Exeter Unified pilots 18 “flexible” classrooms with rolling desks, bean bag chairs, 360-degree whiteboards


By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

EXETER – Teaching elementary students can be a little routine and rigid. Teachers feel as if they are constantly dealing with non academic issues such as missing pencils, lost papers, cluttered desks and antsy students. Not only are these things distracting to students but they are taxing for teachers who watch precious instructional time tick away. But Phillip Cazarez doesn’t have to deal with the hassle of a typical classroom after his got a makeover earlier this month to create a more flexible and interactive learning space.

Cazarez’s fourth grade class at Lincoln Elementary School has been transformed into one of 18 new flexible classrooms within Exeter Unified School District. When his students returned to class on Oct. 23 following the fall break, they had a variety of different desks to choose from.

In the center of the classroom were kidney- or fish-shaped desks on castors that could be moved around the room to form a circle, separate distracting classmates or form smaller groups for projects. All of the desks were adjustable with some being set at stool height allowing students to sit or stand while they worked. All of the desk tops are made for dry erase markers. The tops of the longer more rectangular desks could be turned on their side, creating a smaller whiteboard that could be moved around the room. Students could choose to sit in a bean bag, stool, plush block or more traditional chair and even switch them out if they need to change positions while reading or composing on their laptops. Nearly every inch of wall space within reach of teacher or student was covered with whiteboard material to create “360-degree” visual learning. Cazarez even converted a book shelf running below the window sill into a whiteboard just by coating it with dry erase paint. The whiteboards are also magnetic, allowing Cazarez to quickly put up and take down materials as the class moves in and out of lessons.

“It’s a playground for learning,” Cazarez said. “Students can visualize and show their work, sit or stand, and walk around to see what other students are doing.”

Nora Allstedt, technology coach for the district, said the redesign to “flexible classrooms” is a major shift away from the “cemetery seating” of traditional classrooms. It also removes the concept of students keeping, and oftentimes hoarding, worksheets, library books, pencils, erasers, clothing, half-eaten gum, etc. inside their desks. Instead, the district installed a cubby where students can store their materials in clear trays that can be completely removed and taken anywhere in the room.

“We asked teachers, ‘What are you willing to take out of your room?’” Allstedt said. “And once they got started, they found they actually used very little space. Now it opens up the entire classroom to do more with the students.”

Allstedt said the 18 teachers whose classrooms were converted were selected based on an application process. Those who applied had to attend a mandatory information session and demonstrate how they would use the set up to improve student learning.

Cazarez was selected for the pilot program for his integration of computers into the classroom in his first two years with the district. She said Cazarez, like herself, is a member of the Computer Using Educators (CUE) chapter and was recently named the Central Valley CUE’s Emerging Educator of the Year. He will be a presenter at a CUE conference this Saturday, Nov. 4. In addition to the “360” classroom design, Cazarez also installed a retractable curtain on the wall to use as  a green screen

Students in Phillip Cazarez’s fourth grade class at Lincoln Elementary in Exeter sit in new fish-shaped desks that can be rolled around the room as part of the new flexible classrooms. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

Students in Phillip Cazarez’s fourth grade class at Lincoln Elementary in Exeter sit in new fish-shaped desks that can be rolled around the room as part of the new flexible classrooms. Photo by Reggie Ellis.

background for student reports.

“It’s gets easier each year for kids to cut and paste from web sites for their assignments, but if they have to present the material by reading it in a video it cuts down on a lot of that,” Allstedt said.

Deputy Superintendent Donya Wheeler said the 18 classrooms span every grade level at all of the school campuses including Rocky Hill Elementary, Wilson Middle School and Exeter High School. If the pilot project shows results, Wheeler said the district already has plans to convert every classroom to the more modern set up over the course of five years.

Wheeler said it was a good time to pilot the 18 flexible classrooms as the district just finished its rollout of providing every student with a laptop or tablet in each classroom. She said the new classrooms should foster more creative thinking and keep students more engaged in learning thanks to more tactile and visual elements in the classroom.

The conversion cost the district about $15,000 per classroom for a total of about $300,000. It was funded by a combination of “set aside” funds for facility improvements and the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), a three-year plan that outlines how the district will spend its money connected to one of eight state priorities in areas of Conditions of Learning, Student Outcomes, and Parent and Pupil Engagement.

“This classroom allows students to explore and be creative,” Wheeler said. “Movable desks will foster conversations and help students work more collaboratively.”

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