If Walls Could Talk

by Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk with Becca Brasser, John Booy, Mark Ponstine, and Frency Frans

How do we make or miss opportunities to design our teaching spaces as safe places? If we trust that places and pedagogical practices are marked by hospitality, safety, and nurturing, then how much attention should we give the physical spaces themselves? In our investigation of schools, we came upon several instances of “space-making” that struck us as noteworthy examples of how we might think about our own spaces. We think of this as the walls talking to the occupants of the space..

Creating Classroom Space Together

Becca Brasser, teacher at Mustard Seed, speaks to this as she discusses how students work together to create murals: Perhaps your students can create these murals as a community-building activity at the beginning of the term! This might give the students ownership of their space—if the classroom is used by multiple groups of students, many murals could be constructed.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my time at Mustard Seed was directly opposed to everything I thought I knew about classroom design. I came prepared with bulletin board trim, stickers, posters, and more. However, at Mustard Seed the classroom (walls, shelves, bulletin boards, etc.) is empty until the students and teacher decide what will fill it. Sets of books, art materials, types of paper, and pencils are introduced day by day in an intentional way so that when the children enter the room, it is awaiting their participation rather than already being filled with things they had no ownership of. Similarly, the only things displayed on walls are of the students’ or teacher’s creation—so no prefabricated borders or anything else factory-made. Classrooms are filled only with beautiful furniture made out of natural, organic materials (wood and cloth) rather than plastic.

By the time the first six weeks are finished, spaces in the classroom have been filled with books and materials, relationships have been initiated, stories have been shared, work has been displayed, and procedures have been constructed. This is an important part of the year-long process and gives children and teachers equal ownership in the formation of the classroom community and the physical space. After all, what does it say to children when they enter a classroom that has already been decorated and ‘finished’ by the teacher. I truly believe that it’s the teacher’s role to make the classroom into a place for learning and creating; too much visual, prefabricated stimulation can prevent this.

Brasser continues, I spent a day in my classroom this week, experimenting with furniture placement and was struck by the prominent places—the meeting area, the blocks area—that, together, take up about half of the room. The blocks area tends to be a collaborative space for hands-on work. The meeting area tends to be a space for collaborative work with words. I found myself thinking about how I could mingle these two spaces—how to better bring language into the blocks area and how to better bring hands-on experiences into the meeting place. [This is only part of the article. Want to read more? Subscribe to the website by choosing "Register" from the menu above. It's free!]

Works Cited

Donahue, David M., and Jennifer Stuart. Artful Teaching: Integrating the Arts for Understanding Across the Curriculum, K–8. Teacher’s College Press, 2010. Print.