Fall 2019

Designing Student Spaces: a school reimagined through the eyes of students

Bathroom stalls in women’s room. Photo credit: Michelle Duncan

What does a classroom look like to you? How about a school hallway, or lunch room? Or even a student washroom?

Students at Cambridge Narrows School, with the enthusiastic support of their principal, Amber Bishop, are redesigning their school’s décor one room at a time.

With a few new tables, chairs, lamps and chalkboard paint, classrooms are turning into coffeeshop-esque spaces that facilitate a safe and comfortable learning environment.

With a range of seating from floor mats at a coffee table, to a leather dining set, and everything in between, the options are endless. Students selected an assortment of seating for their classroom and to the surprise of the instructors, there are no altercations over student seating whatsoever. With the freedom to move around during class, their seating choices are no novelty, but a function of how they can best be present given their current mood and headspace.

This was entirely the student’s project. They did the design work (and even commissioned some table modifications from the industrial arts students) so, they are very proud of every part of it and eager to experience its variety. They worked as a team to develop the design, and seeing its realization, they are experiencing the reward as a team with respect for both their fellow students and the environment itself – keeping it clean and well maintained without prompting.

Students silently read in the classroom they designed. Photo credit: Michelle Duncan

Besides seating, a room’s ambiance is heavily impacted by lighting. Standard fluorescent lighting is dismissed by students as being too intense, even causing headaches, so they have opted for softly lit lamps, which function well in creating a relaxed environment. As one student put it, “When you are comfortable, you’re able to focus more.” Other students described their new classroom as “open” and leaving them feeling “at ease.” What better sensations to experience while trying to take in new information and develop skills?

Chalkboard paint is also a helpful addition to these learning environments. Who doesn’t like writing on walls – even windows? With chalk board pens and dry erase markers, students are moving around in class, standing up and learning all over the place! Not only is this helping cultivate creativity and adaptability, but it’s assisting teachers in fluidly conducting formative assessments.

In a middle school class, students have a chalkboard where they may leave a sticker indicating how they are feeling. Teachers are then able reach out to students who might need support that day. All in all, the students are in control of their environment where they feel safe, comfortable, and have a sense of ownership and responsibility. This even extends beyond the classroom.

Basket of free hygienic products. Photo credit: Michelle Duncan

In the student washrooms is – you guessed it – more chalkboard paint! With inspiring, positive messages that honestly can bring a tear to the eye of a student who just needs to be reminded of their value, these bathrooms embody a safe haven for students needing a moment to collect themselves, and at the very least a casual reminder to just breathe and keep doing their best.

The bathroom initiative goes a step further in cultivating a safe, supportive environment, as there is a box of feminine products, deodorant samples, and condoms for students to take as needed in the women’s room, and a condom dispenser in the men’s rooms. None of these supports have been taken for granted or vandalized in any way; students are appreciating the respect and validation they are receiving from their school and are genuinely benefiting from it.

Let’s face it, students have a lot of stressors in their young lives, their learning environment should in no way be one of them. Cambridge Narrows is taking this challenge on full throttle with plans to have students decorate (paint, illuminate, collage, etc.) their lockers and repaint all the classroom doors in collaborative groups of all ages.

Giving the reigns to the students to create an environment that truly reflects their needs and comfort is an empowering way of cultivating self-direction, self-awareness and respectful, keen engagement. It looks like more teachers are following suit, and hopefully this new generation of students can truly redesign the aesthetic of schools in their entirety, one project at a time!

Michelle Duncan is the Communications and Operations Manager for iHub Learning Inc., a New Brunswick based not-for-profit dedicated to supporting and researching innovation in education. As an avid learner with degrees in both Engineering and Applied Arts, she advocates the value of experiential, personalized, entrepreneurial, problem and project based approaches to learning.

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