Frozen yogurt, Twitter and innovative learning spaces

Teaching

Teaching | Thursday, December 3, 2015

Frozen yogurt, Twitter and innovative learning spaces

Students at Cascade Middle School test out new classroom furniture donated by Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt. It's helped to update classroom design at the school -- an important aspect of learning. (Photo via Eric Sieferman)

Students at Cascade Middle School test out new classroom furniture donated by Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt. It’s helped to update classroom design at the school — an important aspect of learning. (Photo via Eric Sieferman)

If you visit a coffee shop, restaurant or ice cream shop that has a variety of furniture, what type of furniture draws you in most?

Do you gravitate toward the plush, overstuffed chairs? The high bar stools? A basic table with chairs?

I have a teacher friend named Matt Miller. (Funny story … we’re both named Matt Miller and we’re both educators in Indiana. He’s an awesome social studies teacher at Cascade Middle School in Clayton, Ind.)

One day, after visiting an Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt store, Matt started thinking about learning spaces. Specifically, he started thinking about how the typical classroom — desks in rows, teacher at the front — just didn’t set the tone the way he wanted.

“I want students to feel home, to feel like it’s a safe place, where you’re trusted, where you are accepted,” he said.

So, on a whim, he wrote a quick post on Twitter about how he felt.

“When I walked into (an Orange Leaf) for the first time, I just noticed they have better learning environments than I did in my classroom,” Matt said. “I saw people having fun, talking and interacting with each other in a way you don’t in a classroom.”

His message, to his surprise, caught the attention of some Orange Leaf representatives. Some discussions and emails followed between his principal, Eric Sieferman, and Orange Leaf.

Then a large shipment of Orange Leaf furniture arrived at the school. Chair and high tables and stools. The orange and white furniture immediately started popping up in classrooms.

Cascade Middle School received thousands of dollars in Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt restaurant furniture to energize their learning environments. (Photo via Eric Sieferman)

Cascade Middle School received thousands of dollars in Orange Leaf Frozen Yogurt restaurant furniture to energize their learning environments. Teacher Matt Miller (pictured in red) started it all with a tweet to Orange Leaf.  (Photo via Eric Sieferman)

I was fortunate to be presenting some professional development at Cascade Middle School the day the furniture arrived. Students were working together to assemble the furniture. There was a buzz about where it was going and what it would mean.

Having a stimulating learning space fits well with the school’s 1:1 initiative with Chromebooks in the hands of every student, Sieferman said.

“As thorough as our planning was and in spite of our best efforts to prepare for just about everything, it became glaringly obvious to us that we did not adequately consider just how ineffective six rows of five traditional student desks was for student collaboration, communication, and engagement,” he said. “Our partnership with Orange Leaf Yogurt has enabled us to create innovative learning spaces in most of our classrooms.”

(As you read this post, think about your ideal classroom and your thoughts about the importance of classroom design. Please leave them in a comment below!)

These ideas are echoed wonderfully by Kayla Delzer in a recent edSurge article called “Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks.” She opens her article by writing, “It’s been my dream to make my 2nd grade classroom look more like a “Starbucks for kids”, and less like, well, a classroom.”

I love this Orange Leaf furniture story for a number of reasons. It’s a great way to ditch our textbook views on classroom design, and I think there are reminders we can take away from it.

  • A change in learning space can be invigorating, but the energy sparked by change itself can be temporary. Creating a well-designed learning space that empowers students can set the scene for powerful learning and collaboration for a whole school year — and for the foreseeable future for a classroom or entire school.
  • Matt and Eric and others at this school realized what so many great educators and administrators are starting to get as well — that how your learning space looks impacts how you learn. It also impacts how students and the community feel about your class and school. When they appreciate it and can tell that it’s done well, they take ownership of it, defend it and want to tell others about it. It’s pretty clear that a culture like that is going to have a positive effect on learning.
  • You never know what you’ll get until you ask. I’ve fallen into this trap and have heard countless educators do the same. We think, “It would be great to have (insert new idea here), but it won’t really happen.” We assume there’s not enough money or that it won’t work for some reason, and then we abandon our idea. What do we have to lose, though, if we pursue it?
  • You can’t doubt the power of Twitter and being connected to others. (This is a message that Matt wanted me to emphasize, and I totally agree with him.) This all came about because Matt shared his idea and vision in a quick tweet. Imagine if he had kept it to himself in his head. None of this would have happened! When we share our ideas and dreams with others, they rally around them to help us achieve them and hold us accountable. Everyone wins.

If we could all have whatever we wanted, we wouldn’t have the typical school desks and chairs,” Matt said. “We would have something that resembles more of a Starbucks or a commons area at colleges and universities. I think this furniture sets the students up for that.”

[reminder]If you could design the classroom of your dreams, what would you include in it? How have you innovated in classroom design, or how have you seen others innovate? How important is classroom design?[/reminder]

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  • Guy says:

    “A change in learning space can be invigorating, but the energy sparked by change itself can be temporary.” It seems that even a “bad” change can yield favorable responses in the short term, but those results will not be sustainable.

  • My dream classroom would have comfortable seating areas, adjustable lighting, a coffee maker ( which I already have in my classroom!), a rug, and lap desks. The flow of the classroom would foster creativity and calm. I think teen aged students are under a ton of pressure these days and need a place outside of home to feel ” at home”.

  • Brit says:

    We have trapezoid desks in all of our classrooms and they are very difficult to put in any type of formation that is functional. I would love to have tables and comfortable chairs for kids to relax in …not lounge like in front of the tv, but just a comfortable space that they don’t feel so rigid and boxy. I try to do more in my room in terms of decorations and posters and such, but it can be tough…

  • Jodi says:

    I searched the warehouse of unwanted classroom furniture for something to match the collaborative environment I was trying to create. Ending the school year last year, I had 37 traditional tab desks that would be perfect for individual work or a lecture style classroom. In my search I found a class set of old elementary style desks that when put together form a table.

    No one could believe the difference. Students work together, problem solve together and assess understanding on a daily basis. My lessons have become more interactive and more hands on. The tables can handle card sets and manipulatives. The environment has changed. One Thursday afternoon, I had 19 students stay after school for tutoring. Normally, I could have never handled 19 students needing help on 19 different things. The students have learned how to work together. I no longer am the only resource in the room. Some say it is just furniture – but I say furniture speaks volumes.

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