Andrew Freeman: The Prepared Environment – November 29, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Last week the 38 students who comprise my Sophomore History class were cramping into the little space that we call our classroom – at least on Monday afternoon. As a charter school renting a church during the day, our teachers don’t have their own classroom spaces. Instead students and faculty move around from one space to another to accommodate various class sizes and church use. Our daily class schedule is so patternless you need aviator glasses just to read and comprehend it.

Creaaaaak! Claaaaaang! Now the deafening sounds of our 1950s-era metal chairs with hard wooden seats banging against one another as the kids clamor to find a space at one of the long plastic tables.

Finally, this oversized class has settled into an undersized space, one that is about as big as your average living room.

This room is a particularly difficult one to be in. We simply don’t fit. It’s difficult to get air flowing through. Just as I was about to start class, a student near me said, “I kind of wish school didn’t have to be in classrooms.” Another one piped up, “Yeah and I think we can learn more if we were out in the world actually doing things.”

This got me thinking about how we’ve come to define the “classroom.” Why do almost all of the classrooms in America look virtually the same – desks lined up neatly in rows facing a black or white board? Are there other models of classroom design that we should be considering? Does the “classroom” have to be contained within a square space? Could it be another shape, or could it exist beyond walls?

In his book No Homework and Recess All Day: How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education, Jerry Mintz tells a story of a poll that was taken among adults asking them what they would do if they were told that starting that day they were required to go to a particular building, and to a particular room in that building, and to a particular seat in that room five days a week. This was something they would have to do for five or six hours each day for the next 10 years of their life. Their reaction is that they would immediately call their lawyers!

However, Mintz notes that this is exactly what adults force upon children, and that by doing so we are violating their rights as human beings.

It’s from this basis that I would like to begin a discussion of the importance of the prepared environment in education. Just as a wildlife conservationist knows that protecting habitat is just as critical as directly saving the animal, a teacher of students should know that preparing the learning environment is just as important as directly teaching the student.

At its core, having a prepared environment means setting the stage for students to have enlightening, healthy, and relevant learning experiences in a safe and comfortable space. Esteemed educator Maria Montessori goes further to say that an important aim of a prepared environment, “is to render the growing child independent of the adult.” When my students are asking me why we can’t move “school” into the real world, this is essentially what they are asking for. They want the guidance of a teacher; but they also want the independence to direct their own learning.

The typical classroom environment in 21st century America doesn’t allow for this kind of rich learning experience. There are public school classrooms, especially at the elementary level, where teachers have gone out of their way, and often put in a lot of personal expense to create a more inviting space. I have seen and heard of a number of these models of innovation here in Humboldt County. However, these examples are more the exception than the norm.

For a moment, close your eyes and imagine what the ideal classroom would look like. OK, open your eyes now. What did you see? First, I imagine you saw spaciousness – plenty of space for everyone to spread out and breathe a little bit. Maybe you saw comfortable chairs and nicely made tables and desks. Perhaps you saw beauty in the environment; live plants; plenty of opportunity for natural light to enter the room. There would also be the latest in technology, possibly a Smart Board, or a ceiling mounted digital projector. As a teacher, I also saw plenty of space my books and teaching materials.

Maybe you saw something beyond walls? Perhaps students were on a regular basis alternating between visiting different manufacturing plants, farms, craftspeople, merchants, non-profit organizations, hospitals, governmental institutions, the university, other schools, nature preserves – engaging with these locations and the people who work there, learning real life hands-on skills.

If you think such a learning experience would keep students from learning the “basics” – reading, writing, math, science, history – think again. Any good teacher could come up with dozens of great lessons to tie into these hands-on experiences.

I think many of you reading this have countless other ideas of going outside of the box and manifesting new types of educational environments. Naturally there is a need for the enclosed classroom. There must be a space that is protected from the elements, and students and teachers alike do need rooms to call “home.” The question is what could these rooms look like, and how can we create opportunities for the learning experience to extend well beyond the classroom walls?

Currently, I see four major barriers to an innovative and relevant learning environment.

First, most of our public schools were built to serve the traditional box shaped sterile classroom spaces we all know so well. In fact, the majority of our schools were built 30 years ago or more.

Second, funding for education is currently being cut. The opportunity to fund new kinds of buildings, reconfigure existing ones, or provide for the transportation and logistical support needed to move the learning experience into the community is lacking.

Third, the government forced standardization of education stifles meaningful and creative approaches to teaching and learning.

Finally, local governments have either not recognized or opened up to the fact that there are new schools forming all the time. The public charter school movement is growing, yet local governments are not altering zoning regulations to meet this new demand. In fact, the latter will be the topic for this column next month.

Andrew Freeman is a teacher at Northcoast Preparatory Academy.

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