Are Schools Lost in Space?

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the spaces we inhabit as teachers. In my classroom practice as well as my university classes, I keep coming back to the idea of intentional space and how we create it in our lives. Especially with younger students, teachers know there must be a place for everything and everything in its place. There are bins for picking up this kind of paper, boxes for returning that kind of paper, cups for creative materials, and so on and so forth. As teachers, I want us to start asking about our professional spaces within the school. Where do we have PD? Where do we plan? Where do we meet with colleagues to blow off steam or chat?

study spaceWhile possibly seeming pedestrian or even passive on their surface, each of these questions requires us to imagine our daily routines and habits. That shared starting point of “where do I go to do the things I do?” is one that prepares us for learning and practicing new things. In my experience, it is likely that the discussion about where we do things is swept aside rather quickly in conversation in favor of seemingly more pragmatic ones like “what are we doing?“. This is a mistake, I think. Creating a physical space (or a digital one) is the first step to creating mental space for ideas. If my colleagues and I want to expose ourselves to new ideas about teaching more regularly, than we must collaborate to make a place to house those ideas. Once we know where we can go together, be it a bulletin board or a blog, to post those ideas and questions, we will start to accept that we are permitted to improve and discuss those things.

When schools fail to create or identify these kinds of professional spaces, innovation can cease, and practices will begin to stagnate. To share one example, my school recently implemented a new early morning collaboration time each week. Every department was given a day of the week and 30 minutes (it’s better than nothing) before and during our homerooms to work on shared issues. When my department’s day finally came, we were excited and a little bit stressed. We knew carving out the time was an important step for administration to take, but there were new stresses to be concerned with that come any time you leave your classroom.digital art2

We made an agenda and made our way to the meeting room on our Thursday morning, excited to get some adult space to ourselves. We passed out some questions to discuss and dug right in. Not a minute later than we got comfortable with our coffee and notes, the announcements started. Our precious time and space was now polluted, put on pause, and our lips all pursed in frustration.

You can get a fair amount done in 30 minutes of time, and it offers the option of members coming to school a bit earlier if needed. However, when that’s interrupted by announcements that can’t be stopped, nearly everything gained by the space created is lost.The next week we found a new space to convene and the meeting moved forward with only muffled interference in the distance.

Learning to make new spaces is only the first step. Such spaces will bring challenges needing mitigation. The process is never fully complete either; that needs to be understood. Schools, teachers, and principals must all become adept at mastering the use of intentional space in the school and in time. The cycle of improvement must be continuous. Manipulating digital space needs to be added to that list also, as it is something many are not equipped to do. Start by recognizing and evaluating existing spaces: where are certain types of work done? Where are formal and informal conversations really taking place? And what is perceived by the staff as effective among each of those areas?
Starting there, educators can move forward with the knowledge that changes to the spaces around them will facilitate more positive change and allow for the free exchange of more information and inquiry.

So, what kinds of spaces do you see in use? What kinds of spaces are being created in your school?

Design, a Path to Identity

Steve J. Moore

“This is part of a conversational series shared between multiple writers. As each new article is written, they will be displayed on the sites of all participating authors.”

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Design begs for authenticity

Today, you hear a lot about the importance of branding, in the online world. Whether you’re selling T-shirts for your band, writing Op-Eds for a periodical, or mocking up websites for photographers, you are aware of the idea of brand control and its potential impact. Business owners need to be sure that the products they put out are consistent with their plans for objectives as a company. It is the same in education; a teacher needs to be consistent in his or her message to the class about his lessons. If the rules appear to change for no reason, then you lose credibility. You lose your audience. Such is the purpose of design, to help you communicate your brand’s message clearly. But how does good design contribute to your objective? Isn’t such a thing as ephemeral as “design” only a subjective screen covering a person’s idea? How does good design help define who you are as a professional?

These are all questions with dangerously simple answers. They are questions specific to expression, that we all think we understand. The truth is, the ideas of design and expression boil your idea, your product, or your company down to one thing: Identity.

Being the good little scholar of literary concepts that I am, I naturally connect this concept which some may see as strictly economic, like “branding,” or rooted in art, like “design,” as a question of narrative importance. Design is all about who you are; it’s all about building, maintaining, and sharing your identity. So design becomes much less murky if you know who you are (or who/what you are representing). That’s simple, right!? Dang, that’s two posts in a row an interrobang could have come in handy. Sure it’s simple. Just open your chest up and look inside. Pop the hood. Crack open the server case. Read your old book-jacket cover. Well, if only life came with instr–resisting the urge to use cliche–if only, people were so simple, so static…

If design is inherently connected to identity, then marketers had better get on the couch and start self-discovering. Building web pages, you hear a lot about optimization through the use of “meta tags” that mark your domain with keywords. Looking at the word  “meta,” (which is really more of a prefix) we find that it means  “in reference to,” “about,” or “from within.” So websites and their designers need to do a little soul searching before their designs are complete. If you don’t understand the “within” for a particular job (web designers), then you most likely won’t be able to meet the needs of your client. Business owners, on the other hand, need to understand themselves before having new design implemented.

What questions can I ask myself related to establishing identity?

What language do I speak?

This is not as simple as it sounds; language is as deep and pervasive as any aspect of our identities. Furthermore, this question goes beyond what geographical tongue you use, but makes you describe who your audience is. Who are you trying to reach? Design, by definition, should fit a pre-determined purpose. Your website should be designed to fit a group or type of person with specific objectives. Maybe you are a blogger yourself and so, in considering design, you can access your own metacognitive habits and thoughts. Considering that I have a lot of readers who are, themselves, bloggers, web designers, and writers, I do my best to casually tailor my posts to fit their lexicons. I have an education blog too; I use different language off-the-cuff there than I would here.

For example, I may very easily dip into the educational “alphabet soup,” as one of my professors called it, and confuse readers if I am not careful. I wouldn’t dare write this sentence here without explanation:

“While NCLB may be considered to drive more action-based WFSGs and PDCs, there is  only correlative data to support this claim.”

Most people in the field of education (or very active parents) would understand that I’m writing about No Child Left Behind, Whole Faculty Study Groups, and Professional Development Communities, but a web designer would be rather perplexed most likely. On the same hand, I wouldn’t want to write this sentence in an education blog post:

“While pervasive in the development world, recursive acronyms like PHP, GNU, and TIP are humorous in ways often not understood by those outside of the field.”

What is your history?

Knowing where you have been is crucial to knowing where you are and where you want to go. So understanding the origins of your ideas is very helpful in forming a dialogue with your audience. If your readers perceive that you have an appropriate level of authority, then it will be much more likely for them to subscribe to your ideas. Being able to express where you are coming from is key to building a base upon which to prop your design (whatever it may be). Consider the classic frame of the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell describes it:

Is your design heroic?

Is your design heroic?

Inception: the hero’s call to action (expressing the origins of your idea)

Trial by fire: the hero’s challenge (show your work and experience)

Return: the hero finds his/her way home, changed (explain how you are unique)

I have always understood the basic plan for design to be rooted in this information. Maybe it’s your updated business plan, your master’s thesis, or an autobiographical reflection; find useful ways to incorporate this information, and your design will be more authentic for it.

If you’d like to contribute an article to our conversation,  comment here, on RyanBurrell.com or at SilverPenPub.net. We’re also all active on Twitter:

Steve, Ryan, and Matthew.