Out With the Old, In With the New (or Nearly New)!

Once I got the go-ahead (and a budget) from the Headteacher, I couldn’t wait to get started.  School holidays were approaching and I had one week to kit out the classroom.

Gathering ideas

I started by looking for other blogs from teachers who had already changed their classroom this way.  Most of the blogs that I found were from teachers in New Zealand or America.

“Outside the windows of our classroom is a dynamic, fast-paced and ever-changing world full of choices. How can we expect our students to solve problems and make choices independently if we constantly solve their problems and make their choices for them? Our classroom environments should be conducive to open collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking. This simply cannot be done when kids are sitting in rows of desks all day.”  Kayla Delzer.

Other helpful blogs / websites are:

https://flexibleseatinginclassrooms.wordpress.com
https://www.edsurge.com/news/2016-03-01-10-tips-for-using-brain-based-methods-to-redesign-your-classroom

The first things that I learnt from reading these blogs was that I was going to have to totally blitz the classroom and rid myself of all non-essential furniture and storage.  This meant having a good sort through of old papers and files; for example, things that I hadn’t ever looked at that were stored on shelves around the classroom.

Create as much space as possible.

You will need at least a whole day, in my experience, to have a good clear-out of your classroom.  Take this opportunity to purge yourself of all the old pre-2014 (and often pre-1999!) resources, CPD course materials, reference books and worksheets that you thought might come in useful again but never did because you forgot that you had them and now they are out-of-date!  If you find it hard to let go, just remind yourself that the resources are likely to be available either on your memory stick or on the world wide web somewhere.  Failing that, try and convince a colleague to take the papers – then you can pester them if you ever want it again (which you probably won’t).

Once you get into the flow, you will be amazed by how much space you can make in your classroom. When I did my clear out I found 6 copies of the National Literacy Strategy but I also found really useful things that I have been using ever since!   Make as much space as possible within your classroom – be brutal and clear out the clutter.  You will find that this is the most time consuming part of the process but I can tell you.. it’s definitely worth it!

I also involved the children who sorted through some of the cupboards – e.g. the wet play toys and games.  We were quite ruthless and managed to reduce a whole cupboard of games down to one shelf in a cupboard with the ‘keepers’ being things like lego, dominoes, card games, older kids puzzles, buckaroo, monopoly, chess and draughts.  Any toys that the children thought were too young for them were passed to lower years.

By getting rid of lots of unused ‘stuff’ I was able to remove a whole cupboard and numerous tables from around the edge of the classroom.

Where to get your ‘flexible learning’ furniture.

Finding the furniture takes time and determination.  There are lots of good second-hand sofas and chairs available on Shpock and Ebay.  My best advice is to look carefully at any photos – What does the seller’s house look like? Are there any visible stains on the material?  How bad is any damage? – and think about size and colour.  IMPORTANT: Check that the item hasn’t been in a house with smokers and be prepared to wash covers or clean the upholstery – there are lots of good products around to undertake any spot cleaning.

I decided early on that I didn’t want the classroom to look like a living room so I avoided any large leather sofas and chairs.  Instead, I looked for bright colours and managed to find a second-hand purple sofa bed for the bargain price of £10.  It was just about small enough to get into the back of my boyfriend’s Nissan X-trail and only 10 miles away.

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You might also know of second-hand furniture stores in your local area (like Emmaus on the edge of Oxford where I found an Ikea chair for £10) or good charity shops.  Keep a good look-out for any beanbags that don’t cost a fortune.  They are rare!  I was lucky to buy one a year ago from a Helen and Douglas House shop for £5 but you have to be in the right place at the right time because they don’t hang around for long.  If you can find second-hand beanbags for a good price then consider purchasing them for your new classroom.

In the end, because I couldn’t find good second-hand beanbags, I bought some fantastic floor cushions from Ikea (for £8 each) that look like manhole covers!  The children love them and they are easy to stack.

The cushions, tables, tall chairs, lamps, picture frames and rugs all came from Ikea.  ‘What would we do without Ikea?’ I ask myself!

You can’t beat Ikea for affordable rugs to revitalise the floor of your classroom and the range in the children’s section is usually really good fun and very colourful.

The initial budget that I was given was £200.  This was increased to £250 when I got to Ikea and found some great lap trays/laptop supports (BYLLAN).

I just about managed to get everything that I needed within budget – proving that it doesn’t need to cost the Earth!

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Designing a ‘perfect’ learning space

Having become interested in changing my classroom to a ‘flexible learning’ space, I wanted to see what the children thought of the idea.

“If you could make the classroom into your ‘perfect’ learning space, what would it look like?”

In pairs, the children designed their classrooms on A3 paper.  There were some interesting ways of spelling ‘board’ (bored) to mark where the whiteboard should go (mental note made to practice homophones again) and we talked about what choices of furniture there might be.

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One of the children’s designs.

Some of the children liked the idea of having ‘zones’, such as an art zone and a maths zone.  There were also some children who find it a bit difficult to imagine anything other than traditional classroom layout of desks and chairs.

I believe that involving the children at an early stage is incredibly important – they need time to adjust how they see their learning environment and to ‘buy-in’ to the concept of a flexible learning space.   Imagine what it must be like when at ten years old you are suddenly told that you will be able to ‘choose’ where to sit and who to sit next to and that the seating options include sofas, soft chairs and cushions!  Discussions with children should include clear messages about the classroom continuing to be a ‘learning’ space and motivational messages about how they are going to be trusted to make good decisions about the way they learn.

All the way along the journey I shared progress with the children.  I told them about furniture that I had found and checked with them that they liked it.  This generated lots of excitement and discussion.  Doing this enabled me to manage their expectations.  As you might imagine, some children had fanciful ideas that just couldn’t be accommodated on a state school budget!

I had agreed an initial budget of £200 with my head teacher.  Rather than commit to spending large amounts of money to kit-out the classroom, we agreed to run the project as a ‘pilot’ to see for ourselves whether the benefits described in the research could be realised.  To be honest, I didn’t know how much it was going to cost to furnish the classroom but this seemed like a good start. I knew that I would have to buy second-hand furniture and I found lots of good advice on other blogs.   Read my next blog for advice on where to look for bargains!

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Release those tootsies!

Whilst I trawled the internet for inspiration to help me redesign my classroom into a flexible learning environment, I allowed the first change to take place… it was time to take shoes off!

It was the report on the BBC news website that started me off on this first step.  A school in Derbyshire had followed examples set by schools in New Zealand and Scandinavia by implementing ‘shoeless learning’.  According to the decade-long research of Professor Heppell (by all accounts, a bit of an expert in physical learning space design), behaviour problems are reduced, gentler behaviour increases, children become more willing to sit on the floor and furniture is less damaged.  Why does this simple act have a positive impact?  Well…

“Nobody knows why this works, although there are many hypothesies: in China, it is suggested that reflexology has the answer, in India – respect (as temples are shoeless too), in England “more like being home”.. and so on. All interesting hypothosese, but… who knows?” (Professor Stephen Heppell 2011)

If you ever tell children in a classroom that they can take their shoes off, there is always an exclamation of “Yes!”  They waste no time in freeing their little toes and stretching out their legs.  I know that I always feel better when I don’t have shoes on.  In fact, if my feet are uncomfortable I become very grumpy!

Until now, the children in my year 5 class wore school shoes all day.  Letting them take their shoes off in class time had an immediate relaxing effect.  They were more comfortable and appeared more content.  Some children sat on their chairs with crossed legs.  It was a small step towards FREEDOM!

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Stepping into the unknown with a flexible classroom…

Life is all about taking risks, right?  Well, that’s what we encourage children to do all the time!  So, when my headteacher gave me the go ahead to make changes to my classroom, I immediately felt excited.  I already had some ideas!

The seed of my dream was planted when I listened to a speaker at an Independent Thinking conference.  The speaker was questioning ‘Why have seating arrangements in classrooms hardly changed in 100 years?’.  The presenter showed images of modern classrooms containing alternative seating (bunk beds, sofas, beanbags, a rowing boat!).  This was a revolution to me!

The idea of flexible learning is to allow the children the freedom to choose where they feel they can best do their learning on any given day and who they sit with.  This could mean sitting on a sofa one day and sitting on a cushion on the floor the next day.  The environment of the classroom needs to provide different seating options that the children can explore and use.  They can move places if they want to – for example, to avoid distractions.

This is my classroom before the changes:

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Why flexible learning?

The research supporting flexible learning spaces is vast and multifaceted.  From postural benefits to behaviour improvement and proven reductions in childhood obesity, the research shouted at me that the benefits could be huge.  BUT, I have to admit that I was nervous about ‘letting go’.  In my mind, I questioned whether giving the children more freedom and flexibility might result in chaos and a lack of focus.  Having spent my teaching career so far carefully arranging desks and thinking about seating positions, I started to wonder whether I was a bit mad for even contemplating this!

However, despite my moments of ‘freaking out’ I knew that I had to give it a try.  After all, I reckoned I could pull this off for a minimal budget and keep the desks and chairs in case everything went badly wrong!!

Next instalment to follow….

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