Saturday, March 21, 2015

Learning Lab & Communication Station: A Physical Space for Collaboration

Below is a proposal I wrote to my principal and superintendent to institute a “learning lab and communication station” on our campus next year.  I will be a half-time literacy coach/half-time teacher and have dreams of creating a space that is innovative, brings teachers out of isolation, and honors their craft in a collaborative way.  Please let me know what you think (or if you have something like this on your campus!)

Learning Lab & Communication Station

The implementation of a Learning Lab on campus allows the faculty a space for active, built-in, ongoing professional development without leaving their students or taking up any precious prep time.  

The Learning Lab acts as a hub of creativity, a place we - teachers, students, administrators - are all learning - myself included.  It is a “lab” where we are experimenting with teaching techniques and pedagogy we have not tried before:  we can take risks while celebrating the power of communication and collaboration.  

Trying something new is scary and teachers no longer have to be alone in this experiment.

Learning Lab Menu:

Academic Discussion Date:  Teachers with little to no experience with academic discussions now have a dedicated space where they can use the modular furniture, observe me with their class, or co-facilitate one of the following (see below) without the disruption of rearranging their own room:
1.) Harkness Room:  Filled with 40 movable and modular desks and chairs (ex: SmithSystem furniture), the Learning Lab can be arranged in variety of discussion formations, including Harkness:  one large “table” seating 15-18 with surrounding observers.  
2.) Debate Settings:  with two lecterns and movable chairs, the room can be split into two
intellectual factions debating any given issue
3.) Socratic Seminar Scene:  The movable furniture can also be moved into a variety of  
Socratic Seminars:  Pilot-Co-Pilot, Fishbowl, or whole class circle-ups.

Co-teaching Cafe:  Teachers experimenting with academic discussions, can book the lab and have me set up the classroom with any form of discussion they prefer.  Benefits include:
1.) Supplying name tags and paperwork to support the academic discussion
2.) Some of our classrooms have immovable tables or desks that are not easy to rearrange.
3.) The reorganization of desks is disruptive and a classroom management issue for some teachers, making them NOT want to do it.
4.)   Wouldn’t it be nice for a teacher to be able to walk into a room that is set-up and ready to go, wasting no instructional minutes?
5.) I would be there to either help facilitate or observe and give feedback: whichever the
teacher prefers.

Teaching Demos:  For close reading activities, varieties of writing instruction, and classroom community building, teachers may book the learning lab for specific blocks of time
(30 minutes, 1 hour, 2 hours) and have me demonstrate a lesson.  
1.) Close reading - academic articles in all subjects
2.) Writing Instruction across the curriculum
3.) Public Speaking preparation
4.) Classroom energizers
5.) Improv exercises for creativity
6.) Brain games
7.) Small, medium, and large group discussion
8.) Community Building activities
9.) The dreaded college essay for seniors
10.) Poetry analysis (including poetry across the curriculum)

Mixed-level Magic:  Collaboration between upper-classmen and the under-classmen holds a power that is palpable, and it is right at our fingertips.

I have had success co-teaching with colleagues mixing both grade levels and ability levels.  For example, one year my amazing colleague, Carrie Linder, and I mixed her seniors with my freshmen for the “Success Project.”  The seniors mentored the freshmen for two weeks on “how to succeed in high school” and “how to make it to graduation.”  We also invited guest speakers to inspire on a panel as they fielded questions from students (administrators, coaches, board members and even our superintendent joined us).

Just last year, I joined forces with Jeff Conn and Tim Ducey and we watched my AP Lit students work some magic with their at-risk freshmen.  It was really beautiful.  For some reason, the seniors had a greater impact than the adults!

I would love to help teachers develop and organize some of these dynamic blended learning partnerships and the Learning Lab would provide a space to do it.

Mentoring New Teachers:  According to The High Cost of Teacher Turnover from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, “20% of all new hires leave the classroom within three years and in poorer districts close to 50% leave during the first five years.”

It’s hard.  That’s all there is to it.  Teaching is hard, and our new faculty gets very little assistance in managing and running a classroom, let alone being creative in one.  This is no one’s fault; it is simply the nature of this autonomous profession.

In the Learning Lab, new teachers will now be able to have a space to meet confidentially and explore the following:
1.) How to physically set up a classroom that is efficient and builds community
2.) Prepare lessons for observation and evaluation (some of the scariest and most
intimidating moments for a new teacher)
3.) How to set up and run academic discussions without disrupting their own space or
someone else’s (if they are sharing a classroom)
4.) A place to find resources on classroom management, community building, and
instructional strategies
5.) Supplies to support instructional strategies:  white-boards, popsicle sticks, name tags
butcher paper, markers, post-its, index cards, class sets of articles, sample student essays etc.
6.) A professional development library: books on classroom management, instructional
strategies, reproducibles for community building, and graphic organizers etc.

District Writing Prompt Scoring Days:  We would now have a dedicated space to score student writing that is secure, comfortable, and confidential.  We could accommodate larger groups of scorers and would not be taking up another valuable space on campus with all rubrics and paperwork at our fingertips.

We would also now have a larger space to store the mountains of student writing samples in an organized fashion and keep it secure for the entire school year without risk of it being moved or getting lost.

Instructional Rounds/Mini Rounds Gathering Place:  The Learning Lab could be the gathering place for all Instructional Rounds.  There is more space, it is filled with resources, and it is a confidential, quiet environment.  There is also something powerful about it being in a classroom and having the ability for everyone to literally visualize students and teacher in the physical space of learning.

Writing Center/Tutoring Lounge:  Stocked full of resources, what better place to house a collegiate-style writing center and tutoring lounge.  Our stronger students (CSF scholars/AP kids) could rack up community service hours while helping our struggling learners.  

Stuff to Support Student Success - (Instructional Resources):  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a dedicated space for “the stuff” (teacher tools) that enhance dynamic instruction?  

Here is a list of what could be housed in the Learning Lab/Communication Station.  I know some of these things sound so basic and simplistic, but in a busy teacher’s day, these are the little things they simply can’t get to:
The fun stuff:
1.) butcher paper
2.) name tags
3.) post-its
4.) index cards
5.) markers
6.) popsicle sticks
7.) community building props (balls, dice, cubes, stuffed animals, playing cards, paint chips etc.)
8.) Music

1.) Common Core curriculum support
2.) copies that facilitate academic discussions
3.) class sets of rubrics
4.) class sets of graphic organizers
5.) sample essays & prompts

Living Library:  Instructional Resource Books & Journals:  The Learning Lab could house teaching resources - both current and classic books and journals - that support different pedagogical methods.  These resources could be checked out to faculty.
1.) Books housing reproducibles for argumentative and informational writing
2.) Graphic organizers that support close reading, critical thinking, and writing
3.) Literary magazines
4.) Educational Journals
5.) Poetry anthologies
6.) Short story anthologies that support reading across the curriculum

Technology, too! (Ipad/Tablet/Laptop Cart):  The Learning Lab could also house technology carts to support solid instructional strategies.  The technology coaches could also share the space for Professional Development, when needed.

I envision a collaborative relationship between the tech coaches and the lit coaches;  these positions should not be isolated from one another but rather work in sync to make teachers’ jobs easier!

This is a dream of mine. Of course, as all of us in education know, many of these ideas come down to logistics before instituting: space on campus, teaching sections, number of teachers travelling or needing homes and the dreaded dollar.  

Yet, we must keep asking, pushing, and creating. The kids are worth it.

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