Learning Environments

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What follows is my submission to the Virtual Conference on Core Values. I write this in the hope that it will lead to thoughtful discussions with my colleagues, wherever they may be.

How do I help transform our school from a collection of glassy-eyed, bored teenagers to a community of learners?

This is the question I’ve asked myself lately, and it shouts out my core values pretty well. I want our school to be a place where students support each other rather than engaging in the petty social posturing so common in the rest of their lives. I want them to be so engaged in learning that they forget to be students. I need them to show the world that there are brilliant, creative minds at work in our school.

If you poke around the archives of my blog you will see that I have experimented with technology, assessment, and blogging in my high school science classroom. I’m at a point where I have revamped my instructional strategies (mostly web-based via laptops), my grading system (now standards-based), and my assessments (now using blog-based portfolios). All these changes have been made with the goal of having students take charge of their learning. I want kids to know how to find the information they want to learn about, collaborate with people everywhere, and share what they’ve learned with their family, community, and each other. I want them to have the freedom to explore what they are interested in, but to also simultaneously encounter core concepts so that they are grounded in a shared body of knowledge with learners around the world.

What I need now is to extend my experimentation to the rest of the school day, and for that I’m going to need the help of my school community, particularly that of my fellow teachers and administrators. I’m increasingly convinced that a community of learners will never develop and thrive within our current 7 period, 50 minutes per class, regimented and controlled school day. A traditional schedule such as ours works if our focus is on the need to control and corral students through a prescribed set of learning activities. It works well for babysitting and making sure students are exactly where we want them to be.  If, on the other hand, we become convinced that student ownership of their educational experience is necessary for creating a community of learners, then we need to re-imagine the structure of our school day to allow for student independence and choice.

I know that there are many of you who will push back against altering the schedule of the school day as we know it. I get that. One of the things I love about teaching is the routine. Summer screws me up sometimes, since my routine is thrown off-kilter until I return to school in August. But we can’t let our favorite routines stand in the way of what may be best for our students.

Why would a different schedule be best for our students? Let me first describe an option that I’ve been thinking about, an alternative to the traditional 7-period day: Open Door Core Courses.

Imagine for a moment that we block out a chunk of time, say from 8 to noon in which students would be “attending” their core classes. On paper (or the electronic equivalent) each students’ schedule might not look too different from what it does now, maybe 1st period language arts, 2nd period science, 3rd period math, and 4th period social studies. The specific subject-area content would change by grade level, of course (Am. History for Juniors or Government for Seniors, Biology or Physical Science, etc.). What would be different, however, is WHERE students would be at any given moment. Rather than force “seat time” in each classroom, we could allow students to float between the four core disciplines based on their needs for that particular day. If they know they need help with a project in math, they go see the math teacher for a block of time. If they need to catch a lecture in science, they go to their science classroom. If they need help with a web tool or publishing to their blog, they go to someone that they know can help them. If they need to just sit down and read an article or write a paper, they can do it wherever they feel most comfortable.  Such a schedule would allow students access to the experts that they need WHEN they need them and give them choices about which learning spaces they want to be in for particular tasks.

What would this look like in practice? Chaos? Maybe, but it might look like students hanging out in our library couches and common spaces but still getting their coursework done. It might look like classrooms empty at one moment and full of activity the next. It might look like teachers reexamining their need to lecture students in order to “teach” content. It could lead to content-area teachers  functioning as a team to decide together when to meet face to face with students in certain classrooms for whole-group discussions and collaboration. It could lead to more creative uses of “class time”, particularly during those afternoon hours of the school day that could be left less structured for independent projects and electives.

Why would changing the school schedule to an open door format be best for students? Simply put, students do not learn efficiently when plugged into a desk for an entire day. Don’t believe me? Just think about your last class period of the day. Is it your most well-behaved class? Are those the students who perform the best on your tests and/or are the most creative? If you give students a choice of where to work in your classroom, do they choose the desk, the couch, or the floor? Mine prefer the floor, but I bet if I bought some beanbags and game chairs they would be fighting over them. The point is, the more choices we can give to students about where, when, how, and from whom they learn, the more individualized and engaging their educational experience will be.

I’ll leave you with a challenge. Check out some of the resources that led me to this point in my thinking about classroom schedules and learning spaces and post a comment or two about what you find there in relation to what I’ve discussed. First, read about some of the necessary characteristics of The Third Teacher, the space in which students study and interact with each other. Next, check out some of the talks that Shawn Cornally has been giving lately. In particular, I recommend his TEDx talk and his podcast with Dr. Tae on American Reason. Lastly, I’ll point you to this article (.pdf) that analyzes why Apple Stores may have the design elements needed to create the best learning spaces in our schools. EDIT: One more excellent bit of reading is “When we stop teaching, they start learning” by Robert Pepper.

Building a true community of learners will not be successful with just one teacher holed up in their classroom doing neat things. All staff, administration, and, most importantly, students need to be involved in the planning and implementation of the deliberate steps that we need to take together to change how our school operates. Let’s get to work!

 

 

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Since I teach several science courses that are concurrent with similar courses at our local community college, I have the chance to be formally evaluated by students each semester as do all “regular” college faculty. The most recent batch of evaluation results turned up in my box a few days ago, and I was eager to see what students were saying about my classes. I’d given a survey a few weeks into the school year, but the results of these evaluations would be another chance for me to gauge student reactions to this year’s implementation of skills-based grading. As soon as I could, I cracked the envelope containing the summary of student responses and read what my students had to say.

I’ll skip over the numerical averages for my “performance” (this is a mostly standards-based blog after all) and cut right to my favorite part: actual student comments. Overall, the written comments were very well thought out and were pretty positive about my class (Anatomy and Physiology in this case). One comment in particular stuck with me and I’ve been trying to figure it out. Its the one I used for the title of this post: “I do not think the grading system was appropriate for the course. I felt like I was teaching myself!”

Are students really “teaching themselves” in my skills-based grading system? Does this comment mean that I run the sort of classroom where the teacher sits at their desk while students run amok? Does it mean that students feel there is no direction to the class? Those issues would certainly be worth fixing, if that is indeed what my class is like.

This comment came right after a couple others in which students claimed to be disappointed that we weren’t using worksheets very much and were using too much technology. Taken together, these comments highlight the fact that at least a few students are uncomfortable with how they are being assessed in my classes. In fact, there were a couple of low votes in the “fairness of grading” category that I can only assume came from the students who wrote the comments mentioned above.

I’m left with some confusion, though, as to how to help students who are not taking advantage of the structure of my classroom. What to some is “teaching themselves” and a lack of worksheets and lectures has been a very different experience for many others who have embraced different ways to learn and to show that they are learning in my class. Some students treat me as their coach for learning the course content and skills, but many students are still wrapped up in getting a good grade, passing the class, or simply not failing it. I’ve taught too long the way some students expected, with worksheets turned in for points, often copied from neighbors and not true products of learning. Some students were clearly expecting more of the same and are still parsing out how to achieve a “good grade” without doing much learning.

I’ve got some work to do, obviously. My first step will be to look carefully at my instructional practice to make sure that I am supporting students as fully as I can for them to be successful. If that is in place, then I’m going to move on to the bigger job ahead of me, that of tackling “the system” that makes completion of assignments equal to measuring learning. Part of that work is happening right now, as I write this post to proselytize for a careful reassessment of what we do in our classrooms. If I can convince some or all of my colleagues to stop giving grades for completion and maybe even get them to try some sort of standards-based assessment and reporting system, then students should arrive in my classes already expecting to be held accountable for their actual learning.

In some ways, “I felt like I was teaching myself!” is the most complimentary comment of all. If they are learning to teach themselves, then I’m on the right track. If students can leave my classroom knowing how to learn, I’ve done my job, because I won’t be part of their lives forever. They’ll have to be able to do it on their own, and they might as well learn how to learn now before it really matters in college or their careers.

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With about a week of school done, its time to break the communications blackout that I’ve seemingly been under lately.  I’ve mostly been dealing with the technical stuff that needs to happen at the beginning of the year to support the kind of classes I like to run.  I’ve been getting everyone logged into their own MacBook and signing them up for Edmodo, my Moodle site, textbook sites, Evernote, and Blogger, for starters.

Students spent the first few days of school visiting CogDogRoo and cooltoolsforschools to give them ideas on ways to share their knowledge in fun ways using web 2.0 tools. A few even created mini-reviews of what they did this summer and shared them with their friends (a really good use of Facebook by students is to pull a few pictures from Facebook into a web2.0 tool to share a bit about themselves).

I was visiting Apple HQ while they were working with the web 2.0 sites (more about that later, if Apple’s nondisclosure statement allows), but when I got back to school we started working on the vision for assessment and the class climate for the year.

When trying to communicate my vision, I found that its hard to stand in front of classes and admit that you are not sure exactly what they will learn this year, that you as a teacher have decided to let your students have some control over the content that they will learn.  I tried doing that, but I’m not sure they believe me, yet.

Standards-based grading was also a bit of a challenge to explain, as they have no experience of it in their other classes. I’m sure its the kind of thing that needs to be lived to be truly understood, but I think most students have a general idea of how they will be graded.  We just need to negotiate the details of what they will be graded on.

So far, portfolios seem to be the best way to collect student work for the purposes of evaluation of learning, especially if I’m going to allow students some autonomy in meeting the standards.  We are currently in the throes of getting set up with (mostly) Blogger accounts and figuring out the basics of blogging. Chemistry students will probably end up with a mix of online and paper portfolios, given the symbolic nature of some of the math and chemical equations, but the other preps (AP Bio, biology, A & P) will rely on blogs more, I suspect.

The next steps are to direct student learning in the major content and skill standards for each class, have them collect artifacts into their portfolios, and then evaluate them for their ability to demonstrate mastery of the standards. We’ll see how that goes over the next few weeks.

Bottom line: in the first week I’ve worked out some of the glitches in access to technology for students, shown them some tools to use, and begun to establish a student-centered classroom by allowing for multiple ways to demonstrate learning.

Jason Buell got me thinking again with his latest post in which he gives some great tips for all the SBG newbies. A main point of his post was for us to not be too self-satisfied with our pretty lists of standards. Instead, according to Jason, we should be taking a close look at the assessments that we are going to use so that we can define our anchors and give concrete examples of good (and bad) work for students to follow.

Thinking about assessments, here’s what I realized that I needed to clarify about my classroom:

  • Will some (or all!) students be doing something unique to meet a certain standard?
  • Is it possible for one of my biology classes to decide to learn about a slightly different set of ideas about biochemistry than another biology class?
  • How do I go about writing the assessments ahead of time if these two conditions apply?
  • Most importantly: why did I write my standards and learning goals so broadly that they don’t drill down to specific content knowledge?

To answer these questions for myself and the occasional reader stumbling across this post, here’s how I picture my classroom in a couple weeks when school starts:

(insert dream sequence sound effect and shimmery visuals here)

Students will be introduced to the new system of assessment, we’ll call it SBG for now, in which points are not summed, averages are defunct (except in the inflexible beast of the school’s online gradebook), and the highest number anyone will see on an assessment is a 4. After the initial shock, the students and I will look at examples of what the record-keeping system will look like (in my parent lettersbgradebook.com, and a spreadsheet or two) and discuss the 4 level rubric and its descriptors.

We’ll talk about why we have major Standards and Learning Goals to focus us so it is not a completely student-driven system. (I do need students to meet the Colorado Community College Common Course guidelines for each course, if they are to deserve college credit for my classes. That’s why I have the Standards and Learning Goals that I do. They are borrowed directly from what the colleges of Colorado have requested as the SLO’s, the student learning outcomes, that students are to master.)

Then we will get down to the business of starting on our first units of study. Here’s where the classroom becomes intentionally unscripted, or at least less scripted than in past years. I hope to be the guide-on-the-side type and give students some freedom in what they study in my classes, so long as they are making progress both in the content-specific Learning Goals and the performance-based Standards.  The students and I will probably have a chat at the beginning of each topical unit to define in more detail the supporting concepts worth focusing on, both in my mind and theirs. From there, they will pursue their own paths to demonstrating mastery of the skill and content standards for that unit. Surely some Web 2.0 stuff will be generated. Some inquiry-ish lab experiments will be performed. Portfolios and blogs will be created. Much fun will be had by all.

(insert exiting dream sequence sounds and return to reality visuals here)

So that’s what my classroom might look like, based on a vision derived from my summer reading and the communal brain that was ISTE10, that students need to be producers of content and they need to follow their passions whenever possible.

With this sort of idealistic, student-driven philosophy, I don’t think I can write many assessments between now and when school starts.  I haven’t met my students yet.

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To steal a trademark joke from some of my favorite bloggers, the title really should read: Putting the Cart Before the Horse Teacher in 1:1. Or as Matt Townsley and Russ Goerend asked in an unplugged session here at ISTE10 (link), is having 1:1 computers the chicken or the egg? I’m going to interpret this question as: which comes first, the vision for what to do with 1:1 computers or the purchase of 1:1 computers? (Aside: I gave them an answer that Matt interpreted as “the barn”).

In my classroom, at least, the cart came before the teacher (me) really knew what to do with it.  I knew that kids needed computers because computers were cool for our digital natives and regular lectures were boring them and that so many cool things for science teaching were available on the web and…and…and. But that wasn’t really a vision for what to DO with the laptops, as such.

But I managed to get a cart anyway, thanks to my brave and hardworking IT staff.  And that has made all the difference.

As a science teacher I love doing experiments and, simply put, I couldn’t experiment with what works in 1:1 without the right tools. Most scientific experiments need some specialized equipment and whether its a thermocycler, mass spectrometer, or electron microscope, the experiment can’t happen without the tool.  1:1 computing is no different.  The tools have to be there or teachers will always teach the same way that they have for years.

But should every horse teacher get their own cart?  Not yet. Lets face it, some horses teachers are resistant to pulling anything new, and to saddle them with the extra load of a cart might cause them to buck and kick back.  Not good for students.

What will work to get to our ideal vision for teachers and their technology use? Jealousy!

Jealousy is the most important emotion in teaching. Use jealousy! -Leigh Zeitz @ ISTE10

Putting the cool tools in the hands of a few teachers who have the beginnings of a vision and desire for 1:1 is going to give way greater long term returns than a blanket purchase of laptops for every kid. First it will work out some of the kinks in your technology infrastructure with a more limited hardware expenditure.  Second, when these trailblazing teachers have success with 1:1, their neighbor teachers will notice. Teachers will notice because students will notice and talk about how different the 1:1 experience is.  Ideally, this is the point in which jealousy kicks in. Why do they get to do that? How come they get 1:1 computers?

Once jealousy kicks in, there may some desire on the part of the resistant teacher to also have a 1:1 classroom. From there you have them hooked. Administrators might link 1:1 hardware to achievement of a certain level of professional development or some other criteria. Now while this might seem to be awful that students are denied the technology in some classes, I guarantee that it is better than what might happen with a totally resistant teacher.

So try jealousy.  Let me know if it works.

Yesterday I had the privilege to attend EduBloggerCon at ISTE 2010 and participate in sessions about online learning, 1:1 implementation, student visions of education, and iPads as 1:1 devices.  I picked up some common themes in all these sessions that are worth putting in ink (bytes?).

First some centering questions: Why is 1:1 computing happening? The pain of setting up a device for every student, the cost of those devices, the legal crap about locking down certain sites, and the general hassle of it all should (and does) prevent schools from going 1:1. So why the big push? Is it being mandated by states or perhaps local boards of education? If so, what are the laptops/tablets/pad/touches supposed to be used FOR?

I’m not sure that everyone going 1:1 has a vision for why they are going 1:1, other than some general sense that technology is available and needed, so let me throw out some vision derived from our conversations at #ebc10:

Simply put, students need devices that allow for distributed teaching. Lets define this as students using and creating the resources for learning that are available online. For example, students in my AP Biology class spent hours this past school year watching the YouTube channels of other science teachers, their favorite being bozemanbiology. I’m a reasonably techie person but I haven’t managed to create my own series of video lectures yet, so I point my students to those resources that others have made. YouTube, iTunesU, and all the online college resources like MIT’s OpenCourseWare have way better resources than I could put together by myself and students can access them over and over whenever and wherever they want to. That’s the benefit of distributed teaching.

Some teachers are doing distributed teaching way better than I am. One of the conversations yesterday was with Monika Hardy (@monk51295) and her students about how they are taking advantage of distributed teaching to each create their own courses.  These students are planning their own courses based on what their interests are, rather than having to choose from a limited set of topics that the teachers in the physical school building are capable or willing to offer. The plan is for these students to design their own learning experiences with the help of experts in the field that they want to study. Some of those experts, by the way, are students that have set up their own YouTube channels and are producing their own tutorial videos, often at the request of other students (example here).

Imagine these brave, creative students trying to create their own online courses in a school that is tech-deprived, with a few laptops and crappy network infrastructure. These kids are out of luck, in such a case, as their videos fail to load, their Skype calls are dropped or painfully choppy, or they can’t add to the course wiki or upload to YouTube because the network is down or blocked.

What 1:1 learning ought to be about is enabling students like this to follow their passion beyond the bounds of the brick and mortar school to find and create the resources that will take their learning to the next level. In a final analysis, it does not matter which tools enable kids to do this, but they do need the tools to get to where the teachers are. As summarized nicely by Monika, our job as educators is to prepare them for this distributed way of learning by providing access, process (training), and a community in which to share their successes and frustrations. (Another good summary of Monika’s student session can be found here)

So why is your school going 1:1?

On Wednesday 3/24/10 Paul Strauss (@SciTeach3) writes:

My district contemplating cutting all nonvarsity sports all band art & PE classes which would still only solve 1/2 budget crisis

This is just one of many tweets that have come from educators about how budget cuts are affecting public schools. I’ve heard of school building closures (Kansas City!), teacher layoffs, four day school weeks, and program cuts like Paul shares as “fixes” for district budgets strained by plummeting state and local revenues.

All these potential cuts make me wonder: what are public school students entitled to? Is there a point past which these proposed changes become somehow illegal? Or are our public school systems only a matter of social convention and tradition?

So much of what we take for granted about our public schools may not be truly necessary. Do we need physical buildings for learning? Maybe, but web-based courses allow students to go to school from anywhere.  Are face to face interactions with a teacher required? We used to think so, but the same web-based courses now give districts the option to outsource their teachers, too. Sports, band, and academic clubs are all fun but are schools required to provide them? They look great on college resumes, but I bet these non-core programs get the axe first in most schools. Which core subjects are required to be taught? I’ve seen some districts try to drop science and social studies from the curriculum so clearly there is disagreement about what students are entitled to learn about in school.

I am left wondering: how far can a school district go when balancing their pitifully shrinking budgets? How do we know when cuts go too far? It seems that individual school board members get to decide where the axe should fall. This opens up the process to politics (shall we save the band or the football team?), favoritism, and personal bias (think Texas BOE). Decisions that affect entire school systems will be made by a handful of individuals who are unlikely to be educators themselves.

Bottom line for everyone involved in public education (parents, educators, students): communicate early and communicate often with your local school board members. If it is going to come down to politics and favoritism it might as well be your political views and favorite programs that win the Boards’ hearts.

First, some background information. As our school district grapples with massive budget cuts, like other districts across the country, we seem to be approaching a solution in the form of closing one of our district’s four school buildings. This would result in some shuffling of grade levels between the remaining buildings and some interesting organizational challenges.  The most likely option has the 7th and 8th graders moving up to our high school building while the 3rd through 6th graders take over the middle school.

There are some valid concerns being raised about how to integrate the younger students into the high school environment. Some parents have expressed concerns at having 7th graders in contact with high schoolers during the school day, so some folks are thinking of ways to isolate the younger students in their own parts of the building. This would mean rearranging classroom assignments to allow for a middle school hex (or two) separate from spaces used by the high schoolers.

While some people are not too concerned, saying that we have done this before when the middle school was under construction and that in past years our HS building held twice as many students as it does now, I see some real problems ahead for our science department, at least, if we continue with our current model of how we educate students.  The most obvious issue is that of appropriate lab space. How can we expect the incoming 7th and 8th grade science teachers to teach science in just any classroom space? Will we ask them to leave behind their excellent science labs at the middle school and move to a math or English classroom at the high school?

At the bare minimum, a science classroom should have a sink and an eyewash station.  There are five classrooms that I know of at the high school that meet this description, three of which are currently used full-time by the three science teachers, one of which is a shared chemistry lab, and one that is used for safe chemical and equipment storage separate from student access.

Clearly we have some limited options as to where to put the two incoming science teachers in our building.  We can fit one of them into the chemistry lab, although there is only room for about 20 student desks since the room was not built as a lecture room. There’s no Smartboard or projector there either. We could clear out the science storeroom and create a new classroom there, but where would our chemicals and equipment go that would still be easily accessible to teachers during class yet secure enough to limit student access? The third option would somehow rotate the 5 science teachers between the three or four classrooms on a period-by-period basis, if they all follow the same bell schedule.

I suspect this last option is the most viable, although there are not enough class periods in the day to allow 5 teachers with 6 classes each to share four science classrooms with only one plan period per teacher (see here). We could, I suppose, give teachers two plan periods and pile the students into larger classes, which is a horrible idea when it comes to teaching science effectively through labs and hands-on experimentation.

Now for my solution to the problem: What if we could schedule classes so that they are only in the science hex when they were doing labs? That’s really what we are using the special facilities and equipment for.  The rest of the time they could be…..somewhere else. Now here’s the interesting part: what if the “somewhere else” meant ONLINE?  That could potentially free up our students, particularly the older students in upper-level sciences, to be ANYWHERE during the school day.  In such a scenario, the search for classroom space becomes only a minor annoyance rather than a major headache.

I think that students could spend a couple days a week in the actual classroom for lab work and face-to-face discussion, and the rest of the time be in the library, at home, or some other classroom while they learn from the online coursework established by their teacher.  Simple tools like Edmodo, Moodle, and others allow for creation of a shared online learning space for nearly every class that can be taught at the high school level. Students can complete learning exercises, take quizzes, chat with each other and the teacher, and create digital projects together without even going to school.

A lot of work and thought still needs to be done to come to an effective solution to our building’s challenges, but maybe some sort of blended online and face-to-face learning environment is what our school requires to best meet student needs and the harsh realities of the looming budget cuts.

Teacher-Oriented Seating

Before you get excited that you will find something profound here that will rock the world of education, let me put the point of this post in simple terms: I moved my student desks to create a different learning space.

During Educon a couple weeks back I virtually attended a session by David Jakes (his notes here) on Learning Spaces. What I took away from his presentation was that my classroom needed some work in order to be a better space for supporting student learning.

I have spent most of this school year creating my virtual classroom space that now includes Moodle, Edmodo, Planbook, and my classroom web page. Students use my class set of laptops to access this learning space on a regular basis in most classes. Overall, the digital learning space that my students encounter is reasonably robust and continues to grow and evolve.

But the physical environment for learning? That was something I had not really considered changing before seeing Jakes’ talk.  After all, what could I do? I have a classroom in a school that was built to be a tornado shelter. My room has no windows and strange dimensions due to it being in a “hex” with other classrooms. Throw in lab counter space, a fume hood, a giant immovable teacher desk, and a fixed Smartboard on the wall and my options for change become very limited. However, I do have movable student desks.

The illustration above shows my initial attempt to juggle all these factors. Student desks were placed so that they faced the front, i.e. the Smartboard, because that was where all the teaching was going on. Everyone could see the board for taking notes so I was happy. At first.

After seeing images of some of the classroom environments that Jakes was promoting, I wondered what I could do to change my room arrangement to encourage a student-centered learning environment. Here is the result:

Student-Oriented Seating

Students now face each other in a circle rather than all being oriented on the Smartboard. They can turn their desks (or themselves) temporarily if they need to see the screen. But most of the time they don’t. Everything that I can project on the screen can be sent directly to their laptops, making the Smartboard a “sometimes on” item rather than an “always on” item.

The biggest change, though, is that I have moved myself into the circle whenever possible. I couldn’t move my desk, so I moved myself.  This last week I have experimented with sitting in the circle with the students, literally making myself a “meddler in the middle” by sitting randomly at one of the desks. It took a little tweaking of my technology setup to make it happen, but it can be done. I had to leave my main laptop on the teacher desk so that it could feed the Smartboard, but I use a second laptop or my iPod to control what is shared on the screen, if needed.

So far I really like the new arrangement. I can look around the circle and see student faces peering over their laptops at each other rather than staring at the wall in front of the class. This arrangement also makes it easier to walk around the circle to visit with each student instead of having to fight through desks to get to those students huddled in the middle of the pack.

Is pushing desks around the answer to all my classroom issues? Have I established the perfect physical learning environment? No, but I think once I get my beanbags and gamechairs it will be darn close. After that I can look into knocking out holes in my wall for a window or two.

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