MTR Talk: Building Community Through Physical Space
Brooke DeBoard is an MTR graduate from the Class of 2015. She taught her residency year at Cherokee Elementary School and is now a Kindergarten teacher at Cornerstone Prep School, Denver campus in the Frayser community. She was a recent guest speaker at MTR Talk and shared how she builds community through physical space in her classroom. Included here is the transcript of her presentation at the MTR Talk.
Author: Brooke DeBoard | MTR Class of 2015 | Cornerstone Prep – Denver
I learned a lot during my residency year. One thing that I learned early on from my mentor was the importance of keeping the classroom bright, colorful, and neat. I saw, first hand, the impact that had on the students’ learning. They came into a warm and welcoming classroom which promoted happiness instead of a stale, dark room that was disorderly and gave a feeling of chaos and carelessness. Something else I noticed during my residency year was how students interacted with each other at the age of 8. The students were not always kind to each other and I got the feeling that they were competing with each other instead of working to support one another. This was one of the most influential factors that I experienced during my year there. I wanted to be a part of training my students how to respond and treat people with kindness and love. Genuinely caring for one another. I knew that in my classroom I wanted to foster a caring, joyful and productive community. I wanted to teach them skills that would help them beyond the classroom, into their careers and life.
With these things in mind, and a year of residency under my belt, I began my first year teaching kindergarten. At Cornerstone, kindergarten is a co-teaching grade. I am very fortunate to have someone to work, plan, and teach with. We started out the school year with 36 students! As you can imagine, having 36 kids with 2 adults in one room can be kind of crowded and chaotic. As we planned for the first day of school, we knew that the physical space could either hurt us or help us. We wanted to foster a strong community within our classroom while at the same time being efficient and functional, so we knew that we had to be strategic when planning and organizing our room. I’m sure my co-teacher and I looked crazy during Professional Development at the beginning of the year before the kids arrived, sitting in the small chairs at the small tables and transitioning from the seats to the cubbies and from the seats to the carpet ourselves, trying to determine the best way to teach our students to transition. We wanted to make sure that all of the things that our students would be asked to do during the day could be efficient and orderly.
Regardless of the numbers, physical space can foster and create a community of learners. When you walk into our classroom you will notice bright colors. The tables are colored with bright, red, green, blue, and yellow tops. There is a bright rug at the front of the room which is where we do comprehension in the mornings. There is green tape on the floor which is the path the students take to put their backpacks in their cubbies as well as to their seats. This keeps kids from roaming around the room and running into each other. It also allows us to have order in the room despite so many bodies.
The students sit at tables, in groups of four. This allows for them to learn together and develop social skills. This also allows for them to interact with each other which is monitored by myself and my co-teacher. When we hear something that is unkind we immediately stop and ask them, “What’s a better way to handle that?” The students will correct their sentence and then ask for forgiveness. The other student forgives and they hug. We love having tables instead of desks because it promotes a more collective culture rather than an individualistic one.
As much as we love having tables in our room rather than desks, we had to be strategic about the student’s resources at their seats. On their chairs they have chairbags which contain: whiteboard, eraser, marker, crayons, scissors, and glue.
In front of them (at the top of their tables) they have their name tag and to their left is their pencil basket for their pencil and eraser. We knew that since it is a shared space it could have led to arguing over whose pencil someone had so we had structures in place to avoid this situation.
In the front of our classroom is a rug that has rectangles on it which provides each student their own spot to sit. This is significant to develop a sense of community while at the same time being intentional with the space. Everyone is on the carpet, but each person has their own spot.
On one wall we have a huge word wall which has the alphabet on it. Underneath the letters are the sight words that the students are learning and also our students’ names. During independent work time the students practice writing sentences with their friends’ names. We also have the word “COMPLIMENTS” spelled out and each time our classroom receives a compliment from someone in the hallway we mark off our letters and each time we spell it out we have a little party. Before the students are allowed to eat at the party we ask them, “Who earned this?” they reply, “We did.” Then we thank them for making good choices.
We have a quality work board in the back of the room with student work. This is used to promote hard work and pride in CBU K. The students see work of their friends that we are proud of. The work that we recognize isn’t always a “3”, the highest grade students can earn, but it is work in which a student did his or her best. This encourages and motivates other students to try their best because they want their work recognized. It also encourages those students who are on the board to continue to give it their best because they love the feeling of the class being proud of their work.
Our school itself is beautiful. The walls are freshly painted and bright which sets the expectation of excellence and caring for our environment. The students are greeted by an adult outside upon arrival and then greeted by their teachers in their classroom. The school has a commons area in which our students meet with everyone in their grade for a morning meeting once a week. During this time all of kindergarten gathers and is led by one of the other faculty members while we have meetings. This allows for the students to bond and grow not only with our class, but also with the entire kindergarten section. In the cafeteria the tables are set up so that they can face one another while they eat so that they are able to continue to build community and friendships. Utilizing space to promote community is something that is valued school wide.
Our goal is to provide the class with student ownership. When the students start the beginning of the year they walk into a room that belongs to the teachers. They are taught all of our expectations and procedures. However, as the year goes on we let go of the ownership which allows them to have student investment. We taught them the CBU chant at the beginning of the year and then started having students lead it. Now our students and my co-teacher and I all share a sense of ownership and responsibility for our room.
All of these factors foster academic success, as well as, develop a classroom community in which they learn how to care for one another. We recognize the value of being intentional with space and a quality environment to build a strong community.