the tables, on which students can write out their math problems, Everingham demonstrates how even traditional classrooms can incorporate “the third teacher” — the spaces in which students learn. 

Part 1 of our series: Education space, the ‘third teacher

While some districts in Kent County have dedicated bond funds to create new spaces for students to collaborate, deepen relationships, and belong, others have created spaces for these purposes without the benefit of additional funding. And many teachers like Everingham have carved out space to learn in new ways in schools built in the post-World War II era. 

Learning by Taking Walks and Taking Down Walls

Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler has seen the power of redesigned learning spaces in local schools. He wonders, what can be done “in a traditional high school to create more collaborative spaces? In older buildings, just knocking down walls between spaces can create a different learning experience for students. We can build environments to inspire students.”

Kendall College of Art and Design professor Gayle DeBruyn’s large classroom, located in the original Grand Rapids post office, is itself an example of an old site retrofitted for a new purpose. 

The space is full of sensory objects, mind maps in progress, large boards for visual representations of ideas, and even things like fresh flowers and jars full of twist ties, to spark curiosity and encourage thinking that makes connections that may not be immediately obvious. 

‘We use markers and draw right on the tables.’

— Xavier Beiter, Kent City Elementary third-grader

Bigger yet, she considers the spaces outside her historic walls to be her educational partner: “My teacher is the whole community.” Walking around the city is part of her students’ classroom experience. Learning happens best when the body is in motion, she notes. 

For instance, utilizing outdoor spaces for learning resources and projects has been a key aspect of Grand Rapids Public Museum School, which DeBruyn helped design. 

From left, third-graders Jace Childs, Xavier Stuhan, Kiera Trebian and Harley Rogers all work on their own subtraction problems and also share what they’ve learned

Equity and Diversity Fuel Design  

DeBruyn says that “many voices are needed at the table” if “wicked problems” are going to be addressed successfully. Empathy, which is understanding firsthand the needs, constraints, and desires of those who will be most affected by the problem itself, is the foundation of design thinking’s unique approach to problem-solving, she notes. Having input from diverse voices, she says, helps students develop empathy.

‘We are always looking at our classroom spaces, including furniture, to ensure that it is conducive to student engagement, enhances the learning environment, supports equity and encourages collaboration.’

— Pam Thomas, Kent City Elementary principal

TowerPinkster architect Steve Hoekzema agrees a range of perspectives is needed in developing designs for new spaces. Further, he has seen how morale problems can be addressed through well-designed spaces: through better lighting, air flow, and choice in seating that reflects the needs of each person. 

Yesterday’s Classrooms Meet Today’s Needs

As teachers at Kent City Elementary have demonstrated, learning spaces that encourage discovery, active learning, teamwork and connections to the community can be carved out in more traditional classrooms. 

STEM teacher Nicole Andreas’ classroom affirms the importance of intention in physical learning space. She teaches and writes lessons for all Kent City Elementary students using a project-based curriculum that is designed for collaboration. So is her space. 

Andreas structured her classroom with a gathering space up front — including a campfire-themed rug — for times when direct instruction to the whole group is needed. The rest of the classroom is configured for groups to work together. Chairs with wheels and a hard floor make the space more flexible.

‘In older buildings, just knocking down walls between spaces can create a different learning experience for students. We can build environments to inspire students.’

— Ron Koehler, Kent ISD superintendent

There is power in the third teacher to shape learning, Andreas says: “I feel my space and curriculum support student ownership of the learning.”  

Both Andreas’ and Morgan Everingham’s classroom transformations were funded through general operating expenses. 

Principal Pam Thomas says that all her teachers have the opportunity to design their own classrooms. She, too, understands the importance of intentional spaces. 

“We are always looking at our classroom spaces, including furniture, to ensure that it is conducive to student engagement, enhances the learning environment, supports equity and encourages collaboration,” Thomas says. 

As needs for change arise, purchases of more flexible and collaborative furniture are supported through general funds and an annual KCE walkathon fundraiser, she adds.  

Kent City Elementary third-graders Eddie Nevarez, left, and Isaac Barrera-Duran work together on a subtraction problem with teacher Morgan Everingham

New learning spaces as ‘The Third Teacher’: an SNN archive 
New spaces make for maximum creativity and collaboration in Forest Hills
Creative teaching and learning? We’ve got that in Rockford 

Strength Through Diverse Perspectives 

Xavier Beiter, a Kent City Elementary third-grader, noted that “when we are in a group, we do math games to use a new strategy. “ As he spoke, he did just that with his teammates as they worked together on a game to practice rounding and adding 10s. 

“We use markers and draw right on the tables,” he said with a nod. 

These collaborative kinds of spaces can make learning more responsive to students’ cultures, too. While research suggests the United States is one of the most individualistic countries in the world, many students come from countries where teamwork and collaboration are the norm. Mexico, for example, is two-thirds less individualist than the United States, according to one study by a consulting firm specializing in cultural influences on organizational strategies. 

‘Collaboration happens when students can sit around a table and have authentic ‘dinner table’ conversations.’

— Morgan Everingham, Kent City Elementary third-grade teacher

And, Hoekzema notes, different student personality types create the need for an equally wide variety of options for learning spaces. Doing so allows for greater connection — to school, to others, and to their communities. 

Hoekzema believes in the power of spaces to shape the present and future.

“Having been exposed to a wide variety of ideas and approaches to learning,” he says, “the student is now ready to confidently tackle life.”

Next installment: Bringing equity and inclusion into the design of teaching spaces.  

Second-graders Tiffany Penning, left, and Lincoln Hudson work together to solve problems

Read more from Issues in Education: 
Film class ‘teaching us how to be whole’
Friendships form through positive links

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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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