Seven years ago, I helped open the doors to the first new public high school our little town has seen in over 50 years: Mission Oak. The architecture was stunning: mission style inspired buildings with creamy white walls and reddish brown ceramic tile rooftops. The interiors include wide hallways with deco-style lighting fixtures and large see-through cabinets for safe flyer hanging. Classrooms are spacious with picture windows overlooking our spacious quad and circular planters filled with native Central Valley plantings.
And then came the desks.
Most of our student desks were borrowed from our sister school across town. And, boy, you can tell they were hand-picked with love. The maintenance guys rolled them into our perfect classrooms complete with a rainbow colored underbelly of ABC gum and a peppering of gang territory establishing “13s” and “14s” etched into the faux wood desk tops. They were the last things added to my pristine room: I had covered my walls with purple paper and zebra striped borders (our school colors) and set up my spaces for student work, prideful newspaper articles, and, of course, my personal effects like my Cyndi Lauper barbie doll and Rocky Horror Picture Show rubber duckie.
The desks are, as the kids would say, ghetto.
I was heartbroken. Manufactured circa 1980 with the deathly teacher lecture in mind, they were like little prison cells, each and everyone of them, littering my learning environment with their years of abuse. The ghosts of apathetic teens arrived with them, hovering over their “artwork” and memories of the “boring” 5th period (insert class here) that held them captive when they would rather be at a house party, red cup in hand, flirting with (insert name here),
Seven years later, I still have those desks: 38 of them.
I have arranged and rearranged them in every possible formation my limited classroom size can support. I have done tilty rows of four facing both each other and the whiteboard. I have done scary rows for the California High School Exit Exam testing. Most recently, they are in pods of 4s and 6s that can face forward for speeches and then flip into collaborative groups. However, these desks were not made to do this, so anytime we “switch it up” and move them into new formations, my downstairs colleagues say it sounds like a herd of rhinos are galloping across the 2nd floor, which they are gracious about, but, of course it disrupts their classroom: I’m not cool with that. On Pinterest, I tried a “cheap fix” for sound muffling and making the heavy 1980s desks mobile: Take a square of felt and a rubber band and secure one onto each leg of each chair. They then can slide across the tile effortlessly. It was okay; however, I didn’t anticipate each piece of felt to pick up every piece of dirt and hair in the room. Now, I had four “hairballs” at the bottom of each seat...yuck.
Another problem is, they are small and tight and don’t fit many of our bigger students. The traditional desk-connected-to-chair actually cuts into some of my kids’ stomachs as they squeeze in. Also, it does not allow for any discussion formats without a “barrier” between the kids: the big fake-wood, grafitti-covered square.
SO, with the news that I will be taking on a hybrid position of teacher and literacy coach next year, I’ve been on a quest...a quest for desks.
I found some “21st Century Classroom” furniture companies and started gathering catalogues. The student desks are A-MA-ZING. The chairs and desks are...wait for it..not connected, so you can pod them up into any formation you need: pairs, triads, quads, or circle up for Socratic Seminar or even inner/outer circles for fishbowl discussion. The chairs are made from ultra-light materials for easy movement or for maximum mobility you can order the ones with wheels on the bottom (I know, I know, a little scary). They come in myriad bright colors with cool names like “mint,” “clementine,” and “champagne.” The desks, creamy neutrals with soothing titles: “new age oak, “tan echo,” and “fusion maple.” Just that alone gets me all tingly inside.
Now, they ain’t cheap. Therein lies the rub.
That’s where I am right now...about to pitch (to my fiscally conservative board) why we should invest in furniture. My dream, of course, would be to fill every classroom but, for starters, I want to propose a “Learning Lab” (next blog post!) - a shared common space filled with 38 of these stunning pairs that we can all share when we want to engage in academic discussion with ease. I feel like if we could experiment and model for the powers that be how important physical space is for the learning environment, the purse strings may start to loosen.
Wish me luck...the quest begins next week...