User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘classroom design

Beginning the School Year: It’s About Connections Not Content

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Most classes, starting with about middle school, begin the school year with reviewing the content to be covered, expectations regarding grades, and other academic information provided by the teacher or instructor.  The human or social element is often disregarded.

What is interesting is that most learners enter the classroom wondering who is in the course.  They want to know about the teacher and the people in the class not what material is to be covered. What this says to me as an educator is that it all begins with a social connection – between the educator and the learners, and between the learners themselves.

Because of this belief, I begin all classes focusing on having the students make connections between themselves and me.  I want students to learn about one another in a personal way.  I want to learn about my students so my instructional strategies can be more personalized and tailored to their needs and interests.  Beginning class with a focus on connections rather than content gives learners the following messages:

  • You are the focus of the class not me.
  • You are important as a learner in this class.
  • You will be expected to engage in the learning activities during class time.  You will be an active learner.
  • You will be expected to do collaborative learning during the class time.
  • I, as the class facilitator, will be just that – a facilitator.  I will introduce the learning activities, but you will be responsible for the actual learning.
  • I will get to know you as a learner and try to help you find learning activities that are of interest to you.

Based on age/grade level, I have begun my classes in a variety of ways.  What follows is a sample of activities I have used to begin the school year or college course.

Team Contract

Class members meet in small groups to develop guidelines for making the classroom a safe place to learn and to take risks.  The groups then create a visual project that represents their guidelines.

Team Building Games

There are tons of team building games that can be used in the classroom.  Some of my favorite sources of these include:

The activity in the pictures is called Puzzling Moves Tangrams – a favorite of students of all age students.

All About Me Activities

Some example activities I have done:

About Me Posters

These are store bought posters.  They provide a great way to get to know students.  After they are completed, I ask students to share them with the rest of the class and allow time for questions of each presentation.

For the older students, I had them randomly select another class member and they used the Biography posters to create a biography for the selected student.  These were posted on one of the classroom walls drawing immediate attention of classroom visitors.

I Am Poems

Students created I AM Poems using magnetic poetry.

Personalized Wallet

Students began by creating an origami wallet. They then drew self portraits and included identifying information.


When I taught 6th grade, I did not spend the week prior to the school year decorating the classroom for the students.  I just piled the furniture and wall decorations in the middle of the room.  In small groups, students developed blueprints for the classroom.  Teams presented their designs to the rest of the class and their favorite design was voted upon.  Students arranged the room according to the winning design.

Building Cubbies

After the Roomination exercise, students built and painted their own cubbies.  I provided the wood pieces and specifications, but the students built them needing to assist one another to do so.  They individualized their cubbies through painting them as they desired.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 21, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Learning Spaces (School?) as Narrative Architecture

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As a former outdoor educator, I experienced how the physical leaning space contributes to the learning process in the best environment available – the natural one.   See DesignShare,, for more information about importance of learning spaces.

I also believe that a purpose of education and the educator is to provide learners with a framework and skills for directing their own learning (hence the name of this Blog – User-Generated Education).  Part of the process becomes giving the opportunity for learners to develop and share their own unique voice – about how and what they want to learn and actually do learn.

Narrative Architecture and the Learning Space

Today, I heard the term Narrative Architecture for the first time.

From Latin, narrativus means telling a story. In mid 16th century architecture from Latin, architectura means the art or practice of designing and constructing building. Started from both of definitions, narrative architecture means an art of designing and constructing building to tell a story.

If novel, fiction, comic, and folktale tell the story by texts and picture. If painting and photograph tell the story by a great picture. If movie tells the story by moving picture and sounds. Architecture tells the stories without texts, but by geometrical form, space, and materials. Narrative could be translated into architectural form by envelope materials, route, event, rooms, and also smell, sound and light effects.

The essential question becomes, How can the educator create the learning spaces – real life and/or virtual – to elicit the positive power of narrative architecture? This would be a space where learners feel as though they can tell their stories as the producers of their own learning.

Narrative Architecture and Making Meaning

Meaning is not exclusively in the morphological properties of space themselves, nor in the cultural processes of its formation and interpretation, but in the dynamic network of spatial, social, intellectual and professional practices that embody and produce different kinds of social knowledge.

Learners (real life or online) working in collaborative learning spaces will interpret and form the learning space to have personal, and ultimately collective, meaning. They do so in all learning spaces.  Does the learning space create stories of boredom . . .  fear . .  . isolation?  Or does it create stories of engaged and passionate learning experiences?  Because I fully believe that since time spent in any learning space becomes a narrative architecture for the learners, educators should approach that space with intention, knowing that learners will draw from and create meaning in and about that space.

Interestingly, Henry Jenkins used the concept of Narrative Architecture in his ideas regarding interactive gaming.

The game space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the player tries to reconstruct the plot. Game spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.

This statement can be translated to – have meaning for learning spaces:

The learning space becomes a memory palace whose contents must be deciphered as the learner tries to reconstruct what he or she is attempting to learn. Learning spaces should be designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing and sense-making activity of learners.

The how-to of creating this Narrative Architecture – whether in real life or online – becomes having the educators and learners co-create this space together – all being equal participants in the process.  The space then becomes part of the learning process – increasing the opportunity and potential for deep and indelible understanding of the learning process and content.

Photo: My 5th-6th students (a few years ago)  creating a blueprint of how the classroom should look.  The classroom was NOT set up for them prior to the beginning of the school year.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 16, 2010 at 12:18 am

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