Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom: prologue

This looks suspiciously like the start of a blog series…

A few weeks ago I posted a very brief photo post about the classrooms I would be teaching in this semester. It struck me that this deserved some expansion, as the kind of challenges these rooms have posed to me are probably the same that many of you face when adapting the physical environment in which you teach to the aims you have when planning a language class.

Deciding how to plan activities is both incredibly easy and horribly difficult. We might have a good idea of how we want our classes to unfurl over the course of a series of lessons, but we perhaps don’t always give enough consideration to the physical size and shape of the classroom as we should. While we might recognize that the shape and size of our classrooms dictates how our classrooms are arranged, we also need to understand that these factors should influence our choice of activities.

Before we get down to the business of moving desks and chairs around, we need to have a clear vision of what the room will look like and whether this will facilitate the activities we want to use. This post will act as the prologue to a series that introduce the challenges and opportunities that different physical environments present us with. I hope you’ll follow me on this journey…

The feng shui of the language classroom

Every classroom has a particular energy and flow to it. This isn’t new age mumbo jumbo; it’s common sense. Even in a place such as my school, where a number of rooms all follow a certain design, I find that there are little quirks in the shape and layout which make each unique. The little differences can make or break an activity if you haven’t factored the room into your planning. Here are a few preliminary questions that you might like to ask yourself about any given classroom.

Do you have enough seats for everyone? That sounds too simple to even bother considering, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised.

How mobile is the furniture? If you want to rearrange the tables or get students to move their chairs, to what extent is this possible? Sometimes these are in a fixed position: when this happens it definitely affects what you can do.

Where is the board? I know there are those of you who think the some kind of teaching wizard if they can get through a lesson without writing anything on the board, but for us mere mortals the board, be it chalk, white or electronic in nature, is still of paramount importance. So, how often are you going to use it? If you have several points of focus in the room, students need to be able to see all of them without straining their necks constantly.

How mobile are you? I run around like a madman during some lessons and hate it when I don’t have room to do so. For some activities you need a central position for demonstrating what you want to do, or just for delivering instructions effectively. Where is that space in the classroom?

How would you distribute handouts? How can you get paper to all of the people in class at approximately the same time? Of course, it’s nice to give students the responsibility of helping in distribution, but sometimes you’ll want to get this over and done with quickly. Where are the channels of distribution that will enable you to do this?

Are there windows in the room? A lack of natural light can put your students into a very strange mood sometimes and has an amazing effect on whether certain activities work or not. A general rule of thumb is this: nothing works quite as well in a room with no windows. Conversely, a room with blinding sun is terrible should you have any need to use a projector.

To what extent will the students engage with one another? At this point I imagine that the Dogme ELT fraternity will be foaming at the mouth at the suggestion that there would ever be a class in which the students weren’t engaged in speaking. Nevertheless, there are indeed times when you want the students to either listen to you speaking or to give their attention to some other interlocutor. Naturally, if eye contact is needed, such as in a class debate or in practically every type of group activity, eye contact you should allow.

If you’ve answered these questions, you’re off to a good start (if, while reading this, other questions came to mind, please feel free to make suggestions in the comments section below). Depending on the answers, you can now approach how you are going to use your room to facilitate learning. You are now faced with a classic ‘either / or’ situation.

1. Making the room work for the activity: Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.

2. Making the activity work for the room: If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you.

How do you get the room to work for you?

I find myself in a variety of rooms at present. Each presents a different challenge in terms of the questions I laid out above, but each also presents opportunities to get the room to work in your favour. I’ve given considered thought about what I can and can’t do in each of these environments, and over the course of five posts I’ll be detailing how I go about the ‘art of teaching’ in each particular setting. During these posts, I’ll be using the following four classroom layout models as points of reference, so the remainder of this post will be a look at these different models and what activities they facilitate.

1) The dance floor

As the name suggests, the dance floor is a layout that places the focus on an area visible to all. This layout can promote lots of student interaction as all the seats point toward a central focus point. The large, open space in the middle of the room is traditionally in front of where a teacher’s desk might appear and is equally great for group activities and class discussions as it is for teacher talk.

On the downside, that big area might be regarded as a serious waste of space, particularly if you have a large class. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to get a group talking to each other this can be a winner, because students are able to hold eye contact without constantly having to swing around in their seats. However, this seating chart requires a room with a lot of space in it.

2) The catwalk

As I mentioned, I walk around a lot during my lessons, mainly in the hope that my movement will instill motivation in my students, but also so that I can maintain eye contact with each of them and not leave anyone out when it comes to asking questions. The catwalk is effective in preventing me from wandering aimlessly. While it narrows the area in which a teacher can easily move, it’s extremely effective in rooms that have boards on opposite ends of the room. Bear in mind, however, that because you are teaching down the center of the room, you may have the unnerving feeling of being surrounded.

If you’re planning on holding a class discussion or some kind of two-team game, such a layout is a practical way of arranging seating, as students will always face at least half the class. Success with this layout depends entirely on the number of rows you use: the fewer the better. To maximize class interaction, make the rows of students parallel to the center lane as long as possible.

3) The independent-nation-state

Who doesn’t love a bit of group work? If, like me, you see the benefit of cooperative learning, or even if you regularly split your class into teams for games, this layout is an essential. This eating plan instantly tells students that you want them to operate independently from the rest of the class. It’s important to bear in mind that students still need to be able to see the board easily without giving themselves an injury.

Using this too often will probably result in a fragmented classroom and a lack of dynamic among the class as a whole. If your room is permanently set up like this, you might even find that each group forms their own classroom culture and is unable to work with students in the other groups. This is an effective layout, but should not be a permanent one.

4) The Battleship

Like the game and, I suppose, the – bloody awful – film, the battleship layout is all about the element of surprise. Consider the picture a metaphor for the battleship, the spirit of which is just to mix things up from the everyday norm.

This layout can be effective when trying to foster creativity, or even the polar opposite; this works when you have to administer a classroom quiz. The battle ship will almost certainly be a single lesson one-off. If you change the seating too often you’ll drive your students nuts.

Putting this into practice

I teach in five very different classrooms this semester. What’s more, they are very spread out. Before classes started, I did a tour of my prospective rooms and it took me about fifteen minutes to visit each of them. I clocked up more than a kilometer in the process. One thing became instantly clear; I wasn’t going to be able to pop back to my office in between each lesson. Consequently, I was going to have to bring everything I needed with me. Things have been interesting over the past few weeks and I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how I’ve dealt with the physical constraints placed on my teaching. Please join me again over the next couple of weeks!

NOTE: I’m hosting the 31st ESL Blog Carnival on 1st November, so this series will get properly underway at the start of next month!

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10 thoughts on “Dealing with the physical aspects of the classroom: prologue

  1. I’ve never seen such a layout as “Battleship” before. I think this has inspired me to set up a blog challenge on posting photos of your classrooms. I think it would be interesting to see everyone’s contexts (make it more real too). I myself teach in one room with desks that are certainly not ideal for writing (they’re flip up and wheely chairs) and another that has fixed long tables in a theatre semi-circle.

    1. I look forward to it, Tyson.

      I’m planning on five shorts posts in this series, one for each classroom I’m teaching in this semester. It would be nice if this was something that ranacross a number of blogs, as I think that would encourage an exchange of ideas on hotw to get the most out of certain rooms shapes and other constraints such as bad board placement or fixed furniture.

      let’s see how it goes.

  2. This is so often overlooked when planning lessons and I’m looking forward to seeing how you deal with each of your classrooms.

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