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Discovering Ways to Empower and Connect in the Classroom

What is the best way to set up your classroom? What is the best use of space in the classroom? And, how can we continue creating spaces for students to thrive? Because each teacher is different, each makeup of students is unique, and as we found out, between the years 2020 and 2021, each school year is different, the Best Practices for creating space in the classroom changes each year. No matter what the limitations, there are always opportunities. We create space that allows for opportunities to show students how to connect and feel empowered. 

Best Practices Are Always Changing
Learning spaces have included everything from flexible seating, tables connected to offer opportunities for partner work, and now virtual spaces. Fourteen years ago, I taught in a district where the focus was on learning Best Practices for high school students. At the time, the strategies, resources, and ideas seemed like a teacher’s golden ticket. However, what was not accounted for as Dave Schmittou recently said on the Lasting Learning Podcast, was that what works best in a classroom is always changing, and specific to the teacher’s strengths. What worked for me in 2010 is different from what works best for me today in 2021. What is best for my classroom does not necessarily align entirely with the strengths of another teacher down the hall from me. 

The Best Practices for classroom space help us discover and understand something different each year we teach and provide a place for students to feel connected and empowered. 

Physical Space in the Classroom

Over my 19 years as a teacher, I have spent countless hours maximizing space in the classroom. Some of my classrooms have been incredibly small, and some have been much larger. Some classrooms had several windows, and some had just enough space to let slivers of light in. 

Some years included desks, some required table configuration, and several years were filled with rows of desktop computers unable to be moved. Whatever I was given to work with, my goal was to create space to foster opportunity and connection. In the “Old Days,” or pre “Virtual/Covid Days,” I had the luxury of being able to move around the room, seeing all of the students at once. If a student needed extra attention or the ability to stay on task, I could easily change the location from where I taught. The best practice tended to focus on taking students sharing space in the classroom.  Activities were created daily for students to move around the room, 

Whatever the environment, limitations, and structures I had to work with, my goal was to create space for opportunities that connect and empower students. 

Space in the Virtual Classroom

A few months ago, when our school district was virtual, I had my entire class in one place, but it was online in a google classroom. There was a benefit in being able to “see” everyone at once, but the space occupied was very different from the traditional classroom. The challenge was to think differently about my space in the classroom. I was behind a camera, had several technology tools to work with, and had the new job making a new space work. I thought about space in regards to time and opportunity. I now was free of basic classroom interruptions and had space for more one-on-one interaction as well as an opportunity to focus on showcasing things that I had always wanted to do. During virtual teaching, I started recommending a book each class period; something which has carried over into the classroom now that I am back to teaching in person. I no longer had the challenge of rearranging desks as a remote teacher but had to find a way to create a space that allows students to feel comfortable, seen, challenged, included, connected and empowered.

Space in the Virtual and In-Person Classroom

Currently, I have 5-in person classes that also incorporate a few virtual students at the same time. While I teach several students who physically show up each hour in my classroom, I have a small number who log into a Google Meet during the same hour. The challenge is what while most of my students are in person, I have to be accessible to my virtual students, simultaneously by way of the camera and microphone on my chrome book. As a result of health restrictions, there are strict limitations to the seating arrangement in the class, areas that students can work, and requirements regarding sharing resources. However, no matter how difficult things become, there is always a way to create space for students to have new opportunities to be empowered and connected.

Connections are always possible, even with the most strict regulations. 

Creating Spaces for Students

Creating space in the classroom (physical or virtual) is about creating opportunities.  Last week on The Dave Burgess Show, Dave focused on creating spaces for students and staff. The spaces might be physical locations or opportunities, such as hashtags, groups, or chats that are embedded in the virtual world. The goal of these spaces being a place for like-minded people to belong. Creating space is about fostering connections.  

Creating A Space For What Matters Most

This year my focus has been on being intentional about the space I use. During the time that our district was virtual, I decided to use classroom space differently.  was looking for ways to connect and empower students. 

During the last 5 minutes of class, I created a routine of going over a few vocabulary words for the day and a literary term. I spent a few minutes teaching these areas of content, followed by my closing thoughts. Today, after several weeks of being back in the classroom with most of my students, I have carried over this tradition. It has become one of my favorite parts of the hour and came about because we went virtual, and I was looking for a way to connect and empower students.  

Each class period, I end by saying, “In case nobody else tells you today, let me be the one to tell you that I am proud of you, you are extraordinary and worth it. Remember, anything is possible”.

Each Year Is Different

No matter how well something works this year, changes will be made for the next school year.  In the fall, I will have different students, be a different teacher, and have new challenges. The best success comes from being intentional about using space. Sometimes space involves arranging the physical elements of a classroom, and sometimes it is about focusing on maximizing the potential of different parts of the class period. Whether it be virtual, in-person, or a combination of the two, the goal is about creating a space that includes spaces for students to have opportunities to feel connected and empowered. 

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