“My” Classroom Space Configuration 2006-2010 (Part 1 of 2)

Recently, our team was discussing classroom space configurations. Mary and Jim asked about the configurations I used as a teacher. I drew them a diagram (recreated in Google drawings here). We had one type of student desk (yellow seat attached to wooden desk with metal basket underneath). Desks were arranged in two groups of rows. One grouping faced the “front” of the room and the other faced the “side” of the room where the double whiteboards were mounted on the wall. At least 3 factors limited the flexibility of this space…1) the type of desks, 2) the role students were asked to play (mostly consumers), and 3) the teacher’s lack of imagination (me).

I created a nice flow from the doorway into the room so students could easily access their desks. I also created at least a fourth or a third of the room for “teacher” space. I had two large bookshelves for “my stuff” behind “my desk” and an extra table where students could pick up their handouts. In the front corner were two filing cabinets, fully labeled and color coordinated with lesson plans and resources. The TV and DVD player sat on top of the two filing cabinets. I had a wooden podium for lectures and a white pub table (also for lectures). The blue circle is a stool. The red X is where I would stand when I wanted to start class. Students knew it was time to begin when I stood in this spot and they would “shush” each other. I didn’t have to say a word.

yellow classroom desks

These were exactly the desks students used. Functional for individual work, but not for collaboration. Not very comfortable. Not terribly flexible.


One of my AP World History classes doing a “JC Penney catalog pose.” I painted the map on the wall and used it throughout the year, changing the focal point from the front of the room to the back.IMG_5394
Another class doing the pose. Great kids – loved them all.IMG_4894

Mr. Rountree was my “trailer” mate and partner in crime. We called our double-wide portable classroom the “Tree-House” (a combination of Rountree and Houston). My current team will notice the color flow charts on the table behind him. Apparently, I was in to flow charts back then, too.

Behind my desk(s) were two solid oak bookshelves. All of my resources were on the middle and bottom shelves for easy access. I always preferred a clean desk at the end of each day. (And an empty INBOX).IMG_6287IMG_5477

Behind the podium in a tie. And in jeans on a Friday. Mr. Rountree and I frequently took our classes outside for a “brain break” and a friendly game of Ultimate Frisbee. We played, too.

There was only one other configuration we used. Before major tests, we would play “Quiz Bowl” with the electronic buzzers. Teams would rotate. Students not playing would sit behind and listen to the questions.

How might you reconfigure your learning spaces? How would you advise me to reconfigure this space from 2006-2010? Stay tuned for Part 2 when I will share how I would re-imagine the space today.

#14 What Are Your Strengths?

What stands out when you look at this report card…?

Math                 A+
Science            A
Composition    A-
Literature         A
History              F
Music               A+

If you noticed five “As” then congratulations! Your default is to look for strengths. Why is it that we are drawn to the “F” despite all of the positive?

It raises a larger question – is it better to focus on shoring up our weaknesses or exploiting our strengths in life? Our time and energy is limited. The decision of where to focus our efforts will have a great impact.

A few years ago, I read Strengths Finder for work and I still go back to it. Below I have highlighted a few of the descriptors that really resonated with me. I encourage you to take the survey and discover your strengths, too.

(according to Strength Finder 2.0)

You recognize that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Probe your friends and coworkers about actions that might have contributed to their current successes so you can help them make better choices in the future. 

Compare historical antecedents and situations to your current challenge. Identifying commonalities may lead you to a new perspective or an answer to your problems.

Select jobs that allow you to have the leeway to work as hard as you want and in which you are encouraged to measure your own productivity. You will feel challenged and alive in these environments.

As an achiever, you relish the feeling of being busy, yet you also need to know when you are “done.” Attach timelines and measurement to goals so that effort leads to defined progress and tangible outcomes.

Remember to build celebration and recognition into your life. Achievers tend to move on to the next challenge without acknowledging their successes. Counter this impulse by creating regular opportunities to enjoy your progress and accomplishments.
You do not require much motivation from others. Take advantage of your self-motivation by setting challenging goals. Set a more demanding goal every time you finish a project.

You probably will excel in any role in which you are paid to highlight the positive. A teaching role, a sales role, an entrepreneurial role, or a leadership role will make the most of your ability to make things dramatic.


You tend to be more enthusiastic and energetic than most people. When others become discouraged or are reluctant to take risks, your attitude will provide the impetus to keep them moving. Over time, others will start to look to you for this “lift.”

Explain that your enthusiasm is not simple naivety. You know that bad things can happen; you simply prefer to focus on the good things.


You may get your greatest joy by encouraging people. Freely show your appreciation of others, and make sure that the praise is not vague. Consistently seek to translate your feelings into specific, tangible, and personal expressions of gratitude and recognition.


Avoid negative people. They will bring you down. Instead, seek people who find the same kind of drama and humor in the world that you do. You will energize each other.

Consider roles in which you listen and counsel. You can become adept at helping other people see connection and purpose in everyday occurrences.

Within your organization, help your colleagues understand how their efforts fit in the larger picture. You can be a leader in building teams and helping people feel important.
You are aware of the boundaries and borders created within organizations and communities, but you treat these as seamless and fluid. Use your Connectedness talents to break down silos that prevent shared knowledge.

Refine how you learn. For example, you might learn best by teaching; if so, seek out opportunities to present to others. You might learn best through quiet reflection; if so, find this quiet time.

Be a catalyst for change. Others might be intimidated by new rules, new skills, or new circumstances. Your willingness to soak up this newness can calm their fears and spur them to action. Take this responsibility seriously.

As far as possible, shift your career toward a field with constantly changing technologies or regulations. You will be energized by the challenge of keeping up.

Time disappears and your attention intensifies when you are immersed in studying or learning. Allow yourself to “follow the trail” by scheduling learning sessions during periods of time that will not be interrupted by pressing engagements.

#9 How to Challenge Gifted Students: An Interview with Dr. Arianna Shirk

A key challenge at Mount Vernon (and every school I have worked in) is how to challenge those students who score 100 on everything. Often, the teacher’s energy and focus goes to the “lower performing” students. The high achievers often do not receive the challenge they deserve because teachers think, “Oh, they’re fine. They’ve already got it. They get everything. They can help tutor the others.” This is a myth in need of busting. All students deserve and need to be challenge beyond their current ability, including and especially the ‘gifted’ students.

A key approach to solving challenges at Mount Vernon is Design Thinking. One important component of design thinking is learning to empathize with people who are or have experienced the challenge you are trying to solve first hand. In my attempt to gain empathy for the gifted, yet unchallenged students in our middle school as we seek to design better and more challenging programs, I have interviewed my sister-in-law, Dr. Arianna Shirk.

 shirk family

Dr. Shirk is family and she is extremely intelligent, motivated, creative, and high-achieving. Allow me to brag about her for a moment. She earned scholarships to high school in NC, Furman University for undergrad, and Wake Forest University for Medical School. At Furman, she was allowed to make up her own major as part of their Engaged Learning initiative and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Perspectives on Poverty and Health. She studied the interaction of eastern and western medicine for a year as a Luce Scholar in Taiwan. She scored a 1580 on SAT, twenty points shy of perfect. Currently, she is a Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow at University Alabama at Birmingham and plans to move to Tanzania to help build one of the first free standing children’s hospitals in Eastern Africa.

How old were you when you first became aware of your need to be challenged beyond the typical classroom?

I was pulled out for enrichment learning classes in 1st grade where I wrote a play, learned chess, and did science field trips.

What most challenged you in middle school?
They gave me creative challenges with room for creativity.  A term paper on the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Special projects –  We did an election notebook in 7th grade 1992. We had to volunteer for the party of our choice. We wrote a report on a candidate at every level (county, state, and national) of government and studied the election process. We created a piece of election propaganda. I was assigned to be the debate coach which included watching the debates and prepping a fellow student candidate for a mock election. And I was a spelling bee nerd – I spent a few too many hours study Webster’s dictionary and running words with my parents.

What bored you the most?

When I had to regurgitate the book. I disliked one of my freshman high school classes because we never covered anything in class that wasn’t in the book. I did my homework and was bored to tears in class because nothing was new in class – I could memorize but wanted to learn to see it in a new way I couldn’t figure out myself.

What advice do you have for gifted students who want to be challenged?

If you have an idea, ask your teacher if you can do it. I’m still doing it – working on adapting my fellowship next year and plan to prepare myself better to practice medicine and maneuver the healthcare system in Africa.  If possible, choose writing topics that are more complex and require more research to write so you have the chance to learn more.  Figure out what you love and figure out how to make it part of your education every step of the way.

What advice do you have for educators who seek to differentiate for gifted students?

Show interest in them as people. Treat them as more than just students. Know more about them than just their grades or their ability to memorize things. My teachers that became mentors  made me feel confident and that I could do more than people expected middle schoolers to do.

Students rise to the challenge when they have ownership – when it engages passion or imagination. If they are doing something to check a box or get a grade it can limit their potential. I’m very good at checking boxes, but I had mentors along the way that made me create my own boxes.


Thank you Dr. Shirk!

For the readers, what strategies do you recommend for challenging the students who need a bit more?