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When Learning Space Meets Real Needs


Sonia Patel’s upper elementary science room invites students to collaborate and extend their individual learning too.

Elementary school specialist teachers closed last school year reflecting on how their classroom environment could better serve student learning. Their reflection prompted a refinement to the specialist teaching schedule and learning spaces.

Previously, specialist teachers taught a rotation of early childhood, lower, and upper elementary students. That schedule required classrooms to accommodate children in a wide range of physical, academic, and social-emotional development stages. Within a single school day, a specialist teacher might work with JK, grade two, and grade five students. While teachers are flexible and responsive to different groups of students, staff realized they could better tailor learning spaces, activities, and management by focusing on a narrow age range. 

But mixed grade level spaces can send confusing messages. Elementary school associate principal Ana Allen explains that it’s a challenge when early childhood students are given permission to explore and investigate in their own grade level classroom space only to have that expectation change elsewhere in the school. 

The environment plays a big role in giving students agency, allowing students to make choices and feel comfortable. – Ana Allen, elementary school associate principal

The refined rotation schedule and teaching responsibilities allow all students to learn within spaces that accommodate their developmental needs. This makes a big difference to our littlest learners! In design classes, for example, our young designers sit or stand at low tables with learning materials stored in easy reach. Tools and equipment used by upper elementary students are stored out of reach, making the space safe for the lower elementary students currently taking the class. Design teachers Nikki Vreugdenhil and MJ Han can better focus on their youngest students’ questions and learning. 

Elementary design teacher Nikki Vreugdenhil and elementary intern Jee Paik talk with parents at back to school night. Later this school year, they will swap out the small furniture for taller tables and stools for their older students.

Tailoring specialist classrooms benefits upper elementary students too. Grade four and five science teacher Sonia Patel creates a classroom centered on NGSS standards for upper elementary science observations and investigations, with a small library to extend learning. Tables and stools give older students a place to collaborate. Next door, lower elementary science teacher Robert Zook creates safe, comfortable spaces for the younger scientists to observe and experiment. 

Robert Zook’s lower elementary science room uses low tables and floor seating.

Hiring for the 2022-23 school year also reflects the need for specialist teachers to bring developmentally appropriate knowledge and strategies to their teaching too. Two new early childhood teachers join the staff. Katie Barnett teaches early childhood physical education and Erin Poulin works with the early childhood literacy program. Elementary school principal Travis Peterson believes the changes to student learning spaces and giving specialist teachers an opportunity to focus on a narrower grade range benefits students. He says, “When our specialist teachers work within a narrow grade level, they can focus their mindset and tailor the environment in a way that is positive for our students.”