Monday, December 21, 2009

What got me started on this

Crappy white plastic tables.

We had had desks in our classrooms that were the sort I had when I was in high school and college. The kind that were unkind to people who were left-handed (although every once in a while there'd be a special 'left-handed' desk) because you had to "enter" the desk and your right arm was to rest on the desk while your left hand, I don't know, wrapped around the top of the desk. They weren't so much desks as "desk-chair" combos.

So, this is what we had, along with chalk boards, regular fluorescent lights and some sort of non-carpeted flooring (not wood or tile, something that had to be waxed).

Then came the 'improvements.' I have since refused to talk about classrooms being improved and will only agree that they have been renovated - I grant the what's in the rooms is now newer. All desks were taken out and replaced with aforementioned crappy white plastic tables. The tables are, in addition to being stark white and plastic, are rectangular and have wheels so that they may be moved -- this is the major pedagogical breakthrough that these tables provide, the ability to move them (not that the others were bolted down or heavy or immovable for any other reason, but I digress). Oh, and two people can, comfortably, sit side-by-side on the long side of the table (though putting two folks facing them on the same table doesn't really work). The students now sit on plastic blue chairs the choice of which baffles me. These are plastic blue chairs (fairly sturdy plastic) that look like folding chairs. But, lest you get excited about the possibility of actually folding the chairs, no folding is actually possible. These only have the appearance of being able to fold. Now why someone thought that the folding chair look is a good one and didn't conclude that folding chairs look the way they do only because that's what makes it possible to fold them, I do not know. So, we have white plastic tables (with wheels) and blue plastic imitation folding chairs.

Now before I continue, I should be perfectly clear that faculty were provided with input on the choice of classroom furniture and I did not take the opportunity to go and look at what was available. But, reliable sources tell me that this was the best of the bunch.

In addition to replacing the desks, the blackboards were removed and replaced with nice shiny, equally stark, white white-boards, the old fluorescent lights were replaced with new fluorescent lights and carpeting was put in.

The classrooms now bear a striking resemblance to racquetball courts (minus the nice wood floors) and classrooms, with 'tables' now instead of 'desks' are typically arranged in one of two ways: (1) the tables neatly lined up in rows facing the 'front' of the room (where the white board is) is or (2) in a very large rectangle -- all the tables arranged to form the 4 sides of the rectangle with the inevitable remaining tables pushed into the middle and the unused or broken chairs piled on top of each other in a corner.

To say that I didn't like this change upon first glance would be an understatement. But my breaking point was the day I was supposed to teach, I think it was Aristotle. Here we were about to discuss work I used to emphasize the importance of the slow reading of text, carefully understanding something, meditating upon an idea and I was supposed to do this in a room that had the intimacy and allure of a racquetball court. Oh, and the windows are tinted so opening the shades to use natural light is possible only when the sun is shining very brightly. At that moment, I decided that careful, interesting thought couldn't possibly happen in that sort of environment. And I set about finding evidence that the actual space in which one learns, thinks, studies actually has an effect on the quality of one's learning, thinking, studying.

Next a perfectly good gathering space was ruined with more white plastic

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