I foolishly attempted to clean up my classroom during my lunch break last week and time ran away from me. I dug out five huge washing machines boxes that I had been hoarding for months, sure they had some useful purpose .They were scattered around my room for me to ponder upon that purpose when my fifth grade math class arrived, and that’s when a possible purpose became apparent.
The students immediately asked what they were for, thinking I had some cool activity planned for them and rather than being disappointed when I explained I didn’t, several of them excitedly asked if they could work inside the boxes! Curious, I agreed and watched as the kids organized time allocations and order of rotation. Within minutes I had a room full of boxes of kids! Some students paired up while others climbed in alone with cushions and stools. Some boxes had legs hanging out, some had heads sticking out some were completely closed in. I was fascinated and interested to see whether kids would be productive or merely amused and distracted by the novelty of it. Sure enough, the majority of students who opted to work inside the boxes were highly productive.
Intrigued, I asked the kids why they liked being inside the boxes and answers included being able to close out distractions, getting comfortable and being in a darker environment. I thought for sure this must be a fifth grade thing but was amazed when my sixth grade math class did the exact same thing. I knew there was something more to this when a sixth grade student clambered out of the box to check if he had completed a problem correctly. I constantly have to remind this child to show his work and when I asked him where it was he told me it was in the box. I asked him to go get it and he explained that it was in and on the box. He had scribbled his work on the inside of the box!
I flattened the boxes when the kids went home but the next day they ran in asking if they could work in the “learning pods” and the “think tanks” again!!And it certainly made me stop and think. We increasingly ask our students to be creative and innovative, to dream, discover, and design. As I reflect on my own creative process the physical space I inhabit plays an important role. Here I am typing behind closed doors in a quiet space. I frequently get ideas when I’m walking or swinging on my patio chair or reading. I find I’m at my most creative when I’m alone, and once I’ve had time to formulate my own thoughts I feel confident to share them articulately with colleagues to facilitate a more meaningful discussion.
As we rethink and redesign teaching and learning to meet the needs of the 21st century student, we also need to rethink what a classroom looks like. Technology has enabled us to provide students many choices in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. Our classrooms also need to provide choices in terms of “learning spaces”. Sitting on stools under harsh fluorescent light may work sometimes for some kids but I’m now convinced that I need to provide some alternatives. I’ve always had floor cushions and carpet space but I’d like to provide more options to help create an environment where creative juices can flow freely. I asked the kids what environment they would like and it certainly got those juices moving. They dreamed of spaces that offer solitude and spaces that facilitate collaboration, indoors spaces, outdoor spaces, bright colorful spaces and darker muted spaces, quiet spaces, lively spaces; spaces that allow movement, spaces that allow stillness.
When we talk about 21st century tools a big old empty box isn’t the first thing that comes to mind but the boxes themselves have inspired a torrent of creative thinking in my room. Students have asked to paint them and install them as permanent features. Who knows where this will take us, hopefully to the creation of a workplace that inspires imagination and the discovery of new ideas.