One can never underestimate how important classroom layout is. I think it was back in 1995 when I was student teaching that I met a teacher who taught either 5th or 6th grade in Garden Grove. This was back in the VUE (Video Using Educator) days and a group of us were visiting his classroom to check out how he’d set things up and how he was using video (and computers) as part of his instruction. Without getting overly nostalgic, this was back before Microsoft got their GUI “right” (with Windows 95) and even though the Mac had been out for ten years Apple IIs still ruled the classroom desktop, and few districts had any IT coverage except for the single PC on the school secretary’s desk or if you happened to be a grant school. Anyway, this guy figured out how to populate his classroom with one computer per two students and because of the kind of computers he was using the computers could double as video monitors so that each student had a front-row seat to view what he was demonstrating or teaching in the front of the room. Remember, this was also back in the day when only rich county offices could afford computer/video projectors. It was an amazingly brilliant idea and he was able to do this because he scrounged around garage sales and schools for old Apple IIcs and their small monitors that were being thrown out.
The computer was still very usable for word processing and there were (are) tons of educational titles for spelling, math, social studies, etc. that were usually given away with the computers because everyone was investing in new PCs or Macs. As mentioned above, because the Apple II’s monitor hook-up was a simple composite RCA plug, he had a cable extended from his video camera in the front (pointed down at whatever he was showing) to every monitor in the room. It was so simple. There was no need to have students squinting across the room at a fuzzy TV screen with illegible letters (remember, no one had those expensive big ol’ projectors). So, by using his own video camera, some cabling and computers that everyone else was throwing out, he was able to bring his instructing right to the individual student’s desktop (or pair of students, in this case). I’ve been working toward that level of instruction in my lab, but it’s been slow going.
Because of the way my classroom was set up (and having one non-computer class) I have tables and chairs on one half of the room, where the projector screen and whiteboard are located. The computers are all on the other end of the classroom. It’s kind of important that the student come in and are able to see the instructions for the day’s lessons, etc. So my classes used to have to plant themselves in assigned seats on the non-computer side of the room, copy their assignments into their folders and then go to their computer stations. I know, that seems dumb but the small projector screen and anything written on the whiteboard was barely legible from the back of the non-computer end of the room much less from the computer stations clear across the room. This just wasn’t working.
So in addition to moving the projector and screen to a more central location and putting up a 100″ screen I found a way to get the “opening instructions” part of the class to the students without having to have them plant themselves in front of the whiteboard. I’ve been recording my class agenda and notes into my PDA and then copying it in iCal for some time. I’d also been posting my work calendar online. It dawned on me that I could post the calendar specifically set up for the classes and then set up the student computers to go to the posted agenda right from their seats. It was a bit more complicated than that (I had to install a “modern” version of Netscape on all 37 computers, one computer at a time, then load a set bookmarks selection, etc., etc., ack!). Anyway, now all my students have to do is go right to their computers, launch Netscape, click on the bookmark for their class and up pops an agenda for their class and any notes I want them to get.
The classroom layout is still messed up, but just implementing this one change has brought them that much closer to having a more one-to-one connection. Like the Garden Grove teacher ten-years-ago, using a posted calendar has brought my class one step closer to having the kind of interaction with instruction which virtually eliminates having students figuratively sitting in the back-row. Just posting my notes and giving them direct access eliminates one layer or barrier to instruction.
One student who’d been absent when the change was made had to be brought up to speed by other students. He looked at the agenda on his display and just said, “cool” and asked how I was able to do that. That made me think that I’d hit the mark. JBB