I have taught in my current classroom for three years so far. It has many features that I love. I have big windows that let in plenty of natural light. I have tables instead of desks, which makes possible a greater variety of seating arrangements. As for personal touches, I have decorated with art, maps, textiles, and other authentic artifacts from around the Spanish-speaking world. Displaying authentic artifacts is important in a world language classroom to help students see that Spanish language and culture isn’t imaginary, but something authentic from which beautiful things have originated and that matters in the real world – an idea also promoted by constructivist advocates and described by Angela O’Donnell in her overview of constructivism.
Here are a couple of pictures:
Using SketchUp, a free digital design tool, I created a (simplified) 3-D version so that you can see a few more angles.
You probably could have guessed, however, that there are things that I would change given the chance.
The biggest problem is that it is crowded. The room, I have been told, was originally designed for a maximum of thirty students, but almost all of my classes are between thirty and thirty-six students. This is a limiting factor because of visibility, noise and having enough room to breathe.
The second thing I would change is the technology. If you look closely, you will see a projector cart in the middle of my classroom. It seems silly to say that such a little thing is such a big problem, but a projector that must be centered directly in front of a screen is a serious limiting factor in finding a workable desk arrangement.
These limitations result in the teacher-centered arrangement you see above, which is workable – we still frequently work in pairs and groups – but not ideal for promoting the idea that students, rather than the teacher, are the creators and makers in the space.
Using SketchUp, I played around and had fun imagining different setups for my classroom. Want to see what I came up with?
What did I change? First of all, since we are dreaming, I removed three desks – the ones I need for the extra six students that my classroom was never intended to accommodate. I also upgraded my technology to a ceiling-mounted projector that doesn’t take up floor space in the middle of my classroom.
These two changes opened up more options for desk arrangements. I put tables in groups of three, with two students at each table. Students can easily work in pairs, in groups of three students, or in larger groups of six students.
I was also able to move my podium table to the side. This reduces the “teacher-led” feel of the space and places the focal point on what I think is the coolest feature – a mini stage.
SEE IT? It is right THERE under the big whiteboard:
Why a stage? Allow me to explain. Communicative-style language teaching is very performance-based. The teacher will often model – that is, perform – the language in theatrical ways using expressions, props, and other tools. A raised platform makes these types of presentations easier for students to see what is going on.
But the stage is a democratic space, because in a communicative classroom, students frequently present their own work. A raised platform increases visibility and it also adds some gravitas (and fun!) to the act of presenting.
In this plan, the physical changes are not costly – a small wooden platform would perhaps run a few hundred dollars and a technology upgrade is already planned for my school next year. Especially with the new technology, I may be able to enact at least some of my vision.
It is the human changes that would be the most costly. Class sizes are growing, and my room simply isn’t designed to accommodate so many people. Apart from tearing down a wall, there isn’t much I or even my administration can do to change that.
But it is fun to imagine, isn’t it?
O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association.