Friday, October 27, 2017

School as a system of spaces

Recently, I had my Grade 11 Social Studies students examine the "human experience" at our school, D.P. Todd Secondary in Prince George. 

We thought about all the ways in which we create "affective ties with the material environment” (a reference to Topophilia by Yi Fu Tuan). These are the bonds that people form with the places they visit and inhabit, and can be characterized as positive or negative and everything in between, or neither for that matter. We began our thinking with some history of the school and ideas around why it was built the way it was back in 1976.

We schemed out the patterns, the categories of interaction that take place. In no particular order: safety features & processes, natural light vs artificial light, meetings places, high traffic areas, places to eat, food service, programs in operation, sound and music, state of technology, use of tables and seating, state of repair & equipment, accessibility (e.g. inclusive of disabilities), private vs public places, connection to nature, doorway & entrance experience, noise levels & places to make noise, evidence of celebration, temperature or climate control, communication systems, fun/happy vs sad/depressing, evidence of history/tradition, student-centered creations.

The students set out to take photos as evidence of these patterns. See below for some of the examples -- notably absent are the images that show students "doing their thing" at school -- we did not publish these due to privacy.  Our conclusion was that a school is not just one place, but many spaces that are collected together to meet different expectations.  We had near-consensus that our school building is tired, in need of repair and renovation, and fails to meet certain expectations.  Four of the top concerns were: lack of natural light (most classrooms do not have windows, same for the hallways and open spaces), lack of nature-connection specifically trees on the school grounds, no place to sit and eat lunch (many kids sit on the floor with their backs against their lockers), and a dingy unwelcoming front entrance. As one student put it, when you put our school under the microscope it doesn't look good. For the positive, the students mentioned that student generally feel welcomed and have a positive experience of being together despite the deficits in the school and on the grounds, perhaps due to the school's smaller size and population. Mind you, one student likened this to Stockholm Syndrome. There was also agreement that the library or "learning commons" functioned as a positive space and had good hits on our checklist.

As a teacher doing this work with students, I have a short-term wishlist for D.P. Todd, realizing that a the promised full-scale renovation may never come:
  1. Our school has undifferentiated expanses of hallway and an entrance area that is too small and crowded -- at present these are the only public spaces where student can gather. We need some spaces for students to "retreat" and see themselves reflected in the school experiences -- take out some lockers and put in benches and display cases to form small alcoves. Finish the table replacement cycle by bringing in a few more of the red & blue oval tables and getting rid of the cafeteria style tables in the main hallway.
  2. Have a few areas, even wallspace, that the students control or can manipulate from week to week and year to year. Include digital spaces and outdoor spaces in which students have a sense of participation and choice. Our school should represent the "present" of it's student body, not just the past.  
  3. More trees -- almost all of the "historic" trees at our school were Pinus Contorta and fell victim to the pine beetle epidemic in the early 2000s.  We have a handful of scraggly trees left, including some "accidental" cottonwood saplings coming up between a sidewalk and a fence. Kids deserve communion with trees on a daily basis, and we have the room for single specimens, rows, and small groves of trees, not to mention flowers, plants, shrubbery, or sculpting of small hummocks. The established and repeated rationale for denying past efforts to replant trees -- that it is easier and cheaper to mow lawn that it is to maintain trees -- is unacceptable.
  4. Offer an incentive for teachers to declutter, get some feng shui, and make their classrooms more welcoming -- a new coat of paint or a bit of new furniture can go a long way. Swap desks for small tables where requested, and replace the terrible chairs that snag kids' hair and clothing on the rivets.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I've long been a proponent of decent chairs for kids. No adult would ever put up with having to spend 5 hours of their workday in an unpadded, uncontoured seat. That in itself would increase engagement in class.