My favorite classroom was a spacious portable at Gaston High School where I had the freedom to create a space to support learning unrestrained by conventionality. The only technology in the room was a teacher computer tucked away against a wall, a twelve cup coffee maker, and an aquarium full of goldfish. I didn’t have a projector, but both a mounted TV above the piano in the front of the room and an old fashioned television housed in one of those sturdy wooden cabinets so popular in the middle of the last century were wired so I could show the occasional video on two screens at once.
I had tables in the room that my students and I could rearrange to form rows, squares, or push out of the way entirely when we wanted to try something daring. Once we turned the room into a jungle.
When I think about an ideal learning space, I always start with that classroom in Gaston. I loved its homey feel: photos of students, framed in collages, hung on the walls, Sinatra played through a built in sound system, and an 8×10 picture of a former student who had joined the Marines stood proudly atop the piano alongside some student pottery. One of my football players and his mom sewed curtains for our windows.
I know how important it is that students feel at home where they learn, welcomed and valued, and that they contribute to creating the space. More than a dozen years in the classroom also taught me that’s important that the room encourages engagement with the subject matter at hand. That Gaston classroom, as many of my other rooms over more than a dozen years of teaching, contained framed photographs of authors we were reading (Borges, Virginia Woolf, and Alice Walker), the Greek alphabet (since I had the kids transliterate names when we read Homer’s Ὀδύσσεια), and a door sized Hamlet poster given to me by a friend who lifted it from a bus stop in London.
In addition to feeling safe and valued, and seeing evidence of the importance and relevancy of the subject matter all around them, a learning space is best when it can be versatile.
When my classes and I decided that we were going to stage our study of Hamlet in the jungle, the result of a long discussion of the challenge of contemporizing Shakespeare and some fortuitously timed pruning going on around campus, we were able to push all the tables aside, fill the room with enormous tree branches, and cover the windows with green butcher paper. An economics teacher, who was also a colonel in the Oregon National Guard, loaned us a huge camouflage net. Large enough to cover two tanks, we suspended it from the ceiling.
Once the lights were dimmed by green tissue paper and the jungle sounds CD was playing through the speakers, we were almost ready to go. I came in just before six on the morning of Act I to turn on five humidifiers. This was going to be a rain forest Tarzan would be proud of.
That week, as students in fatigues (another loan from the Colonel) read Shakespeare’s play, the fact that Denmark is preparing for war cemented in their minds, they experienced the play in a way I knew they’d remember. Crouching over Dover Thrift Editions of the script, the kids seemed to get Hamlet’s sense of dread when he said: “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.”
Maybe it was all window dressing. The words are the star of any Shakespearean play. In the years ahead my students and I would enjoy Hamlet in other settings: on the portable stage a student wrote a grant to bring into the classroom, outdoors in an Oregon downpour, and wearing suits donated by our parent boosters. Were those experiences less wonderful than my time in the jungle? No. They each, however, stood out because they were different than the usual set up of whatever classroom I was sharing with kids.
An ideal learning space? Maybe it’s less about the room or the technology and more about the imagination teachers and students bring to wherever they are. Whatever our nutshell, we can be kings and queens of infinite space, if we allow ourselves to put curiosity and passion, love and learning, first. Like Hamlet, it’s not about the stage of the classroom, but about the poetry of learning.