Burn those individual student desks!

Leaders are pressured to improve test scores and schools, which usually spark discussion of teaching practice, hyper testing, and an elimination of the fluff. These changes are often met with extreme resistance, shallow compliance, and overly simplified new strategies. These often do not work. What if I told you, that there was a way to change instructional practice without talking much about instruction? What if I told you there was a way to get folks to discover the change needed for themselves? Cue the inception bassy soundtrack. What if I told you it all could start with getting rid of those insidious individual desks?

Round them up. Build a pile. Add gasoline, a match, and watch them burn.

You know I’ve always had a thing against those little single seat desks in classrooms. I see them as tools of oppression, and quite appropriate for subjugating the masses. I remember taking a course called Education and Democracy at UC Berkeley, with professor Hurst. We would all sit in a big circle and discuss issues. He let us pick our own topics to research and ultimately select our final grade. This was even crazy for hippy-dippy Cal, but I learned tons and was inspired to be a teacher.

As a Spanish teacher, I switched out those desks for tables conducive to group work. They allowed for students to work together, communicate, and they just had a more communal feel. And then I became a school leader, only to walk around my new school, discovering room after room, filled with individual desks. How the hell would I change an entire school?

Flash forward. It took me three years, but I finally got rid of every last one of those godforsaken individual desks. If you didn’t know, school furniture is nowhere near affordable, especially if you want something that will last, and it is quite difficult coordinating furniture pick up and drop off with the school district’s warehouse. In addition, some teachers are damn near joined at the hip to these desks in the classroom, similar to students sitting like slaves within them.

So, How did I do it? (full story coming soon)

  1. Start with your bright spots
  2. Apply to grants
  3. Work with district partners like the iLAB at SFUSD.
  4. Use your school budget
  5. Start hacking towards change
  6. Highlight your believers to build momentum
  7. Look for donations

What does it look like?

School Retool, a design thinking fellowship, put on at Stanford University’s Design School, calls it “defronted classroom.” I learned about this during their 4 month workshop series. There is NO front. There are many fronts. It is no longer teacher as the sage on the stage. No more sitting in rows, listening to a robot read from a 1950s textbook, or click through slides from 1998 Microsoft PowerPoint. It is 2018, right. The chairs and tables can have wheels (for moving). There might be ottomans and yoga balls. There’s a rug, even though they aren’t in kindergarten anymore. There might even be a (phantom of the opera organ) sofa in the room. There can be smart boards or TV screens on the walls, or whiteboard paint on a wall. There can be a computer station or a cart of laptops. The tables are grouped for collaboration but can be moved into other configurations. Maybe there’s not even a teacher desk! There is no “look at me” podium. Oh yeah, and there ain’t no goddammed individual desks. And the students are moving, talking, taking control, and LEARNING.

Then What Happened?

What’s happening now?

  • We doubled our enrollment in the 6th grade, improved our  reputation, and got students excited to start at our school
  • We are piloting out project-based learning school-wide
  • Teachers are interested in setting up structures for academic conversations amongst the students
  • Teachers are requesting rugs and ottomans to set up reading nooks
  • Teachers are asking how can they get new furniture and tables with wheels
  • We are discussing deeper learning, the use of more technology, and personalized learning
  • We are introducing group roles schoolwide along with descriptions, rubrics, and visuals

What’s Next?

I want to redesign ALL the rooms. We now have group tables in every room or new flexible seating, but I want everything to look immaculate and innovative. If we want our students to believe they have access to work at any tech startup, non-profit, or company, they should get used to it. Also, now it’s about exploring different models. Teaching is both science and art. So let Basquiat and Einstein get busy in the classroom. Also, I hope for our teachers to explore innovative practices to promote personalized and collectivist learning. The trick will be knowing when to use which one. There’s the fun we signed up for, when we sent in our Personal Statement to that Graduate School of Education.

Reflections and Conclusions

I used to think that we needed to be focused on changing teacher practice, like a dog with a bone. I was relentless, but I had it all wrong. It’s often been said that form follows function, meaning that if a teacher wants to teach in a novel way, then they will change their environment. This is only true for those who are trailblazers, innovators, and risk takers. Anthony Muhammad calls these folks the believers. But the majority of educators are from an older generation and were assimilated to think inside the box. They are repairing the box as we try to reconstruct it. They are the Windows users. For this large group, we need to change the form first, and then the function will follow. I actually had a teacher say, after nearly completing a design thinking process, “I see now that if my classroom changes, I need to teach differently.” This is why we need to change the environment. 

It’s funny that now I am always trying to get teachers moving their chairs into a circle and promote student dialogue. Thanks, Professor Hurst and the many inspiring writers, speakers, and mentors I encountered along the way.

Please follow and like us:
%d bloggers like this: