Keeping Up with the Klassrooms

I stifle a yawn as I walk through the doorway into my first period class. The lack of sleep evident on my face, I slump into my chair and prepare myself for the first bell of the day to ring. As everyone settles into their seats, the teacher makes their way over to the computer to take attendance.

  “Would you like me to leave the lights off, or turn them on?” the teacher asks the class.

“Off, please!” I desperately call out. Murmurs of agreement come from my classmates as I hear the words “leave them off” from all sides of the room.

I have strong opinions when it comes to lighting in classrooms, as my eyes are very sensitive, especially early in the morning. To me, lighting is a vital part of how classroom environments impact my learning experience, but I have found that other Oyster River High School (ORHS) students have a variety of preferences when it comes to room design, encompassing everything from lighting, desk-arrangement, posters, artwork, and plants.

I journeyed throughout the building, talking with teachers and students, in order to get a greater perspective on classroom environments. Throughout my search, I found that it really boils down to individual preference and how we can maximize accommodating the needs of both students and teachers through classroom settings.

Photo Credit: Jon Bromley

Jonathan Bromley, a science teacher at ORHS, understands the rationale behind finding a classroom environment that best suits himself and his students. Bromley recalls a district-hired consultant visiting ORHS years ago, who described educational best practices. “He was probably the first person ever to get me to realize, as a relatively young teacher at the time, the importance of really thinking through the learning environment and the layout,” Bromley stated.

Bromley finds that he places emphasis on using “the room as part of the teaching tool in ways that engage the kids” in classes like Environmental Science, NextGen Biology, and Design Thinking Seminar. He also opts for an uncluttered feel in his room; simplicity, function, and adaptability are his core values for his classroom setup.

As a current student of Bromley, I find his way of engagement and organization to be very beneficial for my learning style. With long class periods, it can be hard for me to sit at a desk throughout the full length of class, which is why I greatly appreciate how he incorporates shorter note-taking sections on the white board or projector, getting up out of our seats to talk with lab partners, interactive demos where we engage with the room (ex. learning to correctly position a compass), and of course, using the outdoors as an extension of the classroom. While this methodology will not work for every class or subject, it has proven to work for Bromley and myself.

Both Bromley and Kara Sullivan, who teaches in the English department, incorporate the outdoors into classes such as Environmental Science and Literature and the Land (Lit and Land). While they teach entirely different disciplines, both teachers are similar in their passion for including our surrounding ecosystems into their curriculum to strengthen their students’ learning experiences. Sullivan uses the outdoors as a focal point of Lit and Land, believing that having the addition of going outside during sections of class time has benefited her students, as it breaks up the eighty-minute block periods.

Throughout my time at the high school I have gotten more used to the longer class periods, but I still find it difficult to sit through the blocks, especially towards the end of the day. It’s extremely helpful for me when teachers break up their classes and allow their students to take a break or move around, even if it just means getting us out of our seats and walking around the room.

While I haven’t taken Sullivan’s course, right now I’m taking Environmental Science with Bromley. So far, I’ve greatly enjoyed the time we have spent working hands-on in Oyster River Natural Area (ORNA). Bromley finds that it is incredibly helpful for his students to “get their hands on the real-life stuff we’re actually talking about in class,” and I would agree, as working in the field has allowed for me to make deeper connections to the content that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do if we stayed indoors.

Back inside the school, I see evidence that each teacher has their own unique classroom environment, with their classroom design and layout playing significant roles in the vibe of the class. Sullivan prefers to keep her classroom organized and neat, as it “gives me a sense of calm, and I try to maintain that for my students as well.” I greatly appreciate rooms that emanate tranquility, as I try to keep my own room at home in a similar manner. Keeping my things orderly and put away helps me be more productive at home, and I see similar habits occurring at school. I also appreciate the low or natural lighting that teachers like Sullivan choose to use to further their calming classroom environment.

Not everyone feels the same way, as for Paige Burt (‘23) low lighting can make her tired and less productive. “I’m the type of person who really likes the lights on. If the lights are off, I get really drowsy—I hate the LED lights in general, but for me that’s better than having a dark room,” Burt says. Burt and I have differing opinions when it comes to lightning, but it’s important to keep in mind that it is just one aspect of a classroom and can have many different impacts on students depending on one’s preference, the time of day, or the actual location of the room in the building.

While aspects of a room, such as lighting, can oftentimes be a spontaneous decision, desk and table arrangements in classrooms throughout the building are often a constant. This does not take away from the importance of their setup on the overall learning environment. Ty Dorow (‘23) describes Celeste Best’s divergence from the typical two-person table setup in the science department to be very helpful in a course like Anatomy and Physiology, where collaboration is a vital part of the class. Dorow believes that while this desk configuration worked throughout his time in Best’s class, there is no true one-size-fits-all when it comes to classroom layouts.

Like Dorow, I’ve found that desk placement varies across departments and even teacher to teacher. While I would like to have a circular desk arrangement in all of my classes, not every room or type of class can accommodate that. Science classes do not have the capacity to create a circle shape, as there are lab benches, sinks, wall outlets, and other materials that can’t be moved. Other departments, such as English and social studies, can be more flexible in their arrangement.

Burt agrees, preferring a circular desk arrangement, as it can be “really annoying and awkward when I’m wrenching my neck back and forth to look at the teacher and the board.” I am all too familiar with the neck strain that accompanies having your back to a whiteboard or projector, which can sometimes be unavoidable due to the stationary nature of whiteboards and projectors. Dorow’s perspective on the matter seems to be widely applicable, saying, “whatever the teacher finds comfortable for them, I find works well for the class.”

Sullivan favors configuring her classroom’s desks in a circle as it promotes active discussions, a key focus in many of her courses. “If you’re going to have a lot of discussion in your class, I think it makes sense for people to look at each other when they’re talking. So I find it very difficult to have a discussion in rows, because then people direct all of their comments to me…instead of making it more of a collaborative kind of environment.”

Student collaboration seems to be emphasized in many different classrooms throughout the school, including the Writing Center, which has areas for both quiet, independent work and more social arrangements. Alex Eustace, an English teacher who also works in the Writing Center, tries to “emphasize students’ choice and independent work whenever possible” in his own teaching. “I think that really allows students to approach any task that they may have in sort of their own unique way that is most accommodating to them,” Eustace says.

Walking into the new location of the Writing Center for the first time felt like I was transported into an entirely different building—a hidden oasis of greenery and soft lighting located right next to the Senior Core. Lamps, (fake) plants, art, and turtle paraphernalia are abundant. While there is no natural lighting due to the absence of windows, Eustace and Jake Baver, who is in the charge of the Writing Center, have worked tirelessly to make the space feel comfortable and welcoming for students, including becoming entirely independent of the overhead lights.

Clio Grondahl (‘23) enjoys working in the Writing Center, saying, “the entire space, while it seems really fun, also feels incredibly focused.” Grondahl cites the Writing Center as being a great spot for her productivity levels—the perfect combination of subtle background noise and decorations to fuel creativity and get in the zone.

For me, the classroom environment that fits best depends on the specific work that I am doing. If I’m reading, I need absolute silence to concentrate, whereas if I am doing math problems, I don’t mind the type of background noise that is common in the Writing Center. I believe from personal experience that it’s beneficial for students to have different options for their best-fit environment when they need to focus and get work done.

When focusing on writing, Grondahl feels that “having plants and more artsy stuff on the walls makes me feel a little more creative and like I can explore my own thoughts and my brain.” Eustace concurs that the environment for the Writing Center has to fit the needs of its students, adding that “for writing, a lot of the times you really need to be able to access that part of yourself that is very difficult to do. And having a space that doesn’t actively play defense on your ability to do that is helpful.”

Baver and Eustace have noticed an improvement in their students’ productivity; proving my initial theory correct, that the Writing Center has made great strides in providing a learning environment tailored to both what students want and need— socially, emotionally, and academically.

While each classroom has their own unique arrangement and environment, overall, I’ve seen that teachers prove to tailor their rooms well to what works best for both their own teaching styles and the needs of their students. This cooperation between teachers’ ability to change their classroom setup and students’ wants and needs is a work in progress, but I think leaving an open line of communication between students and teachers will prove to be successful in making sure everyone ends up happy with their educational experience.

Eustace and Baver see eye-to-eye in the regards that happiness is a “great barometer” of student success, mentioning that “it’s really hard to learn or to feel good about your school experience if you’re not happy.” I’m happiest at ORHS in a working environment surrounded by natural lighting, plants, a quiet space, and a massage chair. While this is not possible or feasible throughout the whole school day, I’m grateful for the flexibility my schedule allows me to choose the spaces I work in outside of class time. After all, happiness and productivity go hand in hand, or in my case, lamp and plant.

– Grace Webb