Silent Partners Supporting Education
Whether it's a new school being built or an older one being refurbished, the school building must support the work of the school. And it's up to educators and school architects to make sure that it does.
I recently met with a group of architects who specialize in educational structures - at their annual statewide conference. They were meeting with educators from several school districts who were looking to either design new buildings or remodel current buildings to promote middle schooling.
Over the years, I have worked with design teams building new middle schools and transforming junior highs into middle schools, so I was particularly interested in meeting with them.
The group focused on the physical specifications that would support the educational programs and organizational beliefs in their buildings and thus promote teaching and learning. The types of buildings fell into four categories:
- Designs of the 1940s -- Centralized areas for cafeteria, gym, and auditorium; long, straight corridors with rooms sprouting from each side.
- Designs of the 1950s -- Basically the same as that of the 1940s, but a little more modern, with updated materials and colors.
- Designs of the 1980s and 1990s -- Pods, larger rooms with movable walls, and planning areas for teams of teachers.
- Designs of the Future
Taking what we knew about the teaching, learning, and development of young adolescents, we developed specifications to guide the remodeling or new design of a middle school building.
A school built in the 1940s or 1950s cannot be totally deconstructed and rebuilt or completely reconfigured. However, a school design team working with knowledgeable architects can make simple cosmetic and structural changes that support middle school programs of the 21st century. Here are some ways to do that:
- Enhance the school-within-a school concept. Designate whole hallways as separate "schools." Assign each hallway a different name and color. Paint the doorjambs in each hall with the designated color. Create a display case and other areas for each "school."
- Decorate the school-within-a-school. Use a theme decided by the members of the "school." Promote a common vision relating to teaching, learning, and young adolescents. Display lots of student work from the team's students.
- Support team planning. Remodel classrooms and other areas to provide a place for teaching teams to meet. Designate an area in each school-within-a-school as a team space with areas for one-on-one conferencing and group meetings.
- Support team teaching. Remodel a storage area as multiple teaching spaces. Create a media center or large group area within each "school" and create spaces for team teaching. Prepare areas that teachers can use to move students into various groupings to accommodate differentiated approaches.
- Replace walls with movable dividers, which provide the option for creating space for large group presentations and work areas for bigger projects and groups.
- Replace individual desks and heavy-to-move student-desk combinations with tables and chairs to facilitate grouping, student movement, project work, and classroom organization.
- Move student lockers or storage spaces into each school-within-a-school. If that's not possible, assign students lockers in areas that are close to the assigned school or their assigned teacher team and hallway.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the research on middle schools was widely acknowledged. Educators and architects who designed and built buildings during these years spent a lot of time discussing educational philosophies, characteristics of young adolescents, and developmentally appropriate programs for middle schools.
As a result, these schools have areas for large group instruction; flexible spaces for a variety of instructional activities; areas for teachers to confer with each other, students, and parents; and other elements that facilitate communities of up to 300 students. Furnishings were consciously selected to accommodate middle school students and programs -- different size tables and individualized student chairs that are sturdy but easily moved. A student's storage area is placed in proximity to his or her "community" or "pod" or school-within-a-school.
The issue for these schools is the ongoing use of the facility. All schools need to renew regularly and systematically their commitment to school improvement and middle school philosophies and programs.
Remarkably, there are also schools built in the 1980s and 1990s that have the "footprints" (basic floor plan design) of those built in the 1940s and 1950s. In these cases, the educational leaders were committed to the outdated programs of a junior high. These districts may have used a design team of teachers and community members, but they did not include the research on the young adolescent or middle schooling or teaming. As a result, the schools often have updated features such as a centralized media center or an open cafeteria space, but the rooms are off long, straight hallways, the lockers are evenly spaced along the hallways, and the rooms have those heavy, individual student desk/book storage combinations.
One of the visionary architects at the conference challenged the group by saying, "Educators and design teams should not think of teaching spaces in the traditional sense, but should think of buildings and teaching spaces in entirely new ways." That comment started a brainstorming session that generated the following ideas:
- Create wetlands areas on the school property with teaching spaces near the wetlands, or within the building that surrounds the wetlands.
- Design no classrooms. Build the school in pods, and within each pod, design wide open spaces with a recessed forum for larger group presentations and flexible dividers to allow for sectioning space as needed.
- Create multiple data ports and use technology in multiple and imaginative ways.
- Have separate areas in the school, or in each school-within-the-school, that feature integrated instruction and that are career-related with appropriate instructional tools and access to real-life applications, such as forestry, telecommunications, arts, and economics.
These are just a few of the ideas, but they demonstrate the notion of designing schools that are consistent with the needs of young adolescents, middle school reform, and teaching and learning in the future.
Educators and designers can improve the design of any middle school building by incorporating the following three elements:
- Make the ceilings high and use ceiling materials that cannot be damaged easily. And don't put sprinkler pipes at jump or "chinning" level. Middle school students like to jump to see if they can touch the ceilings.
- Design wide halls with durable materials and carpeting to curb noise and reduce accidental damage. Large groups of students can be loud and physical. When middle school students move, they usually do so on the run -- while calling out to a friend down the hall. They touch and bump each other a lot.
- Provide lots of natural light. Light enhances visibility and provides a connection to the outside world. Research shows that diminished natural light during winter months can cause several conditions that negatively impact learning: depression, reduced mental stimulation, chronic drowsiness, and lethargic mental and physical behavior. And this age group enjoys a connection to the outside world.
While it is the staff that must understand young adolescents, their developmental needs, and the programs that address this age group -- it is the school building that must provide appropriate spaces to support the teaching and learning environment. It's up to educators and school architects to make sure that it does. The school building is a silent but significant partner in carrying out the work of the middle school.
» Brain Development in Young Adolescents -- Good news for middle school teachers.
» Squirming Comes Naturally to Middle School Students -- Physical changes trigger behavioral changes.
Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997.