Center for Special Services Launches "Active Learning" Classrooms
It was Alejandro’s ninth birthday, so Center for Special Services teacher Melissa Santoro chose him to direct classmates when it was time to rearrange the furniture for collaborative work.
“J.J. and Alexandria, are you ready to rock?” Alejandro asked two of the students in his class at Pocantico Hills Central School in Tarrytown one morning in late September. After Alexandria responded that she and J.J. were “Ready to roll,” Alejandro directed them to “Roll out.”
The rolling is possible because new desks and chairs in a total of nine SWBOCES classrooms at Pocantico, Rye Lake Middle/High School, and Irvington High School all have wheels. They are meant to be mobile and reconfigured during the school day so students can work independently or in groups.
The “active learning classrooms” have an area where children can sit in an easy chair and rest their laptops on a round table in front of them, or take a spot at a table surrounded by tall office stools. Their regular chairs swivel, allowing for students who are restless or need to fidget to do so while in class.
Pedagogy has changed from the traditional set up in which teachers stand in front of students sitting in rows, said Scott Kaufman, Rye Lake Middle/High School principal. The new environment is tailored to foster 21st century skills known as the four Cs – critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.
“The purpose of an active learning center is that kids don’t sit in rows waiting for the teacher to give them instructions,” the principal said. “They have computers at their fingertips. They have information, access to information, immediately. They are able to manipulate the environment to fit the needs of their learning.”
Teachers and administrators received training on the new classroom and teaching style over the summer in the Lower Hudson Regional Information Center’s Active Learning Center in Harrison.
The reaction so far from students has been positive, and SWBOCES will closely track how the new classrooms and teaching methods impact learning, Mr. Kaufman said. “Kids are engaged in this setting like I’ve never seen before,” he said.
At Pocantico, J.J., who is 10 and lives in Armonk, said he likes being able to swing around in his chair, which is big and has a basket at the bottom for personal items.
Alejandro, who lives in Yonkers, said he likes the freedom of movement that the new furniture allows. “It’s not those stationary chairs that you have to carry around just to move your desk,” he said.
In Charles Mule’s classroom at Rye Lake High School, the first thing students see is a “Do Now” whiteboard. There is a “SBAT” whiteboard that details what “Students will Be Able To” do by the end of the lesson, and a Trutouch interactive board at the front of the classroom lists the topic and objective of the lesson.
Mr. Mule has a standing laptop desk at the back of the room, which is uncluttered and without any piles of paper. He uses Google Classroom, which allows him to distribute assignments, communicate with students and provide feedback on their work. Students can critique and comment on one another’s assignments.
“This really untethers your learning environment,” Mr. Mule said.
Russell Casey, 17, from Eastchester, said he likes the active learning classroom. “It’s simpler. It’s easier,” he said. “It’s a little more hands-on. It makes it simpler to pay attention.”
Mr. Kaufman said it makes sense and is more appealing to use technology in school as much as students use it in their daily lives. “We are trying to create environments that leverage the same tools that students use outside of school and teach them to use them responsibly and to make decisions for themselves.”
Doreen Sheldon is working with her Rye Lake Middle School students on team-building and collaboration, which are important life skills, and the new furniture facilitates this. Small whiteboards for each student, which click into slots at the tables, are a great addition to the classroom.
Active classrooms, with rolling chairs and a “buoy” stool that has a curved base and rocks, reduce students’ need to stand up and walk around to use up energy, Ms. Sheldon said. “They have to be comfortable when they learn. And we’ve noticed that when they’re more comfortable, we get more out of them.”
Fourteen-year-old Josh Tryon of Peekskill, one of Ms. Sheldon’s students, said he likes the freedom to move around. “It’s easier to learn,” he said.
Ultimately, Mr. Kaufman said, furniture is just furniture, and it’s critical that teachers learn how to tailor their teaching to maximize its potential.
“We’ve given our teachers the greatest teaching environment they can have and now we’re focusing on instruction in conjunction with offering that furniture,” he said, predicting that “we’re going to see a massive growth in our students’ abilities academically and socially.”