Don't put it down, put it up!
In a fifth grade classroom based around projects, everything has its place. This classroom profile shows you the design and purpose of Debra Harwell-Braun's fifth-grade classroom.
Debra Harwell-Braun’s fifth grade classroom is buzzing with conversation. Her students are busy at work in small groups. They are so busy, in fact, that they don’t even notice when a visitor walks into the room. Harwell-Braun herself is hidden behind a computer talking to a student. When she is done, she stands up, quietly says a seemingly magic word, and the whole class begins singing with surprising enthusiasm. “I love addition, I love subtraction, too…”
As they sing, these fifth graders swarm around the classroom, putting things away, getting papers out of their cubbies, arranging chairs around tables. “Place value’s lots of fun. I’m sad when math is done…” Miraculously, at the end of the short song, they are all in different groups busy at work again. Ms. Harwell-Braun is sitting on the floor using plastic tiles to teach a group of students about perimeter and area.
In a “project-based classroom” like Harwell-Braun’s, it is important that everything in the room have a place and that students have access to everything in the room except the area around her desk, which she calls “teacher country.” This means that students must be taught how to take care of the classroom space and classroom materials, as well as how to participate in the routines that make such a classroom work.
Furniture and cooperative learning
For a project-based classroom, Harwell-Braun insists that you need tables. Some teachers worry about tables because they are afraid the kids will cheat, or talk too much. But in this kind of classroom, the tables mean that she isn’t constantly moving desks around to get kids in groups. As for cheating, she suggests that you have to teach the children the difference between cheating and helping. But even without that, she notes, the EOGs have several different forms. And there is so much differentiation of instruction in this fifth-grade classroom that no two students seem ever to be working on the same task.
The tables mean that the students will discuss their work, something that is very important to Harwell-Braun. “In a project-based classroom,” she explains, “I want the discussion, because Michelle has so much to give to that table when they can’t have my attention because I’m one person.”
Harwell-Braun believes that students learn more when they work in diverse groups. The students’ regular seats at the tables place them next to students of higher and lower achievement levels. For every subject, students are grouped differently. This means that they don’t always work with the same students. It is this cooperative learning philosophy that Harwell-Braun says convinced her to try a project-based classroom in the first place. She says she wanted to see “how much kids could get from hearing each other instead of just hearing me all the time.”
The open space in the middle of the classroom is also necessary for this kind of teaching. Harwell-Braun explains, “We do a lot of presentations in our classroom and we do a lot of projects where they have to share, so I need to have space where they can share, where they can get up.” This space is also used for whole-group projects and special activities. For example, she says, “we’re having a powwow on Friday and they’ll actually eat in that space.”
This is the second year that this class has been together. The students are part of a fourth and fifth grade loop, so at the beginning of this year, they already knew many of the routines necessary to make activities run smoothly. Harwell-Braun likes teaching a looped class. She says that many parents who like it “are attracted to it because we don’t go back to basics. Parents kind of like that continuity. They don’t have to buy new school supplies the second year; just the curriculum changes.”
Even though the students stay the same, Harwell-Braun says, “I do try to alter the way the room looks. Like last year, we had a huge lighthouse in there for North Carolina.” This year there are four huge flags on the wall: Mexico, Canada, the United States and, confusingly, a pirate flag. This last flag is left over from last year’s lighthouse theme. “They asked me to leave the pirate flag up, because they like that one,” she explains. Harwell-Braun is sensitive to what the students want and need. She is constantly referring to the room as “our room” rather than “my room.”
Everything has its place
In a project-based classroom, everything has to have a place and has to be put away after each use. As Harwell-Braun puts it, “That’s the key to making the use of your space, having it organized, having it accessible and cleaning it up.” The students in her class know that this is important, too. It is eerie to see a group of fifth graders so cheerful about putting things away.
When considering the students’ enthusiasim, it is important to remember that this is the second year of a loop. These kids have learned all of the procedures that make the classroom work. Harwell-Braun says that she starts out with a new group by reminding them frequently, just as a parent would at home. “I think that’s one of the things my mother used to say: ‘Don’t put it down, put it up.’” It is important to set limits in a small space because, she says, “they’ll start to encroach on your space” and then you won’t even be able to walk around.
Harwell-Braun says that it doesn’t take students long to start reminding each other to put things where they belong. “They do a lot of that themselves after you set it up. For example, we’re going to lunch and I say ‘Okay, please show me your table is ready.’ And their table’s not being called, and they start saying to each other ‘Put that away!’ They help take care of their group and that helps me.”
In order to keep clutter around the tables down, students each have a cubby at the back of the classroom. “They have that little cubby area and that’s theirs. They can cram it as full as they want, but it can’t come out of there.” Students are also allowed to keep things under their chairs during the day. But at the end of the day, everything under the chairs has to go home or into a cubby, and the chairs have to go on top of the tables. “Having those kind of rules helps them to organize themselves.”
The important thing is that students don’t have unlimited space for keeping junk. (This might be a good idea for teachers, too!) Harwell-Braun has also tried using crates under the students’ chairs as storage space, which she says works. She points out that “if you give them a bigger space, they fill it up. So the notes from July are in there, they didn’t go home. If they have limited space that they can stockpile things, they don’t. They tend to throw out and get rid of it.” The workspace on top of the tables always has to be kept clean because at every change of activity, the space will be used for something else.
Every student also has a clipboard. This helps them keep their homework together with anything else that might need to go home. Harwell-Braun says, “If they can’t bring them, I supply them, because usually you can get them so cheap.”
There is a jar of marbles in teacher country that helps the class stay motivated to keep the classroom and their workspaces organized. Explaining how this method of positive recognition works, Harwell-Braun says,
We put marbles in when we recognize good things, and at the end of the week, we do an estimate. The person with the closest estimate without going over wins a prize, and they love that. And then if we get like 95 this week, then next week our goal is 100 and it goes up 5 every week unless we don’t get it. If we don’t get it, then it stays the same.
If we get it…we do something in addition, something really different that we don’t usually do. For example, the first week when they got it, we made no-bake cookies and that was their snack, because that’s really easy. The second time they got it, I had these styrofoam door hangers — you’ve seen them at Michael’s. They’re like 4 or 5 for a dollar. They all made door hangers for their rooms at home that said ‘I’m working, I’m studying.’ We do that kind of stuff, which takes not a lot of time to make, or a lot of money for me to spend. And sometimes it can be going outside and doing something different for science.
Near the entrance to the classroom, there is a small table with an inbox, a sign-in sheet and a file box underneath. This is where students put money for school events or notes or permission slips from home. Students also sign in every day, which is how Harwell-Braun keeps a paper record of attendance. As she says, “We do attendance electronically, but if there is some kind of problem, I can go back and look at who’s signed in.” Students also file their own papers to take home. She says this is easy, “If we just checked a paper together, you can say ‘Table one, file.’ And they go and they file it.” Again, this keeps extra papers from piling up on the tables.
Kids have access to all the space
Harwell-Braun makes an effort to help students feel that they are part of an academic community. Last year, at the beginning of the loop, the class chose a name and a song. This group is called “The Shining Stars.” They have t-shirts and they have a class song. Harwell-Braun sings “You’re a shining star, no matter who you are.” This group chose a disco song because, as she explains, “These kids are more disco-y” than groups she has taught before. The song’s lyrics remind the class that they are part of a community of learners, but also that they should each look for a “Shining star for you to see, what your life can truly be.”
This sense of community also comes from the design of classroom. Everything in the room is accessible to students: the cabinets under the book display, the tubs of math manipulatives — everything. Harwell-Braun does this very consciously. But she is also aware that this can’t happen without some preparation. “Now, that’s not to say that I don’t need to teach them how not to waste, because they are wasteful, they don’t put the tops on markers, that kind of stuff. But if they don’t ever get the supplies, they don’t know how to learn to use them!”
She also teaches students to share. She is proud that her students share things so willingly, saying, “They bring a lot of things into the classroom, like colored pencils. But you will not find many kids, especially at this point in the loop, who would say, ‘These are my pencils, you can’t use them.’” This sharing is important to her. “We’re a group, a community, a two-year community, and this is our place that we spend a lot of time.”
The one space students are not allowed to go without permission is the area around Harwell-Braun’s desk. She calls this area “teacher country.” She explains, apologetically, “There are a lot of reasons, not because they take anything, because I’ve never had them take anything, but because I do have things like white-out and things that they’re not supposed to have.” This is also the area where she keeps students records and portfolios.
Since she is so careful to keep the rest of the room cleaned up, she laughs when she thinks about teacher country. It reminds her of how her students see that space. “One of our spelling words was ‘disarray’ and one of the little girls came and said to me, ‘You know, I found an example for disarray. Teacher country is in complete disarray.’ I told her, ‘You’re exactly right. You got it!’” She laughs again and it is easy to imagine that being a student in Ms. H-B’s class is a lot of fun. Then she gets back to explaining about teacher country. “There are a lot of materials over in that little spot. I have my math organized by strands in those notebooks.” The bookshelves of instructional materials in teacher country reach to the ceiling.
All the elements of Harwell-Braun’s classroom design come to life when students begin their math centers. Several groups of them work on math games in the “workshop area,” another group works on a computer game, several groups work on problem sheets and one group works with Harwell-Braun in a circle on the floor. These are the places they landed at the end of the math song.
Harwell-Braun thinks it is important to keep math manipulatives accessible and labeled. She explains, “If I don’t have them out where I can see them, I don’t tend to use them. And that they need to be available so the kids can get up and get them.” She thinks it is a shame that these math materials are not always used in classrooms. “We’re provided with beautiful math kits, but those kits are not always used in classrooms, because you have to get out the big tub and dig through the tub.” It is important to her that these materials get used.
The computer screen faces away from the classroom, making it impossible for anyone to see what the students at the computer are doing. Harwell-Braun says that at having taught these kids for so long, she doesn’t need to check on what they are doing. She trusts them and knows they are really working on their math work. However, she points out the TV screen hanging from the ceiling and explains that it is hooked up to the computer. If she did feel like she needed to watch what students on the computer were doing, she could turn on the TV and see it all over the room.
When asked about the song, Harwell-Braun explains that “the reason we have the song is so they know that it’s time to clean up. It also gives them a time period to get to where they’re supposed to get. At the end of the song, they are where they are supposed to be with what they’re supposed to have.” What seems like magic now is simply something she taught the students how to do. She remembers, “That takes a little bit of work.” She makes it especially clear that her students are not too old to like singing. As she puts it, “Because these kids are fifth graders, and you would not think that they would be so uncool as to sing. They love it. They absolutely love it.”
The reading corner
The reading corner is by a wall of windows and is separated from the rest of the room by couches. The whole class piles into this area when they read a book aloud together and when they have a class discussion. But there are also pleasure books, research materials, a folder for each student with self-selected reading, and clipboards for literature circles.
The clipboards are what make it possible for students to manage their own literature circles. Harwell-Braun explains,
“We have about eight literature circles. They have paperwork and they have a schedule. Those clipboards that are hanging on the wall over there, that’s the paperwork? All the paper is there. And if they run out of a sheet, they come to me in teacher country and they get it, but all their stuff is there, and when they finish, they put it back over in the reading corner.”
Harwell-Braun maintains a large classroom library of paperback books. She has worked to collect it over the years. “I hit yard sales, I hit the Salvation Army for my paperback books. And every time Scholastic has a ninety-five-cent book, if it’s a Newbury or a Caldecott, I buy five, and that way I have five for a group, because your literature circles are never more than about five or six people.”
Teaching outside the classroom
Harwell-Braun doesn’t limit her class’s activities to the space inside her classroom. She uses the school’s instructional kitchen and also does a lot of activities outside the school building.
The school’s instructional kitchen is too small for her 27 students, so she compensates in several ways. “I can kind of run shifts, if I have somebody around that can look in on them.” But mostly, she tries to do as much of the preparation as possible in the classroom. The tables are good for this, too. She remembers, “Like last year, we made tortillas. We rolled them all out on those tables and we had them all ready. Then we all went to the kitchen and ran them through the cooking process and while we were in there we sang so they weren’t distracted.”
Harwell-Braun thinks that the space outside of schools is underused. She tries to get outside as much as possible. She was able to teach outside more easily at her former school “because I was at the back of the school, so I could spray paint all over the place. Now, I have to be a little more careful because I’m at the front of the building and we have traffic, but…this building has ample outside space.” She takes her class outside to play Native American games, to work on large projects, and to do special science activities.
In this space outside the classroom, Harwell-Braun continues her commitment to project-based learning. She keeps her students busy — or maybe they keep themselves busy — with the job of learning. Everything in her classroom has a place, so that the students can focus on the work of being fifth graders. When you are in this room, being a fifth grader seems like the most important job on earth.