Putting MORE FLEX in Your Flexible Classroom!

It almost seems like the place is deserted….the floors are extra shiny, random pieces of furniture are stacked up in small piles here and there, the lockers are clean and empty.  However, you walk down the hall a little further and peek inside one of the classrooms and teachers inside are frantically setting up their rooms… creating cute bulletin board displays, hanging posters, placing books onto bookshelves, carefully writing student names on name plates,  arranging furniture, cutting out laminated letters, and admiring their new Flair pens 😉

This is one of my favorite times of year.  I LOVE the beginning of the school year.  I LOVE the anticipation of meeting my new students.   I LOVE setting up my classroom.  My home away from home.  The place that will become my new student’s home away from home.   I spent ALL summer thinking about the changes I wanted to make after living a full year in a flexible classroom space.   There  were so many positive things  that occured, but there are a few major changes that I am making this year in hopes to make my flexible classroom even better than last year!

  • No Teacher Desk/ Add More Furniture
    Our generous PTO awarded the 5th Grade Team with money to purchase more flexible furniture, I needed to make space because my dream was to have a couch :))  I chose to “ditch my desk” to gain that space for the couch.  I am lucky enough to have a wall of cabinets and I am not the “pack-rat” type, so I had plenty of open space to store my things in the drawers and cabinets along the wall.  I also feel I will be more connected with the students because I will always have to sit in their spaces with them.  It truly will be OUR space.  I also got some Ergo Stools and a dry erase table which I adjusted to standing height.
  • Create Specific Zones
    Last year I allowed the students to move ALL the furniture anywhere, anytime.  This year students will only be able to change their seat options.  I have developed specific “zones” that will remain in place all school year:

    • Whole Group/Class Meeting
    • Standing
    • Floor Sitting
    • Table Sitting
    • Quiet Area – I don’t want to be bothered
    • Guided Reading/Math – work with teacher in small group
    • weCreate Corner / Reading / I’m done with my work
  • Designate Number of Students per Zone
    I will be designated a specific number of students who can sit in each zone.

I am really excited to try my new ideas out this school year and as with anything I will constantly reflect and make changes along the way as needed!

Now that…Is Positively Techie!

I am super excited to introduce my guest writer, Bethany Martino :))  Bethany teaches 1st Grade at Madison School and started her journey implementing a Flexible Classroom last year too.  Since I teach 5th grade, I asked Bethany to share  her experience as a primary teacher so you can gain the primary perspective as well!  

I am a person who is always looking for ways to freshen up my teaching and my classroom.  I was tired of how my classroom was set up– with desks in pods and all students sitting in little blue chairs that have to be uncomfortable. (I certainly wouldn’t want to sit in them all day long.) I knew something had to change.  I had heard about flexible classrooms but I had never seen one in person or knew a teacher who had transformed her classroom. I was also a little worried about how it would work in a first grade classroom with little bodies that are already active, easily distracted, and excited about everything . This could either be a complete disaster or an absolutely wonderful thing for my classroom and students. I crossed my fingers and made a plan.

Luckily, I work with some amazingly supportive colleagues who helped me turn this dream into a reality. I was able to get everything I needed from exploring our school basement and claiming unwanted items and our extremely generous PTO.

In my classroom, I have different options for workspaces and chairs. Students are able to select their ideal workspace as well as the chair that helps them focus and do their best work.

To begin transforming our classroom, the students and I talked about what would be changing and how we would use the new materials appropriately. The students were beyond thrilled and couldn’t wait to start using everything. When everything arrived, we used time to explore the new chairs.

I knew I couldn’t let first graders have free reign over the furniture or it would be complete chaos (and there would probably be a lot of arguments) so I gave the students some choice while I also was able to control it to an extent. We used Kahoot (an online quiz and survey website) to take a survey on our workspace and seating preferences. The students ranked the different options from 1-4 with 1 being their most preferred option. They did this for workspaces and seating. (To be honest, this process took longer than expected the first few times but the students picked up the process quickly and it became much more efficient each time we did it.) I took the results and assigned students a workspace (based on their preferences) and then a chair. In most cases, I was able to give each student their first or second choice. We continued to do this every two weeks so students could experience all of the different workspaces and chairs. I was impressed by how well my students were able to choose what worked best for them. They were all willing to give the different options a try and most found their favorites quickly. I found most students were able to focus on their work and finish it in the allotted time. This wasn’t always the case in past years. Most were able to start working right away. This wasn’t always the case in past years. The students also became aware of how they learn and work best. This wasn’t the case in past years.

As a teacher, I am so glad I made the switch. I feel like I am better able to meet my students’ needs. I’m a more flexible teacher because things are always changing in our classroom and we are able to move furniture and adapt to what is needed in our classroom for any given project or lesson. This is a switch that I am glad I made. I can’t imagine teaching in a traditional classroom again. If you’re on the fence about changing your classroom, do it. You won’t regret it and your students will LOVE it!
~Bethany Martino

A Positively Techie School Year

The countdown of days is on the board, students are more chatty than usual, and the scent of a sweaty, almost sixth grader hits you when you walk in the room…

It’s coming quickly to an end.  A school year with my little family of fifth graders.  I have spent more waking hours with these kiddos than my own children and I love them all dearly.  I have learned all about their lives, I know their mannerisms, their little quirks, their strengths and their weaknesses.  I look forward to seeing them each and every day.  It is amazing how much a child grows and changes in ten months.  It’s amazing how educators grow and change in a school year…

The end of the school year means a time to reflect, a time to think about the next little family of students that will be coming my way in the fall.  What worked, what didn’t, what I can do better, what I will try new next year?  The questions, thoughts, and ideas keep swirling in my head.  As much as I don’t want this year to end, I can’t help but think about how I can be a better teacher, learner, facilitator, and leader next year.

The biggest change for me this school year was turning my classroom into a flexible learning space.  It by far was THE BEST idea I had all year!  The positive response from the parents, students, and other staff members was overwhelming. The students tell me how much easier it is for them to learn in my classroom because “they don’t feel confined”, “they are comfortable”, “they can focus on their learning and not on the fact that they are sitting where they don’t want to sit”.  The thing about my classroom is it’s not only about the furniture.  “Flexible” was more of our motto all year.  WE were flexible.  Students had the choice of where to sit any time of day.  They had to make the right choice everyday to ensure they got their work done.  To my amazement, the majority of the time, they made perfect choices for themselves!  I gave them the power to take some control of their learning and they used their power wisely.  Next year, I already have plans to make a few changes and add a few fun pieces of furniture (and hopefully ditch my desk – if I can find it a new home).

I was able to teach all the fifth graders during a designated “tech time”.  I worked with students on projects dedicated to Social Studies, Science, and Language Arts as well as a few techie lessons to build their technology tool kit.  We had Mystery Skypes, wrote blogs, and worked on many projects including a few of my favorites the “Shark Tank” project, a Mother’s Day video, and a digital memory book. Our local Apple Store in Oak Brook, IL. sent out two members of their Creative Team to lead workshops to teach the students about the Apple apps on their iPads. The team came out several times throughout the school year and helped the students create a digital memory book.  This “book” is a memoir of their life from birth through fifth grade.  It includes photos, video, student created background music, and a voice over of the students telling their stories and memories for each year of their life.  These are truly going to be memorable keepsakes for years to come!

Mother’s Day Project

Towards the end of the year I started an Innovation Club and began the creation of the weCreate Lab at our school.  I met with K-2 graders and 3-4 graders to introduce them to technology tools that will be available to them next year in the weCreate Lab.  My favorite item is the ozobot robots.  I LOVE how ANYONE who can draw a line can make the robot move from one place to another.  I am also loving the fact that students build on their expertise and eventually code on the computer to lead their robot from one place to the next.  I spent a few sessions with Snap Circuits and littleBits.  The students easily caught on and understood how everyday items get their power through circuits.  I gave students challenges to make the light dim, make the fan turn on, and turn a light different colors.  It was rewarding to see how the students, even Kindergartners, kept trying and didn’t give up until they figured it out.  The excitement and joy they showed when they finally met the challenge was awesome!  The last couple of sessions we will be exploring the Makey Makey Kits.  Students this year got a taste of the new technology tools available to them, but next year, we will really be able to dig in and go through the whole design thinking process.

Subscribe to John Spencer on You Tube!

I want my students to be risk takers, therefore I hold myself to that same standard. Each year I try new things. Either I expand on what I’m already doing or I try something completely new. A couple of new ideas didn’t work out quite as I planned.  This year I tried The Global Read Aloud for the first time.  The Global Read Aloud is a global phenomenon created by the amazing Pernille Ripp @pernilleripp.   Books are chosen each year and classrooms around the globe read the same book and connect to discuss the book through Edmodo, blogging, Skype, etc.  I set up 2 classes for my class to connect with and we actually did connect with one class.  It was not easy to get all of the assigned chapters read each week and the class that we actually did connect with didn’t participate much.  I love the idea behind The Global Read Aloud, but I also feel that in order for it to work both classes need to really commit to participating fully.

Next year I want to improve on so many things.  I want to schedule more Mystery Skypes.  After the first Mystery Skype I ever did, I never wanted to give another map worksheet.  The amount of authentic geography learning that happens during a Mystery Skype is astounding!  Everything I know and have used on Mystery Skype I got from another amazing educator Paul Solarz @PaulSolarz.  I planned on participating in blogging challenges with my students, but I didn’t.  That will definitely be on my goal sheet for next year.  I also want to learn and use Google Classroom to it’s fullest potential.  It was a helpful tool to send out and collect assignments however I know it could be used for so much more!  I follow Alice Keeler on Twitter @alicekeeler.  She is THE ONE to turn to if you want to know anything Google.   I will be researching all things Google as well as work on getting my Google Certified Educator Levels 1 and 2 this summer.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.31.41 PM

Of course I have some new things up my sleeve that I can’t wait to try next year. I am super excited for Breakout EDU to arrive.  This is a game that promotes collaboration, teamwork, problem solving, the list goes on.  The goal is to unlock the box in a specific amount of time.  There are several different scenarios with clues to a mystery that needs to be solved.  You work together to solve the mysteries and unlock the box.  I want to start the year off with a Breakout EDU game at one of our Institute Days.  This way, the staff can see first hand how students can build bonds through the collaboration and teamwork involved in opening the box.  A PERFECT back to school activity!!

I am looking forward to connecting Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards to activities in the weCreate Lab and designing some novel engineering activities. I also signed up to receive the Idea Box  from the James Dyson Foundation.  I am excited to learn more about Hyperdocs and create some for the upcoming school year.  I want to tip my toe into gamification and figure out what it is all about. I am sure there are things I don’t even know I want to learn about.  The summer days are a great time to learn more about amazing ways to integrate technology into the classroom.   How are YOU growing as an educator this summer?  Is there something you want to learn more about?

I am looking forward to spending time with my “real” family, sleeping a little bit later in the morning, lounging by the pool, and going for long, quiet walks.  But I will also be thinking, designing, creating, learning, and doing everything I can to be…well – better.  

Now that… Is Positively Techie!

Putting the FLEX in your Flexible Classroom

We’ve all been there…. at the long, full day institute.  Rows upon rows of uncomfortable chairs face the front of the room.  By 10:00 AM you start feeling tired, achy, your back hurts and so does your bum from sitting so long.  Your mind starts thinking about the next five hours you’ll have to sit and you have lost focus.  Sound familiar?  Whether it was an institute, a graduate class, or an after school meeting….we’ve all had the experience of feeling so uncomfortable that it distracts us in some way.  So, think about it…How do you think your students feel? EVERY DAY?!?  Their growing, changing bodies, their energy filled selves, all bottled up and forced to sit in a HARD, plastic chair for the whole day!

I started to think about all of this and realized my classroom just wasn’t set up with my students in mind or with the way I wanted to teach in mind.  My classroom wasn’t completely traditional.  I at least had the desks arranged in pods and had a comfy reading area with bean bag chairs and pillows.  But, it wasn’t good enough, the chairs were so hard and heavy.  The desks were filled with student materials so every time we wanted to make more space for a project or change the desks around to work in larger groups, we had to use a lot of muscle.  It was loud, took time away from learning, and was inconvenient.  I knew I had to make a change.  So at the end of the school year, I made it my goal to create a fun, flexible, comfortable learning environment for my students in the fall.  I had the whole summer to figure out how I would do it, how I would manage the possible chaos in my class, and how to explain to parents why I created a space that looks and works like no other class in the school.

I love a good challenge ;))

My first step was finding comfortable furniture on NO budget from school and little budget from my pocket.  As I searched online for classroom furniture I realized it would cost a small fortune to get a fraction of the cool, new, innovative pieces that are out there.  Then I remembered I heard of a site for teachers to post items they would like for their classroom and random people or companies donate money so the items can be purchased, the site is called DonorsChoose.org.  I logged on and created my project “Flexible Learning Space for Innovative Learning“.  Within two weeks, my project of $1,300 was FULLY funded!  I was completely shocked!  I was going to get four Runtz chairs, four desks that could be adjusted to standing height and had no storage (super lightweight) and a lightweight rectangular table.  WOW!!! I really couldn’t believe my project got funded at all let alone so fast!  My dream of a flexible classroom was getting close to reality, but I still needed more variety for my students to choose from.  So I did what I do best, I started “garbage picking” from what other teachers didn’t want anymore.

Our custodian laughs at me because he knows I am the biggest “garbage picker” at our school.  So over the summer, I scanned the halls for the unwanted items.  Someone else’s trash could be my treasure.  For instance, my new favorite table of all time was out in the hall to be moved to the basement.  I took the adjustable legs completely off and added tennis balls so the floor wouldn’t get scratched.  I now have a space for students who like to work on the floor.  That colorful bin in the background was also a hallway find 🙂  along with two long, thin rectangular tables, a low shelf that I use as a bench, a super cute tiny round table, and a wire shelf to store the students bins.  So far I haven’t spent a dime and I already have a ton of choice for my students.  Things really were starting to come together!

Things I did spend money on were the red cushions for the hard chairs and the floor for my low table (Walmart – 4 for $8), the long body pillow for the counter seat (Target $10), and the rainbow chairs from Five Below ( a big favorite at $5 each – not the best quality, already starting to split at the seams).  I recently bought a pretty patterned contact paper to cover the round table and the bench and garden knee pads from Target in their clearance section for $2.50 each.  (I think the kids will be more comfortable kneeling or sitting on them.) You can see in the pictures I also have stools and swivel chairs on wheels.  My students truely have a wide variety of seating choice, which I wanted.

Using DonorsChoose was so easy and my students love the Runtz chairs so much, we decided to try again to get a donor for more comfortable chairs. “New Flexible Classroom Seeking Comfortable Chairs”  I even had a student go home and write a letter to help our cause:

Why Runtz chairs make a better learning environment 

Hello my name is…..  I am a student in Mrs Gadzala’s fifth grade class at….. I was very excited when we were donated Runtz chairs and built them.

Later that day I got my hands on it and started working on it. I loved the chair so much and realized how much better I could work when I was on the Runtz chair and not on a uncomfortable desk chair. It may be a little hard to set up but it is amazing to see what you can get done once you have a Runtz chair. So if you are willing to donate to my class, we would be delighted.

Having any student go above and beyond puts a smile on your face and makes your heart melt a little bit 🙂

Here are a few other organizations that will donate to teachers:

Here is a fun video I put together for part of my “thank you” package for my donors from DonorsChoose that showcases the delivery of the Runtz Chairs.  (We are still waiting for the standing desks.)

Our Flexible Classroom thanks to Donors Choose!

Classroom Cribs Challenge Video
You can also hit your local garage sales and I’ve heard college kids get rid of furniture at the end of the school year. So, don’t be afraid to “garbage pick” and think outside the box!!

I’ve got my flexible space, but how do I keep order in a classroom of 22 ten year olds when they are given complete control of where they want to sit at any given time of day?  I had a plan set up from day one.  First, I told the students my expectations for the space we were about to call our classroom community.  I explained my vision for this space and our roles in this space.  I asked them what they wanted to accomplish this year in this space and then we came up with guidelines to follow in order to have a successful year:

I created a continuos chart for the Runtz Chairs (aka Bum Drops – they look like gum drops you can sit on – the students made it up :)) and for the bean bag chairs.  This stops any arguments over who gets to sit on them.  When the other classes come in, they know to look on the chart to see if they get one of the “fun” chairs.  The other spaces and chairs are available for anyone to choose.  I have four students who chose in the beginning of the year to house their things in a desk and on most days sit at the desk.  That is okay, because that is how they learn best.  The other students have a bin to house their materials and can choose to sit on the floor, counter, a stool, swivel seat, in a group, all alone, by the window, or in the corner.  I explained to the students the importance of making the right choice for them.  I said and repeat often, “You are the only one who knows what the right choice for you is, choose wisely so you can accomplish all that you want this year.”  To my surprise, they actually do make great choices!  Sure, they may sit by their friends, but sometimes they don’t.  I have never had a more focused, engaged, and QUIET class than I do this year.  I read research that a flexible space works, but I wasn’t positive I could pull it off.  I wasn’t positive my students would take on the responsibility I was giving them of making good choices and they are!  It is so cool to see 🙂  I have to be honest here.  I do have the other fifth grade classes in my room for a short period of time three times a week.  The other two classes are a bit more squirrelly and need reminders about making better choices, but in time I believe they will “get it” too.
As far as having to explain to parents the benefits of my classroom?  I had this blog post from edutopia ready to share (the video is worth watching) But, I didn’t need to.  The reaction and enthusiasm of the students explained it all to the parents.  Here is a letter from one parent and I have gotten similar comments from others:

“I think the classroom looks fantastic; visually and functionally! My daughter is a new student to this school (we moved from out of state days before school started) and the main thing she came home talking about the first few days of school was your flexible classroom. She likes the freedom and choice. She loves the responsibility of figuring out a seat and what works for you. She thinks the classroom looks fabulous and she felt very mature being able to move around the class responsibly.  

I think this type of set up is great for kids with extra energy and that need to move while learning. While my daughter is not a kid who has to “move to learn”….I have seen great benefits for both types of children. My daughter told me that she loves her classroom and school and thinks the seating makes her and her classmates excited to learn. She loves the variety. She said her classroom is awesome!”

I knew taking a risk to create a flexible classroom for my students was the right thing to do.  I didn’t know the flexible space would have this much of a positive impact on my students and their learning.  I couldn’t be more happy with the turn out or more proud of my students for making such great choices each and every day.

If you are still unsure you want a fully flexible classroom space, I suggest taking baby steps to get you started.  Start with a corner in your room and expand from there.  Think about your students and the environment they will be most happy, focused, and engaged in.  Ask them what type of environment they want to learn in.  Check out my fifth grader’s blog posts on the type of environment they learn best in.

Creating a learning environment that is innovative and gives students comfort, choice, and the sense of responsibility….

Now that is positively techie!

Putting MORE Flex in Your Flexible Classroom!