A split classroom at Violet Elementary School, in St. Clair Shores, is comprised of third- and fourth-graders and makes use of flexible learning spaces, including a variety of seating options.

A split classroom at Violet Elementary School, in St. Clair Shores, is comprised of third- and fourth-graders and makes use of flexible learning spaces, including a variety of seating options.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


Schools providing different learning spaces to get the most out of students

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published January 17, 2018

 Troy School District Superintendent Rich Machesky talks to Larson Middle School eighth-graders Jordan Doyle, front; Rita Yousif, left; and Laura Stephan, right, on Jan. 10 in the school’s Innovation Studio. The students were working on building a tennis ball transporter.

Troy School District Superintendent Rich Machesky talks to Larson Middle School eighth-graders Jordan Doyle, front; Rita Yousif, left; and Laura Stephan, right, on Jan. 10 in the school’s Innovation Studio. The students were working on building a tennis ball transporter.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

METRO DETROIT — Winter in Michigan typically means a handful of snow days for metro Detroit schools. Slippery conditions and cold temperatures lead administrators to deciding it is best that everyone stays home for the day.

But the way Lake Shore Public Schools Superintendent Joe DiPonio sees it, education has evolved outside of a traditional classroom and snow days may become a thing of the past.

“We have the capabilities to deliver content and learning experiences online,” DiPonio said. “Learning can continue whether we are in session or not. We can no longer operate in the same way and are being forced to change how we operate as schools. That could change whether or not seat time is as valuable as it once was.”

Technology has played a big part in what DiPonio said is an ever-evolving educational landscape, but the idea of every student sitting facing the front of the classroom in rows while a teacher goes through a lesson has also changed.

Traditional classrooms are still important, DiPonio noted, but new learning spaces are popping up in schools all over metro Detroit. From makerspaces and new labs to flexible spaces and even online instruction, students are learning in a variety of ways with a large focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM, education.

“I think gone are the days where a teacher always stands at the head of the classroom and provides information,” DiPonio said. “Technology has removed a lot of that need for the teacher to be the holder of information, and now it is not so much what a child knows, but what they can do with that.

“A lot of what we are trying to convert spaces to is to have more space for collaboration and conversation,” DiPonio said.

In Lake Shore, located in St. Clair Shores, media centers have been reconfigured to offer space for students to work in small groups. DiPonio said they introduced a lot of writable surfaces, including desks and walls, so students can brainstorm and share ideas.

And technology has a role to play in those spaces as well, as students can charge their electronics as well as broadcast slideshows or videos to share with their peers. At the high school, the traditional media centers have been altered to stimulate STEAM activities as online sources provide more information for students, DiPonio said.

Spaces are also being reworked in the Troy School District, according to Superintendent Rich Machesky. For example, at Larson Middle School, the former central office in the interior of the building is now a collaboration space with the removal of a wall.

Machesky said the space can hold up to two classrooms at once when they need more space outside the classroom to collaborate and work in groups.

Old labs at Larson have also been converted into tech labs with new seating and presentation space. Machesky compared the spaces to those of the workspaces at Quicken Loans in Detroit or Google in Silicon Valley, where collaboration is key to working on projects.

“We empower our students to own their own learning, and part of that is recognition that students need to be able to think creatively and critically and have to be able to communicate,” Machesky said. “We know students learn best when they are able to collaborate with one another. We created environments where students can more easily create and communicate.

“Most office environments are moving away from cubicles as people come together and work together, so having students understand that as early as elementary (school) is quite critical.”

In November 2017, Troy High School unveiled a revamped auto repair facility that was a project the district partnered with local businesses on. While collaboration space encourages working together on a number of different projects, Machesky said there is also a need for dedicated spaces for things like auto repair.

“We want kids to engage in environments they will see when they get outside the walls of our schools,” he said. “Students at Troy High can leave and walk into any auto service lab in the area and be met with the exact same level of equipment they have been able to interact with at high school. It makes an entry point that is smooth and seamless, and gives them a leg up on the competition.”

Even in the classroom, things are being reworked from the traditional setup. Stephanie Dulmage, director of 21st-century learning in the Hazel Park School District, said the district started this school year with a flexible learning space in a kindergarten classroom.

It is still a classroom, but students have options and can reconfigure their seating and tables to work together. Dulmage said they made the decision to start at the earliest level and eventually work the flexible learning spaces into all levels of education in the district.

With the first classroom, Dulmage said they chose students who were struggling in the traditional classroom, and they have seen those children flourish in the new environment.

“We are seeing those kids move beyond where some of our kids are moving in the regular kindergarten classroom,” she said. “We are allowing the kids to have movement while they are doing work and it has increased their level of focus.”

The Hazel Park School District has also worked STEAM classes into every elementary student’s week in place of going to the media center every week to check out a book. Dulmage said they haven’t had the opportunity to reconfigure the media centers for those classes, but that is a goal for next school year.

The district is also providing makerspaces for a program it runs for emotionally impaired students, as well as at the alternative school.

“We took a step back and realized it is not just in general education and elementary (education) that this is beneficial, but about all of our kids,” Dulmage said.

In Troy, the district outfitted all sixth- through 12th-grade math classrooms with new collaborative furniture. The goal is to do the same in the fourth- and fifth-grade math classrooms over the summer, Machesky said.

DiPonio said they are doing the same thing in classrooms in Lake Shore Public Schools with flexible seating options, such as exercise balls and couches, and a more collaborative setup.

While Machesky said there is still a place for traditional classrooms, students are learning in different ways and schools have to adapt.

“If we want kids to learn different, we have to put them in environments where they are forced to interact different,” he said. “We have an opportunity to force students, and teachers, into an environment they are not used to with the appropriate support, and that creates the environment to create different outcomes.”