Education without classrooms?

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.

6 thoughts on “Education without classrooms?

  1. Monya Jackson

    Chris, Marty, Yolanda, Bruce, and anyone interested-

    In response to your ideas, Chris, on online instruction, I have to concur with Marty that my students, primarily freshmen and sophomores, are not equipped to deal with online coursework in my opinion. They don’t have the self-direction yet. On the other hand, I do see online activities as an invaluable supplement to the traditional classroom. Also, I could see this as functioning in lieu of brick and mortar classes if we end up going to a four-day week. We might be able to keep our students engaged on that fifth day along with other possibilities for activity within the community.
    I am solidly in the panicky parent camp as far as keeping middle and high school students separate goes, even though my daughter is graduating this year. I think that we, as a district, are responsible for ensuring our students safety. If this means that we will be rotating through our hex as far as student access to labs and experiential learning, then we will have to deal with these questions. No teacher wants to have to give up a classroom that has worked well for their instructional needs. As a science department, we should discuss this fully so that nobody feels left out or discriminated against. Ours is not the only department with concerns as far as classrooms/sharing, etc. Hopefully, our needs and ideas will be taken into consideration in the larger picture.

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  2. Bruce Vining

    To my fellow science gurus,
    The way the next year shakes out is going to be a very interesting, and scary proposition. I am happy to see that Chris has stepped up to try and address the situation. The points made, by all of you, about classrooms and sharing are, in my opinion, very valid. As I understand it, the bell situation will likely be different for middle and high school, which will greatly complicate the sharing of facilities.
    The advantage will be the improvement in communication between us; as middle and high school teachers. This entire process seems a lot less intimidating knowing that it’s not ME facing this challenge, but US. I am looking forward to that interchange of ideas and problem solving.
    The idea of online school has merit, but only for the self motivated, top level student. In my intro classes, the students would have difficulty staying motivated and on top of their work. It leaves the student, without a home computer, at some disadvantage. Then there is the matter of my comfort with setting up online curriculum. The SmartBoard itself has already provided my students with ample opportunity to laugh at my stupidity…..now I get to do it online?!

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  3. Justin

    I like the online idea. I can see why it is scary. It would be a lot of work for the first year, and less, but still considerable work for the next few years to iron out wrinkles in online activities. However, if you are brilliantly lecturing it shouldn’t matter where that occurs. Bruce, you could still be as funny online. It would just mean transferring some of your new notebook lectures to an online format.
    When I taught my first online course, I was scared that I couldn’t manage all of the daily parts of a similar face to face class. However, I found that some activities were greatly streamlined by the online interface.
    I think back on my college science lecture classes, and they were taught in regular classrooms. The lab time was in a different room. It could work. It will require some work, but it could work.
    I’ll pray for you all. 🙂

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  4. Susan

    Something has to happen and if the 7th and 8th are going to join us, then we need to have a positive attitude. Change is good, so they tell me. Personally I’m getting too old for change. The hard work doesn’t scare me it is the technology. If we, you, were going to on line classes and a problem occurred who would we contact and can they “fix” it NOW. Remember the days “Prostar is down please shut off your computers”, that wasn’t that long ago.
    I am of the age that I never have taken a class on line so I don’t know much about it. My concern is with the students being self motivated and today that scares me… Time will tell what lies ahead for us.

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  5. Rod Bickel

    I think that there is something to be said for a live experience versus on-line. I take a lot of Graduate classes on-line and if you want a real overview of what the class is discussing you have to read a lot of posts. I don’t always read all the posts, and I am a teacher. Not all of the kids will get the benefit of watching someone do a lab, or another task. I do think tech plays a big part and on-line lessons are an option, but we should have a variety of strategies. I have taught in four 7-12 schools where I taught both middle school and high school classes. I would not use the same strategies for 7th graders as I would use for 12th graders. Everything will meld. This situation is not unique to La Junta, schools all over are dealing with the budget problem. We are not a large district anymore! We all need to think as a small district and find solutions together.

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