Sometimes I wonder whether our classrooms are, more or less, designed according to our own learning styles and preferences. As much as we want to fly the differentiation banner proudly outside our schools, I’m thinking that, when push comes to shove, our tendency is to fall back on that with which we are most comfortable.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to design and implement arts@newman, an approach for grade 7 and 8 students that used that languages of music, drama, dance and visual arts to walk around the required curriculum in a deeper and more meaningful way. I can honestly say that it was the best three years of my teaching career—powerful in so many ways, some of which I have written about here and elsewhere.
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the arts@newman program through the lens of the introversion/extroversion spectrum, considering how room was created for students who would have been on different parts of the continuum. To be honest, this wasn’t really part of my explicit thinking at the time but, being on the introverted side of things myself, I suspect that some of my own learning needs and preferences likely crept into the mix.
And I guess that’s part of my point.
In a move that author Susan Cain would abhor, the first decision that I made when planning arts@newman was to get rid of individual desks in favour of tables that would comfortably accomodate six students. I had students go through a designers book of colours and textures, and we decided on blues, yellows, reds and greens. I wanted the classroom to be bright and alive, and I wanted students to be interacting with each other.
But the room was large and there was enough space to push back the tables and create a sense of openness. Sometimes students would come in on a Monday morning and find no tables and no chairs—just open space. Other times, the chairs would be arranged in a circle. Still other times, we would gather in an open carpeted chapel across the hall. So, I guess it was all about flexibility within the available space. While the default orientation was group interaction, there was lots of opportunity to change that up and use the available space in creative, even innovative, ways.
Another important dimension of the program was freedom, an element that really emerged from my own personal need for privacy and personal time. In retrospect, it actually led to some creative alternatives. One of my favourites was affectionately named, Get Lost and Write. I was never very good at writing with others close by. I’m still not very good at writing with others hanging off my arm. So Get Lost and Write was all about giving students the opportunity to find their own private space among the nooks and crannies of the school building. Visitors to the program who happened to wander around with me during one of these times would find students under tables, behind bookcases, in the hallways, and outside of other classrooms.
Most would find a space on their own, but there were some who always chose to gather with other students and complete their work with a group. They were always the ones who, in all likelihood, appreciated the freedom the most, but didn’t find working on their own to be that productive!
Another strategy that also proved to be quite successful was called Two by Two. Students would be given a question to ponder and, after a couple of minutes of thinking, I sent them outside to the field in pairs with the instructions that they were to talk about their ideas with their assigned partner while walking around the schoolyard. Although students were sent off in intervals, and although I insisted that assigned pairs remain separate from each other, by the end of the activity there were always some pairs that had formed quads. These were usually the same students who clustered together during the Get Lost and Write activity.
A final activity that, in hindsight, may have resonated with the some of the more introverted students in the program was our weekly Friday morning walks. Every Friday, during all seasons of the year, we gathered at the front of the school and set off on a 30-40 minute walk around the neighbourhood. Each week a different student would volunteer to walk us along the same route using a different theme or topic. We had walks based on ideas like change, design, patterns, shapes. Some students chose more symbolic themes like fear, hope and strength. Part of the power of the activity was the focused look at a very familiar landscape, but a big part of the success of our Friday morning walks was the ability to get out of the building and think about things a little more deeply.
All of these activities and strategies were part of a program designed to change the way we think about what it means to be in school. And although I was developing the program for a group of grade seven and eight students, I suspect that a large part of my thinking was inspired by the kind of student that I was, what resonated with me, and where I sat on the introversion/extroversion continuum.
Perhaps that’s what we do…
Do you notice similar design patterns in the way that your classroom/school program is imagined and organized? What sort of balance have you been able to strike in terms of introverts and extroverts? Do you have practical ideas to share?