Thinking about classrooms – Vicky

Dreaming of an Ideal Classroom: Your Own!  – Vicky Loras

Vicky Loras

When we had our school in Greece, we had 11 classrooms – not to blow our own horn, but in each classroom the teachers had all the equipment they needed. Or at least we tried to offer whatever we could, in order for the lessons to proceed smoothly. The school also had a computer lab and a room with an interactive whiteboard. Therefore, the equipment could be moved easily if needed, or the teachers and their students could easily be moved to the room they wanted to use, easily. We did this out of respect to our teachers and students, to make everyone feel comfortable and content to teach and learn.

When I moved here in Switzerland, I started teaching at various places until I could get enough work – in schools, companies, banks – you name it. Some places had the works, as far as equipment was concerned, some were okay – however, in some I had to teach in my coat and gloves (yes, you read correctly), or I was not even allowed to turn on the lights before a specific time in the afternoon. Thankfully, only a couple of places match the last description. Even in these unfavourable environments, I tried to make the classroom as ideal as possible for the students and myself. I had my passion for teaching to keep me going and the motivation of the students.

Is it the tech?

An example of an excellent teaching environment is the public college I started teaching at here last year – the administration people, secretaries and teachers are amazing to work with and the classrooms…wow, the classrooms!

Whiteboards (three or four of them that you can shift on the walls)


Poster paper (huge rolls of them!)



….wait till you hear this…

3D projectors!!! I LOVE THEM!

A great place to teach – a place that respects its educators and students. Shouldn’t all schools be like this? Some aren’t, understandably due to their restricted budgets, some because the people who own them do not care.

Is it the people?

When we are in class, we are there for our students. The people who make our every day different and varied, super and interesting. The people who come into our classrooms with hopes, dreams, ambitions and all the super characteristics that make up these varied personalities – some come with their own issues and challenges, but they too later become part of our little communities. Most of the times it works.

So, What Makes a Classroom Ideal?

It would be great if all teachers in the world could have everything they desire in the classroom – as far as equipment is concerned. For various reasons, such as restricted or no budget at all, school policy and so on, it is not always feasible. A lot of educators are so creative and imaginative that they find other ways of doing things, in order to compensate for the lack of proper equipment.

For instance, I knew a teacher who did not have an audio player in her classroom, but did such a great job in reading out the transcripts for listening tasks to her students, and in many voices and intonations, that she did not need an audio player at all!

Was it the teacher in this case that made the classroom ideal, as her students adored her teaching and learned a great deal from her? Definitely. Is it the students, I add, who make the classroom an amazing hub of learning? Absolutely.  Is it the people that make a classroom a dream of a place to learn in? Yes!


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Thinking about classrooms – Adam

Making The Most of your Classroom   – Adam Simpson

Adam Simpson

The physical challenges of the classroom
Deciding how to plan activities is both incredibly easy and horribly difficult. While we might have a good idea of how we want our lessons to unfurl, perhaps we don’t always give enough consideration to the role of the size and shape of the classroom as we should. While we might recognize that the shape and size of our classrooms dictates how our classrooms are arranged, we also need to understand that these factors should influence our choice of activities.

Before we get down to the business of moving desks and chairs around, we need a clear vision of what the room will look like and how this facilitates the activities we want to use.

The feng shui of the language classroom

Every classroom has a particular energy and flow to it. This isn’t new age mumbo jumbo; it’s common sense. Even in a place such as my school, where a number of rooms all follow a certain design, I find that there are little quirks in the shape and layout which make each unique. The little differences can make or break an activity if you haven’t factored the room into your planning. Here are a few preliminary questions that you might like to ask yourself about any given classroom.

  • Do you have enough seats for everyone?
  • How mobile is the furniture?
  • Where is the board?
  • How mobile are you?
  • How would you distribute handouts and other materials?
  • Are there windows in the room?
  • To what extent will the students engage with one another?

If you’ve answered these questions, you’re off to a good start (if, while reading this, other questions came to mind, please feel free to comment). Depending on the answers, you can now approach how you are going to use your room to facilitate learning. You are now faced with a classic ‘either / or’ situation.

1. Making the room work for the activity: Bearing in mind what you want to do in class, you need to think about what adaptations you need to make to the room to best facilitate the outcomes you’re looking for.

2. Making the activity work for the room: If the room can’t be adapted, you need to think about what activities you can do within the constraints that the physical environment has placed on you.

How do you get the room to work for you?

I currently teach in a variety of rooms. Each presents a different challenge in terms of the above questions, but each also presents opportunities to get the room to work in my favour. I’ve given considered thought about what I can and can’t do in each of these environments, and see that they adhere to standard models in the literature. The remainder of this post therefore will be a look at these different models and what activities they facilitate.

1) The dance floor

As the name suggests, the dance floor is a layout that places the focus on an area visible to all. This layout can promote lots of student interaction as all the seats point toward a central focus point. The large, open space in the middle of the room is traditionally in front of where a teacher’s desk might appear and is equally great for group activities and class discussions as it is for teacher talk.

On the downside, that big area might be regarded as a serious waste of space, particularly if you have a large class. Nevertheless, if you’re looking to get a group talking to each other this can be a winner, because students are able to hold eye contact without constantly having to swing around in their seats. However, this seating chart requires a room with a lot of space in it.

2) The catwalk

As I mentioned, I walk around a lot during my lessons, mainly in the hope that my movement will instill motivation in my students, but also so that I can maintain eye contact with each of them and not leave anyone out when it comes to asking questions. The catwalk is effective in preventing me from wandering aimlessly. While it narrows the area in which a teacher can easily move, it’s extremely effective in rooms that have boards on opposite ends of the room. Bear in mind, however, that because you are teaching down the center of the room, you may have the unnerving feeling of being surrounded.

If you’re planning a class discussion or some kind of two-team game, this layout is a practical way of arranging seating, as students will always face the other half of the class. Success with this layout depends on the number of rows you use: the fewer the better. To maximize class interaction, make the rows of students parallel to the center lane as possible.

3) The independent-nation-state

If, like me, you see the benefit of cooperative learning, or even if you regularly split your class into groups for games, this layout is a classic. This seating plan instantly tells students that you want them to operate independently from the rest of the class. It’s important that students still need to be able to see the board easily without giving themselves an injury, though.

Using this too frequently can result in a fragmented classroom and a lack of dynamic among the whole class. If your room is permanently set up like this, you eventually find that each group forms their own classroom culture and can’t work with students in the other groups. This is an effective layout, but should not be a permanent one.


4) The Battleship

Like the game, the battleship layout is all about the element of surprise. Consider the picture a metaphor for the battleship, the spirit of which is just to mix things up from the everyday norm.

This layout can be effective when trying to foster creativity, or even the polar opposite; this works when you have to administer a classroom quiz. The battle ship should almost certainly be a single lesson one-off, though.



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Thinking about classrooms – Chuck

Making Classrooms Everywhere Matter More – Chuck Sandy

Chuck Sandy

Last year when still working at the university I was working at then, I began spending my entire day sitting outside with students. My workstation was a park bench. I’d sit there talking with whoever came, sometimes helping with homework, but often just listening to students as they’d tell me about problems they were having in their lives. When it was time for one of my classes, I’d gather my students together and we’d head inside to spend ninety minutes in a traditional classroom. When class was over, we’d head back outside and the learning continued. People would come and go, but I began thinking of that bench as the non-stop classroom. Great things happened there: thesis topics were discovered, new directions were found, hearts got mended, complaints got heard, and when one student we all loved was killed in a motorcycle accident, grief was acknowledged and shared.  I learned as much as I taught. The thing is, at that moment in my teaching career,  and for lot of different reasons, I’d lost the support of most of my colleagues at the university and had no local professional community.  Looking back, I see those days on the park bench as one of the most rewarding periods of my life as a teacher. Still, I doubt I would have realized this as quickly as I have had it not been for the global community of connected teachers: people like you who helped me see that my work mattered.

Long ago, my teacher, the poet Cid Corman, modeled this kind of teaching for me by quitting his job at a famous university and taking up daily residence in a Kyoto coffee shop. Cid would sit there from 10 AM till 5 PM five days a week, welcoming whoever came to learn with a big smile followed by his warm, undivided attention. I was one of those people, and one of the things Cid taught me was that a classroom doesn’t need to be in a school nor does being a teacher mean working in a classroom. What’s important, said Cid, is community and feeling valued by that community. In addition to learners like me, Cid’s community was the worldwide community of poets who in those days supported each other via airmailed letters. Those letters connected him the way the internet connects me.

I was thinking about all this recently when I came across an old post I’d written for Eltnews and rediscovered an activity I’d done with my students, one where I’d asked them to tell me about their favorite and least favorite classrooms and allowed them the freedom to say anything. Here’s some of what they came up with that day:

In my favorite classroom …

We get to talk about interesting stuff.

Everyone laughs a lot and has fun.

The teacher listens to me.

I feel excited and I learn a lot.

I’m happy being there.

In my least favorite classroom …

The mood is not good.

The teacher talks all the time.

We use computers all the time in a boring way.

It has nothing to do with my life.

I don’t have any friends there.

Clearly, what was important to those students was not the classroom itself, but rather how they felt about being there. No matter where students learn and teachers teach, they need to feel welcome, challenged, connected, and valued. This can happen anywhere, no fancy classroom or even school required. What is required though is support from a community, and increasingly, the only support that can be readily found is from the online community of connected educators around the world: people like you.

Not long ago I got a Facebook message from a teacher friend in Syria letting me know that he and some colleagues had set up a school in a refugee center. They worked in the most basic of classrooms with learners living in the most basic of conditions. He wrote on his Facebook page that working with children there was like taking a course in innocence where the first lesson he taught was “though I live in the hardest of life conditions, I can still find a reason to smile.” Although I’ve only met this teacher once, he’s an important person to me. Today, I learned he’d been accepted into an MA program at a good university abroad. When I heard, I felt his joy.

In Indonesia, I met an iTDi member whose father is also a teacher. She told me her father walks jungle paths and across a river each day to meet his students in a village school with dirt floors and no electricity. Although his classroom has nothing, he works to connect students with the world, teaching English as a way out and forward. He believes that as a teacher, his role is to open doors that would otherwise be invisible to his students. His teacher daughter believes she can change the world. I believe it, too. She’s now active on social media and is an edu-blogger. Daily she’s empowered by the teachers she’s met online through iTDi and elsewhere.

Back in the 1930s my grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse where students wrote with chalk on slate tablets, sat on hard wooden benches, shared textbooks, and studied by lamplight. Still something magical must have happened in that room because when she passed away at 99 many of her former students, then senior citizens themselves, came to her funeral to tell stories about how what they’d learned in that little schoolroom with my grandmother had changed their lives and how the local community was centered around what happened in that school.

Learning and teaching can happen in one-room schools, in refugee camps, at village schools in jungles, on park benches, over coffee in coffee shops, or in completely wired classrooms at the most up-to-date schools. It doesn’t matter where it happens. It only matters that it does happen and that all teachers have community support. Today, the local community of my grandmother’s day is gone. Today, that community is you, reading this.

If the sky was the limit, and it is, I would put far less emphasis on classrooms and focus resources and energy on teacher development. I would work to get all teachers everywhere connected while helping teachers everywhere understand that the work they do matters, that they are valued, that we’re all in this together and that it will only be by joining hands and supporting each other that we’ll make classrooms everywhere matter more.  In fact, this is the work I do, and it’s why I work with iTDi.


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Thinking about classrooms

In this new issue of the iTDi Blog, Adam Simpson, Vicky Loras, and Chuck Sandy offer three different perspectives on classrooms. In his post Adam examines the best ways to set up a classroom to make the most of different activity types, Vicky looks at the elements that make up an excellent teaching environment, and Chuck takes us outside traditional classrooms and has us look at how we need to support teachers working in all the places teachers work.

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
Vicky Loras
Vicky Loras
Adam Simpson
Adam Simpson

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