Quick Tip Tuesday: Learning landscapes

December 22nd, 2009

“I don’t have a degree in architecture or interior design, and I’m certainly no Ty Pennington,” writes Ann Marie Corgill in her recent book Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers,  “but I am a teacher who has the opportunity and pleasure every year of creating the learning landscape for a group of children where the living and learning and writing inside those four walls will be wonderful.” In this week’s Quick Tip, Ann Marie shares how she creates seating arrangements and a classroom library that support her students’ writing work.

As a writer myself, I get my best work done in an environment that’s open, organized, and comfortable. Sometimes I spread my work, papers, and supplies out over the table or on the floor beside me, so that I can see my process and what’s already been accomplished. I need easy access to the printer for making multiple drafts to pore over. I need pencils for marking up the text, sticky notes for flagging parts that sound awful, and fresh stacks of bright white printer paper. I need a lamp when the sun outside my window won’t suffice, and I need my tiny desk clock to remind me that I need work and play time in my life.

I have learned over the years that I can indirectly educate my students by means of classroom environment. The minute a student, a parent, a colleague, an administrator, or a visitor walks into our classroom, my beliefs about what children deserve should speak loudly. As I plan for the children that will inhabit the space, I think about the following classroom components:

Seating arrangements
Storage space
Bulletin boards and wall space
Teacher area and pathways for room navigation
Room colors, lighting, and decorative touches
Writing materials and supplies

Seating Arrangements

Students deserve

  • Seating arrangements that facilitate conversations about writing and support the work of writers
  • Opportunities to sit alongside the teacher and listen in as the teacher confers with a student about his or her writing
  • Comfortable areas to gather when it’s time to read a draft, share a published piece, or study the craft of a beloved author
  • An environment that values community and the exchange of ideas rather than isolation and self-promotion
  • A room that isn’t dominated by filing cabinets, large teacher desks, and improperly sized chairs and furniture

 I’ve chosen to fill my classroom with tables and rugs instead of desks. Some tables are round, while others are rectangular. Some are lower to the ground with rugs for seating surrounding them and others include chairs with straight backs. Some are in a quiet nook in the room while others are set up in the middle of the classroom. These tables, chairs, and rugs facilitate the kind of talk, the kind of writing discourse I will teach and encourage.

They give the child who likes to work on or near the floor the opportunity to do so. The arrangement also supports the child who needs a straight chair and fl at workspace, a quiet area by the books, or the middle-of-the-room energy. It gently sends a message that thinking and learning and working differently together are valued over the mentality that one size fits all or “it’s all about me.” Our classroom should be all about us, and the simple choice of tables and rugs over individual desks is the fi rst step in that direction. But don’t panic if you don’t have tables and want them. It’s very cool how lots of desks pushed together can quickly create that table space that you’re looking for. Don’t be afraid to make your furniture work for you and your students (or to ask your principal to buy you tables next year and ditch the desks).


Students Deserve

  • A rich and varied library with multiple authors, multiple copies, and multiple genres
  • A library that’s organized with the child’s interests, the curriculum, and the teaching in mind
  • A library that has the feel of a bookstore, showcasing featured books and authors periodically throughout the year
  • A library that meets the reading and writing abilities and needs of all students

Lots of my friends who aren’t in education don’t quite understand the need to spend hours on the floor of the children’s section in Barnes & Noble, Borders, or Bank Street Bookstore. I know. I’ll admit it’s a sickness, and I do often wonder if I’ll ever need the twelve-step program for children’s book lovers. Fortunately, it’s a very rewarding and productive sickness to have. Because I care deeply about the literature children are exposed to in their years of schooling and because I believe that great books have an incomprehensible impact on students’ lives as writers, readers, and people, I stock my classroom year after year with these treasures. But just having the books isn’t enough. Doing important work with them is what counts. Reading aloud, rereading favorites, finding new authors to study, investigating the writing lives of the authors—and then writing our own texts like the ones we’ve read.

That’s what these books are for. They’re for the children and me to read, enjoy, and study how these texts are written and created. Since I’m a children’s book addict, in the upcoming chapters, I will share some of my most recent (and not so recent) favorites and how we use these in our writing workshop. If you happen to spend your money wisely and aren’t magnetically led to the children’s section every time you pass a bookstore, there are plenty of other ways to stock your classroom library. Book-club orders, your neighborhood or school library, parent donations, attic visits to find your own children’s lost treasures, school funds or grants, class book parties instead of birthday parties, holiday gift wish lists, school book fairs, yard sales—the list goes on and on.

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