Our New Body Language

By: Kathy Coen, MS Instructional Coach/English Teacher
Like many schools, it is hard to have "new learning in an old container." Field’s vision of student-centered, engaged, forward-looking pedagogy needed furniture that could help support our necessary culture-shaping as “we moved into the future…

This year, Field’s faculty summer read was Ron Ritchhart’s Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools. We were tasked with reading a few specific chapters, one of which was Chapter 9, “Environment: Using Space to Support Learning and Thinking.” Ritchhart lays out the foundational idea of the chapter: “As a culture shaper, the physical environment is the “body language” of an organization, conveying its values and key messages…(it) will influence how individuals interact, their behavior, and their performance. The physical space can inhibit or inspire the work of a group or individual.” Thinking back to 2019, when I was a new faculty member at Field, I remember feeling uncertain about what the dated and clunky furniture was revealing about the pedagogy at Field. Would this dated and varied furniture allow me to inspire student-centered, collaborative work in my courses? Was it functional and inclusive of all students? The size of each student varies greatly from 6th grade to 12th grade.

Like many schools, it is hard to have "new learning in an old container." Field’s vision of student-centered, engaged, forward-looking pedagogy needed furniture that could help support our necessary culture-shaping as “we move into the future, which is now (Lori Strauss in her opening remarks during the August professional development sessions).” What furniture would match our vision of where we are and where we wanted to go as a “Culture of Thinking.” In late August, the furniture arrived. As the desks, tables, and chairs were being assembled and aggregated in our rooms, along with fresh paint, there was an anticipatory buzz in the empty hallways that, in a month’s time, would soon be filled with our students.

Ritchhart goes on to say, “A maxim in the world of design is that form should follow function (227). As faculty returned in late August, the new furniture was an invitation to not only rethink the layout of a classroom and the form, but what could now happen for students because of the flexible layouts we could set up.
Three questions teachers prioritized as they anticipated students walking into their classrooms each day were:

1. How does the space give visual instructions about how students will learn?  
2. What does the space encourage or initiate?
3. Have I created zones for learning?

Teachers are celebrating the purposefulness of the furniture in delivering messages that student learning can look fresh and inviting each day and can change within a class period and at a moment's notice. From work stations that initiate multiple deliberate tasks, student creativity, and purposeful movement in the space to pods that inspire peer interaction, engaged and dynamic participation, resource sharing, and mixed grouping, to the seminar table that allows for democratic discussion and Socratic Seminars fostering student independence, self-monitoring, and integral elements of social interaction like active listening and eye contact. 

Field teacher Dr. Kim Yates explained, “In my 6th grade history class, I was able to set up the desks in pairs and facing each other for students to do multiple rounds of question asking with different partners. We were working on the difference between open and closed questions. Despite the noise level inherent to this activity, the desk structure enabled students to stay focused on each other and the questions, and it also made it easy to switch partners for a new round of questioning.” 

The furniture brings value to the student experience with flexible, comfortable, movable furniture that can fit all shapes and sizes and has storage for backpacks and laptops. It essentially checks all of our boxes. That being said, the form and the function are ours to imagine and shape. Our faculty are committed practitioners that skillfully use form to enhance our pedagogy. “...If you think changing your tables is going to solve your problems, you’re probably not going to see results. But, if you want to change your pedagogy then paying attention to the layout should be a part of that change. In other words…alone desks are just desks.” ~Chris Drew, “12 Classroom Layout Ideas & Seating Arrangements,” July 4, 2022.

Our students have entered this year and shown us that our attention to this component of the school has already produced a new vibrancy and sense of possibility. We have seen it and heard it, and we all feel it. The students are grateful for our ability to recognize them in this way, to reaffirm our commitment to the very best learning experience we can give them, and for the ways we hope to continue to show students how much they matter.