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The Writing on the Wall: Creating Greater Gender Equity through Classroom RE-Design Part II

What's the message?

So what can we do in schools to make the atmosphere of the school more gender balanced and fair?

The first thing we can do is start to acknowledge that atmosphere really matters, much more than we think it does. All of those teachers running around at the beginning of the school year with their tape measures and scissors and cray paper, they may have a concept, they may even have a theme for the year or they may even be putting up the same materials they have been using for the past 20 years, but they all think the design of the environment has an important impact on their students’ education.

If we start by giving these classrooms the credit they deserve, then we need more than a theme or an idea. We need to answer a few vital questions: How is my classroom going to function as the second (or third) teacher? How am I going to utilize the space to foster the best kinds of learning in my students that supports ALL parts of the curriculum? How will classroom design not just become a reflection and a mirror of what I am most excited about (and insecure about) in terms of learning as a teacher?

Here is where administrators and instructional leaders can help, not by telling teachers what their classrooms should look like, but by asking teachers great questions, specific questions, that teacher can use as a form of self reflection, BEFORE they put all of that work into their classrooms. If administrators meet with their teachers beforehand and start to think through these questions, and then use them as a way to observe the first 6 weeks of school, the results can be mind bending. You will discover everything from a piece of furniture that is blocking student movement and needs to be rearranged to language on walls which speaks to boys, but maybe not to girls to why is everything hung up at adult eye level when 90% of the classroom’s occupants are 3 feet tall?  Here are a sample of thought provoking questions you can ask.

  • What is the process for keeping the room orderly and organized?

  • Is the room safe?  Enough room for student movement?

  • Is everything clearly marked, coherent?  Would a stranger know where everything is?

  • What do the walls reflect and why? From their (the students) physical vantage point, what do they see?

  • Is the space organic and flexible? Will the students see in April what they saw in Sept.?

  • Is the space under stimulating?

  • Is the space over stimulating?

  • Does your space facilitate critical thinking?

  • Does the room make clear our school’s fundamental core programs? (math, literacy skills, science, history)

  • And, is there a clear sense that all of these programs are proportionally emphasized and represented?

How will classroom design not just become a reflection and a mirror of what I am most excited about (and insecure about) in terms of learning as a teacher?

As  you can see, these questions move from the mundane to higher order and, there is actually very little direct addressing of gender as an issue per say. It does not really need to be in order to re-consider how students will be impacted. I have attached an observation tool HERE which I use to great success in working with teachers. One of the fun exercises we do before school starts is to walk around the classrooms on our knees to recreate the experience of the students.

Even though I do believe that explicit questions regarding gender representation need to be asked, magically, you will see rooms transformed into spaces which better connect and facilitate the students’ learning needs. It will raise awareness, not just before school begins; teacher thinking will be altered throughout the year because of this process. The question of gender equity and sensitivity is just one major benefit.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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