Learning Spaces and Places: How Do You Build for Community?

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Untitled photo credit: jotaemephoto via photopin cc

It seems I am inspired on my two-year blogaversary (?) to finally hammer out a post I have pondering for a while. That is the thing about blogging. Sometimes I will go weeks and in this case two months without posting anything to doing a number of posts in the same evening. Since mid-July when I was preparing to set up my new classroom home I started thinking about learning spaces and how they foster a sense of community.

One thing I immediately noticed when I entered my new school is the thoughtful design that has been given to all the spaces in the school. There are ample amounts of windows allowing natural light to stream in at all times of the day. Although this is a simple thing it is something that was missing in my last school. The effect that light has on our moods and learning is truly amazing. Another thing that I noticed was that throughout the school there are gathering spaces. These spaces are comfortable places that invite people to take a seat and relax. Gathering spaces naturally help build community. When we gather, we can’t help but talk and connect with others. Something as simple as the assembly room strikes me as a place that builds school community. It is a beautiful room filled with windows that is designed that when the school gathered it really helps everyone feel proud of the place they are in.

When I think about my classroom ( and in fact what I hope that you see when you walk in my room) is a space that promotes learning and community. Although my students each have an old school desk (an honoured and important rite of passage for everyone) their desks are arranged in groups of four. These little groups as all teachers know grow and form a little community as time passes. In a group formation of desks the students can chat and share but still have their own personal space that is solely their own to inhabit. About once a month I change things up and we move our desks into new groups. At the beginning of the year I choose the formation of the groups. As the year progresses the students begin to decide how they want their seating arrangement to look. This often yields interesting formations. Yes, some students really want to be an island for a  short while and others simply love sitting with others.

Our room also has 2 large tables where students can move if they find their group is being too chatty or they simply want another space to work in. The option is there and as long as they are on task, they are welcome to use it. When I set up my room, I made sure to leave some open spaces on the floor (I could have easily filled them up with our desks). These open floor spaces serve as a place for us to gather as a group and as spots for students to work if they so choose. I had to chuckle during our first silent reading time when all my students sat down at their desks to read. At first I was a bit puzzled but then I said “This is your room. You can read anywhere you like.” Something so simple seemed to make them very happy which in turn has makes me happy. There is nothing better than seeing two students stretched out reading side by side with blissful smiles on their faces.

Our classroom walls were quite bare at the start of the year. I see our walls as a space for us to fill with our learning and the work created during our adventures. It has been marvellous to see bits and pieces go up the past few days. I hope in the next while to had the bulletin boards over to the students, for them to choose what we should put up there.

I understand much of school design comes down to economics but I was truly surprised when I immigrated to Canada and saw some of the schools were designed. Many seemed to lack imagination or seemed to be places where optimal learning environments didn’t seem to have entered the school design process. I will say I was blessed to have gone to a beautiful school growing up where it seemed every space had a thoughtful purpose to help students learn. (I will blog about it soon but if you want to see a preview here’s a link to their website: www.Epworth.co.za)

How has your school been built for community?

How do you build for community in your classroom?

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3 thoughts on “Learning Spaces and Places: How Do You Build for Community?

  1. I really liked this, Mary. The layout of learning spaces are integral to the learning experience, I feel. I haven’t lucked out at all with my classrooms this semester – they’re fine but basic and not at all “cozy”. One room is based around grouped desks, the other in rows, and the third is much too big for my small class.

    I get really excited when I see that my university has redesigned collaborate/shared working spaces though. Last year the humanities postgrads finally got a new study hub that accommodates many more people in a hot-desking situation, with many spaces for talking, working silently, or relaxing on a couch (and the couches even have little laptop tables attached, if working in comfort it more your thing!). Prior to that we were in awful, cramped rooms with cubicle-style study carrels that limited opportunities for collaboration and ultimately felt very isolating.

    My favourite university study space that I’ve come across, though, is a very traditional one, at the University of Adelaide: http://erinstark0412.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/today-2/ (Sorry for the shameless plug, but I blogged about it a couple of years ago and can’t find another copy of the photos!).

  2. Great post, Mary. Love the descriptions of the spaces. You’re right that construction is tied to economics, but even with a budget the design and construction of learning spaces can emphasize the natural (light, outside), the community (gathering spaces), and the needs of learners and educators. I love how engineers and architects these days are willing to seek out ideas and feedback from people who will be using the spaces they help to create.

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