Hacking the Classroom: First Week of School

Every school year, I 1376784334begin by setting up my classroom and organizing the furniture as I position all of the contents according to my preference and place the things that I want to be visible on the walls.  Why? Because it’s my classroom of course and I am the main source of knowledge and information and I know what’s best for my students. NOT!  Let’s rethink this….  Is the classroom really MINE? and should I get to be the sole decision maker on what is learned and how it is learned? Why do I give myself the power to create a learning space before I receive the input from the other eighty learners who will be occupying the same room for the next nine months.  After researching ideas from a design thinking website User Generated Education, I decided to do something completely against the normal beginning-of-the-year procedures, and I tossed aside my traditional ways of starting the school year.  I decided to hack my classroom and empower my students to be design thinkers so they could create a learning space that is conducive to their interests and learning styles.  As a result, I hope to guide my students through a process of creating a comfortable environment in which they will take ownership for their own learning.

Days prior to the first day:

2065024The walls are for making thinking visible, so why cover the wall space with all of my posters, rules, etc.? It is okay for the walls to be bare at the start of the year to make plenty of room for the students’ thinking, designs, and end products.  With the help of a colleague Alice Parker and Martin Institute Resident Jillian Hinesley, we have pieced together banners of Harvard thinking routines that will help guide students in creating a culture of thinking within the classroom.  Our plan is to allow the students to strategically place them in areas of the room according to their design of the learning space.  Additionally, all of the furniture, spider and saucer chairs, desks, bookcases, tables, etc. were piled against the back wall for the students to organize and arrange.

Day 1: 

The very first day, the students came in and chose where they wanted to sit.  They immediately realized that they were given a choice instead of being told where to sit.  After introductions, we began movement by participating in a brainstorming dance since brainstorming is a big part of developing great ideas for thinking and learning. They learned that fluency is important and that more ideas are better.  The next step of focus is piggy backing ideas for feeding off of others and elaborating more.  Additionally, they learned that wild ideas are ok.  Even the greatest innovators were told that their ideas wouldn’t work but they went on to prove that they actually resulted in successful innovation.  Withholding judgement was next as they learned that accepting others ideas creates a trusting environment where they feel more acceptance.  The final stage of the brainstorming process is evaluating the ideas and choosing the best ones in which to move forward.  This process is an important aspect of collaboration and is a huge part of creating a rich culture of innovative thinkers, collaborators, and problem solvers.

PictureWe only had a small amount of time remaining to complete the first step in the process of designing the room which was to do a Harvard thinking routine See, Think, Wonder. They were very curious about what they encountered in the room which was not typical of their first day experiences from prior years.  They first began by using Post-its to write down what they saw in the room which were simple observations. Then they shared their interpretations of what they saw as they completed the “think” part of the thinking routine as they drew conclusions. Finally, we discussed fat questions vs. skinny questions for the “wonder” part of the thinking routine; they practiced writing open-ended questions that began with howwhy, or what if  that would provide a deeper, richer answer than a skinny question that only gave a one-word answer. Their ideas were then made visible on the walls as we discussed the commonalities of their thoughts.

Day 2:


After making observations, drawing conclusions, and posing deep questions, the boys needed to put the brainstorming process to work as they shared what it means to be a team.  There were great responses as the boys shared that “it means that you listen to each other because everyone wants to be heard.” Others stated that teamwork means that “you work together and compromise.” We then participated in a problem solving activity where everyone had to put their ideas to the test.

Afterwards, the students debriefed and realized that solving the problem of the given task required working together as a team, “all hands were on deck,” and they needed to agree on a plan and communicate through the process.  It was pretty encouraging listening to them share what it means to be a part of a successful team. They were ready to put their teamwork into action and design the room….. or were they?  One big piece of the design process is not only knowing what problem that needs to be resolved, revised or refined, but developing empathy for others to have a real purpose in their search to make improvements.


The students needed to gain a deeper understanding of their learning environment as they brainstormed ideas using Harvard’s thinking routine Compass Points.

Collaborative groups were formed as they were asked “What purpose does a compass serve in our lives?”  They immediately made the connections and shared how a compass guides and shows us the way by providing direction.  This thinking routine guided the students in being intentional about designing their learning space.  The following are some responses to the thinking routine:

E= what excites you about designing this space?
We are excited about making the room comfortable, create it like we want, and having a choice based on our own needs and wants.

W= what worries you about designing the learning space? What problems may occur?
We are worried that everyone will not agree on the same design and that there will not be enough space

N= what do you need to know about English to design this space?
We need to know what and how we will learn so we can design the areas for certains subjects or tasks. Will we have small group and independent learning? Will we get time to silently read or study?

S= what is your stance on how learning will take place? (empathy and considering others’ learning styles and preferences)
We need to use tables for small group learning, posters for visual learners, a supply area for creating, a lounge area for comfort, and we need an area for playing games.

 After the students drew conclusions about what they would learn and how they would learn it, they formed teams to begin the design process. They were given supplies of die cut shapes to represent the furniture and electronics, as well as large butcher paper and an inventory sheet listing all of the items they would be organizing.  After marking the windows, doors, closets, and permanent fixtures on their blue print, they began collaborating as a team to design the learning space in which they would use for the next several months.


After the fifth grade students designed their learning space, it was time to analyze all of their blueprints and make a final decision for the arrangement of the room.  Using a Google form to create an online survey, the students came to a consensus on the type of learning centers they wanted as well as their location in the room.

Reading center

  • natural light
  • saucer chairs (spider chairs create too much movement)
  • bookcase positioned to serve as a dividing wall for creating separate space from the adjacent game center
  • conversation table for discussion
  • headlines and language of thinking for visual learners
Crusader Cave:

Wild ideas are okay. This prompted a “man cave” in the classroom where the students desired to have their own space to play. One student suggested that they call it their Crusader Cave and everyone immediately loved it.  A design team, lead by Ms. Parker, used Photoshop to design a banner that they could proudly display in their “fun zone.”

  • game table for chess and other activities
  • spider chairs  for movement with bouncing motion
  • ottomans with lids to store games
  • refrigerator for drinks and snacks 


Project Center:

Making thinking visible allows the students to build understanding of what they are learning as their thoughts are displayed around the room.  The students decided to create a project/design center with space to exhibit their end products.

  • long rectangle table for standing around when creating or designing
  • an unmounted bulletin board for displaying thinking
  • storage bins for organizing supplies needed for creating or designing
  • Peel the Fruit thinking routine
  • white board for making thinking visible


Writing Center:  

The students realized that improving on communication skills is a huge goal for the class, and they decided to make room for a writing center for small group learning.

  • round table for better flow of discussion
  • ladder of feedback and brainstorming thinking routine
  • comfortable rolling chairs
  • location next to the reading center so there are fewer distractions


The final results:

The fifth grade boys thoughtfully designed their learning space and without even realizing, they were were engaged in a wide variety of mental challenges. They demonstrated the ability to brainstorm, work together as a team, problem-solve, formulate deep questions, develop empathy, and make decisions accordingly.  The students took on a challenge but had so much fun in the process; they came up with great ideas that had never occurred to me before. I am certain that the space they designed has created a sense of ownership in all of them that will make learning even more meaningful than if I had the room ready for them on the first day.