Jan 16, 2018

Creating Classrooms with Missions in Mind

By JD Ferries-Rowe

We gathered around the table in the Teacher’s Resource Center (the TRC), created three years before to give educators a place near both the library and the IT offices where they could plan, play, and learn in the same way that we expected of the students. Around the table were the IT director, an architect, the librarian, the assistant principal and principal and the president of the school. The subject of the meeting, laid out in front of us on large sheets of white paper with computer-assisted drawings in black and our recent notations in red ink was the design of a new library, nearly three years in the making and nearing its conclusion. Thus, it was with some frustration that this celebratory moment was marked by the President saying, “No, I don’t like that. It needs to change.”

The renovation of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School’s library into an Information Commons was a process 4 years in the making. It involved surveys of students and faculty, research into best practices, a lot of reading about design thinking and library theory, focus groups, and quite a few showroom floors. Our goal was to create a space that would fit our school's mission and be an improved space for the students — our main customers.

Setting a Context

The BJPS library was built in the mid-1980s. The school at that time did not emphasize group work, did not use computers, and was designed for a student body of 500, not our current population of 800. It was anchored by an enormous and imposing circulation desk that sat off to one side like a guard’s tower in a prison. The lighting, original to the buildout, was that classic fluorescent that seemed simultaneously too harsh yet not bright enough for the space. Large wooden “stack” style bookshelves dominated the walls and wings adding to the feeling of cramped space. Twice a day, this feeling became reality when 80% of the student body is released for “Personal Responsibility Time” — when the library was so crowded that students had to be turned away.

The library was surrounded by large hallways dividing the TRC and IT dept from the library proper. Another hallway served as a relatively unused passageway containing a seldom-used computer lab, the computer science classroom (a thrown-together collection of carpet, cobbled together tables and desks, and gorilla shelves filled with old computers and wires), and the entrance to the newly-renovated Wellness  Center. On either side of the large hallway was a catacomb of various work rooms, storage areas, and unused offices that were crowded with old equipment, books, and AV technology that included slide projectors and overheads. Architects who had conducted a space study for us determined that over 30% of the area was either hallway or storage and was considered “unusable by students”.

In addition, the recent change to a 1:1 BYOT model eliminated the need for computer labs and carts (the library had both and another nearby.  Students in need of help with devices were often found to be standing outside the hallway in front of the Teacher Resource Room (TRC) or the IT dept. (a typical machine heavy, cluttered space that is the opposite of an inviting place).

In conducting our surveys and focus groups, we found that students had a number of ideas of their own:

        They wanted us to emphasize small group spaces (51%) and silent study space (49%).
        They wanted a social space but also a place where they could get help with research papers.
        They wanted to build a robot, print a slinky, produce a video, or play with a drone.
        They wanted to be able to check out a book.

With this diverse assortment of goals in mind, we began the research, design, and dreaming phase. We would tear down the walls that created the hallways and labyrinths of storage cubbies (narrowing it down to one room of storage, a utility sink and bathroom). Utilizing the found space would accommodate 60 more students.

The furniture would be flexible, including standing and sitting tables, large couches, “buoy” stools, and comfortable reading chairs. The circulation desk would be smaller with a “sitting height” side and centered in the space instead of serving as a guard post at the entrance. Small group rooms would give space for students to work in an observable area without disturbing the library as a whole. The large “stacks” would be replaced by counter-height shelves that would be placed in-between populated areas to serve as a sound-buffer.

The IT department would have the prerequisite “cave” of stuff including a relocated server room, but would also have a helpdesk area for students (and someday run by students). The outdated computer science lab would be updated in both equipment and furniture/room design to match the Information commons and the collaborative and innovative learning we were expecting in the space.

Back to the Drawing Board
“No. I don’t like that. It needs to change.”

The issue on the table was the “quiet study space” that was the most popular section of the current library and the most important part of the library for about half the students (based on surveys). We had figured out a few years before that the best way to create a quiet space was to put it as far from the library entrance as possible. It just so happened that this space contained large glass windows that looked out onto the athletic fields and a balcony used by students and adults alike. “We cannot get put large study carrels in a prime location like that!”

Plans were adjusted again, creating a glass-walled room to the side of this space. The glass would be designed to be nearly sound-proofed, would contain flexible furniture that could be used as study carrels or as classroom tables for full class instruction, and the dividers would be removable whiteboards!

Additionally, the largest study room was modified to create a “Makerspace” based off the increased use of 3D printer (awkwardly housed in the TRC) and the clear trend in library build-outs. The plan was to have “zones” for productivity, socializing, and quiet study. We started the demolition phase over a spring break holiday with a scheduled opening for Fall of the next school year.

What we learned:

        The president was right. The quiet study space was well placed in the redesign. No adult has ever had to quiet it down. The visual cues of the glass wall and divider-tables are enough.
        “Zoning” requires similar cues that we didn’t adequately design to be natural, particularly when 25% of the school’s population is in the space working and socializing.
        The Makerspace outgrew the “study room” in one year. It was moved into the “Teacher room” which became much less utilized when the large glass windows were installed (oops). The space now includes VR and AR stations, three 3D printers, a podcasting studio, a Lego wall, and animation boxes.
        The technical foundations matter: Good wi-fi, easy-to-use printing services (both walk-up and BYOT), digital signage that can be updated easily by non-techs, and a fully staffed helpdesk can make or break the space.
        The library is still the library: Librarians who enjoy helping students with research, availability of relevant resources (paper and digital), and access to tools are still key.
        Lighting is a game changer: we used natural-lighting solar tubes for one section of the space and wish we had placed more of it throughout the library. LEDs are a cost saver and brightener. Additionally, light-colored carpet squares (a clean-up must) and light paint will brighten up the space.
        By keeping furniture modular and varied, we can change the look and use of space to fit the needs and desires of the students and encourage spaces to be used through design process rather than by constant “shushing”.

Ultimately, we are still in the process of learning what works best in the space. This method requires an openness to change and a formal commitment to solicit feedback, reflect on what is working and what is not, and a willingness to admit when something is not working, even if it used to important. Sometimes the best insight is “it needs to change”.

JD Ferries-Rowe is the Chief Information Officer at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, IN. He is responsible for Management of the 1:1 BYOT program and all technology and edtech initiatives in the school. JD works closely with the principal's office and others on aligning technology, learning, and curriculum to the mission of the school. He was a presenter at EDspaces 2017.

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