Learning Environments-It’s not just about the furniture

What if instead of worrying about furniture (desks) being more flexible, we created learning environments that supported STUDENTS to be the flexible elements in the space?”

The Space-A guide for educators, Rebecca Louise Hare and Dr. Robert Dillon

This has been my driving question from the book The Space this school year with agency and learning environments. At WAB, we have beautiful classrooms designed with flexible furniture, writable tables and walls, sofas and cushions. With the students, I arrange and rearrange the rolling tables and chairs to suit learning needs. My interest this school year has been how the students are using the learning space supported by the culture of the classroom.

Building a culture of…

Choice, Responsibility and Trust

Each day students make decisions about where they will learn. I ask them to think about what they are doing and what choice they can make to help their learning. Do they need to sit in the sofa area to read? Are they typing and need to sit upright in a chair for good posture to free their hands? Who will help them with their learning? Who will they sit next to? Students are asked to take responsibility for their learning location.

I ask students to act responsibly and give them the opportunity to build a relationship of trust. I count on them to follow through on what they say they will do. I trust them to make good decisions. There are times when the trust is broken and they will need to rebuild trust. This is part of the learning process.



We share the decisions of how we use the learning environment. I ask them where do they think we should store materials, display our work and meet in groups. We decide together. I ask students to take care of their needs and be responsible if an adult needs to know where they are going.

Our learning environment extends beyond the walls of the classroom. Do they need to go outside to take photographs or work on their play in the hallway? Have they signed up for a Maker Space session or need to check out a book in the library? They let me know if they need to leave the room for learning. I want students to feel empowered and responsible for their learning.


Ownership & Access

This is our classroom and our learning space. We have shared materials and spaces to keep our own belongings. It is everyone’s responsibility to maintain our learning space. Pictures of learning are put up by the students. It may not always be neat but hopefully it has meaning and is owned by the students.


A next question for me to explore – How do I have students reflect on the the choices they made and the impact on their learning? How can I have them share their insights of their learning choices in relation to the environment with others?

How do you collaborate with your students to create their learning environment?


Reading with Agency

The table had been set with a ‘delightful selection of dishes.’ This is the analogy our librarian used as he invited our class to taste and sample the books. Some of the choices were familiar and some were new to the eye. Each time our school librarian introduced another book from the new genre the student’s anticipation grew. They pounced on the book table looking for a satisfying book to settle down with and enjoy.


Reflection Informs Practice

As we moved into more focused literacy at the beginning of the school year, I began to organize my students in groups. I assessed early in order to find out their reading levels and began choosing guided reading books and grouping students. I stopped. Was I designing the best literacy experience for my students?

I grappled with my love of certain books I had read before and wanted to read this year and creating more choice. More choice meant students would choose books they wanted to read with more autonomy. I wanted to see a joy of reading and yes, student agency where students were great readers, chose to read and took ownership of their reading.

I took some time to reflect on what I have been doing and assess my usual literacy practice. I read Regie Routman’s new book, Literacy Essentials. She has always been a guide and inspiration for me in the past. Her new book reminded me of some of my great practice and where it was time to make changes. One of the biggest aha moments was to “put guided reading in perspective”. It is only one part of the reading that takes place.

How do we read?

  • The librarian and I have a partnership. Every 4-5 weeks, the librarian comes in with a cart full of books in a particular genre. He would introduce the genre and books with a passion that had the students waiting in anticipation to grab a book off the cart. The genre connected with our learning in some way either with writing, Unit of Inquiry or concepts.
  • I shared my love of books and read aloud to the class. If a book made me tear or sparked a memory, I shared it. I teared for the twelfth time when I finished reading aloud to the class The Journey of Edward Tulane. I shared how upsetting it was for me to read The One and Only Ivan. I told the story of how I had seen the author Scott O’Dell speak when I was their age and how he told the true story of The Island of the Blue Dolphins. We read short stories and picture books regularly.
  • There were plenty of opportunities for independent reading. Students planned reading time into their self-directed timetable and we visited our amazing school library weekly.
  • We used sample texts to inform our writing. We used high-quality literature both fiction and non-fiction text to analyze for writing.

Time for Change

  • I started One-on-One Reading Conferences. Regie Routman breaks it down in her book and the practice fit right in with our individualized learning.
  • For Guided Reading, which I refer to as Book Clubs, I am fortunate to have two support teachers help me. Our EAL support teacher took a small group of students who were not ready to read independently.
  • I made video ‘book commercials’ to share a selection of books. Students watched the ‘book commercials’ and browsed through the selection. They made a first and second choice. I was able to balance three groups from their selections. The books were in a range of independent reading levels. Students gravitated to the books at around their level and interests. I did not match students and books to their reading scores.

Guiding Students and Choice

Striking a balance between guiding students and freedom of choice is something I strive for constantly in the classroom. It’s only through making reading a priority in our day, in our week and in their home learning does it become of central importance to our students. I will enter in discussions throughout the school year with students to get to know their reading preferences and provide suggestions for their reading choices to expand and grow. I can’t wait to read together the amazing books which await them this school year.

Individualized Timetables, Interests, Needs and the End of Busy Work

We started our second week of school with a class meeting to discuss our week’s plans. I presented literacy, math and Unit of Inquiry projects and tasks. Then, I shared a copy of this week’s timetable.


I asked if anyone had used a schedule like this and all said it was new to them. I explained they would be planning their week and there were tasks on the left they must make sure were included.


Sign-up Sessions

There were sign-up sessions offered on math and writing during Self Directed Learning (SDL) time. This week, we wrote ‘About the Author’ biographies to use later when publishing. Each student was asked to sign up for one session to work with me in a small group on writing. This gave me a chance to give a mini-lesson on form and style, read each student’s writing and for them to ask questions. The math session was a small personal session for how we are going to move forward even if we haven’t memorized basic math facts. Each week the sessions will change depending on the learning needs.


We have started the school year with agency and this includes individualized timetables. There were only a couple of blank spots each day to plan for self-directed learning as we already had a busy week. There was enough time to plan for assignments and time for choice.

Interests and Needs

Our class has a wide variety of individual needs like all classes. Each child planning their schedule allows for flexibility of time, interest and needs. When students plan their timetable they plan according to their interests and motivation while understanding tasks which need to be completed. A group of boys chose to read on the sofas for the first hour on Monday. Time well spent.

The End of Busy Work

On Tuesday, I administered reading assessments. This meant we needed a day of quiet learning. We made a list of choices which included reading, writing, a Unit of Inquiry task as well as drawing. In my early teaching, I would have looked for ‘seat work’ to keep them busy. That was my past. With students choosing their learning engagements, individualized timetables end busy work. We also recognize art, breaks to re-energize the brain, getting to know your friends as worthy pursuits.


Will each child take responsibility for their learning? My expectations are realistic. This will be more difficult for some students than others. Is it worthwhile to learn how to plan your time? This will take practice. Let’s start learning it now in the younger years when we are establishing skills for success.


“You can see what you are doing next and the whole week. The teacher doesn’t do all the talking and we can be more independent.”   -Sakura

“Everyone is doing things when they want to do it. It’s more fun and you can organize your time.”   -Sophia

“When it’s individual, we have time to choose for our self, and we understand ourselves more sometimes, so I think it’s better.”   -Roger

Starting with Agency

We’re drawing close to the end of the first week of school. Somehow this start to the school year feels different. Is it that I have an exceptional group of students? Yes, I think so, however I think that every year. There is something different in the feeling of our classroom. There is a calmness in the air. There seems to be more opportunities to smile.

What have I done differently?

We have started with agency. From the first day, we began with choice. Inspired by the ISHMC Grade 4 Twitter post of student choice, we organized our first week into ‘must, should, could’. This has been our guide for the week. Of the tasks we were to complete this week, how many could be done with choice of time, place and groupings. We started from day one with self-directed learning time where students had choice of what they were doing. We included time to visit with new and old friends. Edna Sackson’s blog post on ‘Building a culture of Agency…’ asked thoughtful questions to reflect and provoke thinking on how to start with agency.

Establishing a gentle kindness to our day

This school year we have a new timetable with a 10-minute period after lunch. We are using this as a daily mindfulness time to center ourselves after our lunch time play and get ready for the afternoon. This week we have practiced breathing deeply, being in the moment, yoga stretches and enjoyed stories about mindfulness and peace. Coming in quietly to the classroom has been a challenge, however it’s been a wonderful invitation to calmness.

Taking time with each student

From Day 1, I posted a conference schedule to have a private meeting with me. Each day I met with 4 or 5 students individually to have a chat and get to know each student a little better. We sat on the sofa and I took notes about their interests, passions, ideas of success and importantly what they wanted from me as a teacher. The common theme through their answers to the last question was ‘kindness’. They wanted me to be kind to them, and of course I promised to try my hardest. The blog post from ASCD In Service gave 6 questions to follow for the short interview.

Next week, we begin with planning our individual timetables. What next steps will I take on the journey to build a culture of learner agency?