As Teri Lawrence, Fay’s new Head of Primary School, explains, there is an art to creating productive learning spaces. “If we intentionally plan the classroom and the school,” Teri says, “we send two important messages to our children: that the space can help with them with learning, and that we value their presence here.”
To that end, each classroom in the Primary School is adaptable to the work children will be doing on a given day. Every book, puzzle, and plaything is accessible to students and teachers alike, and learning is made visible throughout the classroom so that students can reflect on their work and build on it over time.
Fay’s emphasis on creating an optimal learning environment is echoed by many educational scientists. Among them is Loris Malaguzzi, who developed his philosophy in cooperation with teachers and parents in the villages around the Italian city of Reggio Emilia after World War II. The Reggio Emilia philosophy is based on the idea that the learning environment is so important that it effectively functions as a “third teacher,” reflecting, reinforcing, and sometimes provoking the idea that teachers and students create learning together. It is just one of the many ideas that inspire Fay Primary School teachers to match their curriculum with an equally enriching classroom space.
Order and Flexibility
Eschewing the cluttered excess of many early learning environments, everything in the Primary School classrooms has a place. Books, puzzles, and tools for dramatic play are neatly stored but easily accessible. Students may take the books and puzzles out when they wish, but they are equally responsible for replacing them when they are done. The result is not just a tidy classroom but a sense of ownership and capability among its students.
Rather than eating snack as a group, Pre-K students are free to sit down for a snack whenever they feel like it. There is a table set up with snack, two chairs, and napkins. Well-versed in the protocol, the children know how much food they can have and that when they are done, they are responsible for leaving the space clean and ready for the next student.
On a recent morning, Teri was sitting alongside Pre-K students when cleanup time was announced. One of the girls asked her if she would like to help clean up and proceeded to show her where each item belonged. “In that moment she became the teacher, and it was a nice opportunity to switch roles and show that sometimes children can take charge,” says Teri. “We are giving children opportunities for independence and instilling the belief that they are capable—and the students will carry that confidence with them as they go forward.”
Primary School teachers are also thoughtful about the placement of tables and chairs within the classroom. Tables and desks can be pushed together and spread apart to allow for group work and individual study depending on what the lesson calls for. On a given morning, students might walk into a completely rearranged classroom. The children immediately react to the change of environment, which may be just the provocation needed to prepare them for that day’s lesson.
Where Work and Workspace are Valued
Children care more for their school space than you might think. One day this fall, the children walked into the Primary School Commons, the students’ dining area, to find that the bulletin boards, signs, and notices that covered the walls had all been taken down. The suddenly bare walls caused a stir. “It was a wonderful moment,” says Teri, “because you could clearly see how important their school is to them.” Teri explained to them that the bare walls were the first step in a Primary School art project, where students created canvas paintings and framed collages to line the walls of the Commons and replicate the feel of a real dining room.
The dining room project is an example of the belief that the way that a child’s art is displayed sends a very important message. Rather than pinning pictures indiscriminately to a bulletin board, work will increasingly be put up with a frame around it and matted to make it clear that it is being held up for recognition. “It’s amazing how children are affected when they see that their work is being shared as if it’s in an art museum,” says Teri. Children also play a role in calling out their own work for recognition. In Kindergarten, there are clothespins on the wall in the hallway for children to hang up their best work. These displays change throughout the year, and not everyone’s work goes up at the same time. It’s an opportunity for students to think about what their best work is and to display it with pride.
Learning Made Visible
In the Primary School, the classrooms reflect the energy and passion of their inhabitants. “When you walk into a classroom, you can tell what the children will be coming back to tomorrow because the space is alive with their work,” says Teri. Projects sit on desktops and around the room in various stages of completion, and teachers do their best to keep that work visible as children will come back to it over time and build on their ideas.
Part of keeping learning visible is documenting student work. As teachers begin a project with their students one way to document that work is using documentation panels, which are large boards that show a visual history of how a project came together. For example, Lauren Cilley’s Pre-K students are working in groups to study an individual tree on campus. The students will follow that tree through the seasons and track the changes by taking pictures. A documentation panel of the project would pair the photos with observational quotes from the students. In the spring, when it’s time to visit the tree again, Lauren can take out the panel, and the children can build on their observations from the fall and winter. “Children love going back and seeing what they said,” says Teri. “In this way, we are encouraging children to be reflective and reinforcing how much we value their thinking.”