One room, many uses
Patty Berge converts her eighth-grade science classroom to suit multiple instructional methods. A classroom profile.
The black lab tables in Patty Berge’s eighth-grade science classroom are pushed together in pairs to form centers for studying measurement. Despite the room’s strange shape, Berge has used the space to enhance her instructional goals. Her students, in turn, use the room’s setup to manage their own learning and to work in groups. As the students arrive, it becomes clear that this is not a quiet classroom, but Berge likes it that way. Her classroom is arranged to encourage rather than discourage interactions among students — interactions that are part of her students’ engagement with science.
Arranging the room for instruction
In Berge’s classroom, the whiteboard and overhead screen are on the front wall, as they would be in most classrooms. The only problem is that the central portion of the room angles off to the left from the front of the room. So when she wants to do any kind of presentation on the overhead screen, she has to crowd all the students’ tables into the small space near the front of the room. Berge would have arranged things differently. “I do use a lot of transparencies and visuals. It would actually work out better if it (the overhead screen) was at an angle, so it would get the whole room, but I have to shift all the kids to face this way.”
The tables also have to be near the front of the room for demonstrations at the teacher lab counter. Students must be able to see either the table itself or the mirror above it. “If I do any models or demonstrations up here at the front of the classroom, for the kids in the back, I just lower the mirror at an angle and they tell me when to stop so they can see it. For some strange reason, they kind of enjoy the mirror slant. Even the kids up front say ‘I can’t see it, I can’t see it.’ I say ‘well, you’re up front, you can look straight up (at the table).”
The tables do not always stay in the same arrangement. “Usually the desks are actually set up differently. I do keep them in clusters, but I usually keep them closer to the front.” But today the students are working in centers. “When we do centers, I spread them out and I situate the centers in different sections of the room so they’re not tempted to wander and hang out with their friends. Right now, we’re set up with four centers and each center is split up into A and B. There’s no difference between the two, it’s just a way of making the groups smaller. Center one is measuring length, center two is measuring density, center three is measuring temperature, and center four is student-created.”
Along the far wall are five computers. There is a sixth one on a table near the front of the room, but its placement wasn’t Berge’s idea. “Since it was the newest computer, the administration asked me to just have it where I would control who goes there and take good care of it and keep it close by.” When there are too many students who need to use a computer, some of them can go to the social studies classroom. “The teacher is really great if I run out of computers. They don’t disrupt her room; they just go to the back of the room and use the computers.” But most of the time, students work together on the computers in the classroom. “By splitting them up into centers, I can usually have enough computers for everybody and they work as partners.”
On the walls are posters about metrics. “I usually change it with whatever the unit is. There’s a little poem for them to remember their temperature. So, as we change units, I’ll be changing the posters, so that it reflects what we’re covering.” It is only a few weeks into the school year, so there isn’t much student work hanging around the school yet, but Berge makes it clear that this will change. “Right now we don’t have any, but eventually any work that they do will be hanging up on the walls…and hanging from the ceiling.”
The only bulletin board in the room is called “Pick your knows,” and it displays students’ questions about the topic they are currently studying. “So,” Berge explains, “when we start our motion and forces unit, I’ll have them write questions down and we’ll paste them onto that board, so that as we go through the unit, they should be able to pick a question off and be able to answer it.”
The angled part of the room has counters with cabinets above and below them. Berge stores the supplies she and the students will need for each unit separately. “We do a lot of centers and a lot of activities, so anything that we keep in a unit, I store it underneath so it’s a lot easier to prepare for class and for centers.”
Arranging the room so students can manage their own learning
When the students arrive in the classroom, they go directly to a center station and begin discussing what they should be doing with the other students there. They don’t wait for Ms. Berge to tell them where to go because they have all the information the need available to them. “I have a rotation schedule, which I post outside the room,” she explains. “So, when I tell them they are having centers, they know as soon as they come to class to check what group they’re in and where they’re supposed to start and where they rotate — it helps to keep the chaos a little down.”
This is not something the students know how to do perfectly the first time. They have to be taught what to do. “This is the first time we’re doing centers, so they’re still getting used to the routine of checking where they’re supposed to be, so it takes a while. At this point, they still need a few reminders of ‘All right, get to your centers,’ but it works pretty well.” The students enjoy it, she notes, and they are successfully performing experiments. “Even though they’re not tremendously complicated experiments, they do enjoy trying to find out the answer to the problem.”
Berge and her colleagues encourage their middle school students to take on progressively more responsibility for their own academic lives by keeping them informed about instructional goals and assignments. “On the left side of the board is the daily agenda, what’s going on, and their homework. And then the second bulletin board is where they keep track of their homework from all their classes, including science. And usually at the end of the day we review all the homework and they check their assignment notebooks.”
As you walk into the classroom, there are folders hanging at eye-level on the right-hand wall. There is a folder for each class to turn in papers to be graded. On the left, there is a more complex arrangement. Grades are posted here every two weeks. There is also a crate for each period containing a folder for each student; the folders contain the students’ portfolios, as well as any handouts they miss when they are absent. “If they’re absent…they know to come directly to the folder the next day.”
Returned papers go into a tray that has been designated for each class. One student in each class is in charge of returning papers. “Students at the beginning of the year applied for jobs and one of the jobs is to hand out the papers. Another one’s job is to take attendance every day. Every quarter, they rotate so that everybody gets a different chance. Instead of being paid money, they get extra credit points. So, they’re very helpful, they take the attendance, they pass our graded papers, and take care of the animals, and also fill out the homework chart.”
Room arrangement and classroom management
The jobs that students do also help with classroom management. “I’ve noticed, that the kids who have a tendency to be disruptive, if they have a job and they feel like they have a responsibility, they’re more focused. They want to keep the job, so they try to behave.”
This is indicative of Berge’s attitude toward classroom management in general. She tries to be proactive about student behavior by arranging the room so that students are both involved in learning and away from distractions. “I usually keep them grouped in fours, I just have them angled closer in toward the front of the room.” Sometimes she spreads them out two-by-two, in rows, “but I find it’s more of a hassle because we do a lot of cooperative work together. They work in groups, so it’s a lot easier to just have them grouped.”
But she doesn’t give students total freedom when it comes to seating. “At the beginning of the year, I do let them sit where they want to, but it’s just to see where the trouble spots will be and then I assign them seats. They will get an option towards the end of the year, if I’ve noticed that they can be responsible, to sit with friends, but as soon as it degrades, we go back to assigned seats.” Learning is the first priority.
Berge is quick to note that room arrangement is only part of what it takes to help students behave appropriately. “Really, the room arrangement is having them separated from their friends where they’re more likely to talk, or having them closer to the front. But really if I can get them engaged — and that’s the hardest part, getting them engaged — they’re less likely to be a disruption.” She laughs. “I’m still working on that one.” That one, of course, is what good teachers are always working on, whether they are first-year teachers or twenty-year veterans. Patty Berge has managed to create a classroom space that enhances instruction, fosters student independence and helps students stay engaged in a lively process of learning with their peers.