School Buildings Can Do So Much

ASCD’s Empower17 was an astounding and exhausting few days in Anaheim, CA. I’m full of thoughts about it and what I learned there. While in CA I reflected and wrote for SmartBrief about the sessions I attended. If you’re curious about those, you can find them online. I wrote about the Successful Schools Showcase, a new feature at the conference. I also wrote about a session Robyn Jackson did on meaningful feedback. I was also lucky enough to hear Zuriel Oduwole (she’s a 14 year old filmmaker and awesome) speak and I wrote about that one. (I think I wrote one more piece that should be up soon.) If you’re interested in the conference in general, there are lots of pieces by many folks here.

Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, VA

The final session I attended was Bob Moje, a fellow Virginian. He’s not an educator, in the traditional sense, but is an architect. He and his firm have designed many schools in Virginia, such as Manassas Park Elementary School, Buckingham County Primary and Elementary Schools, and Discovery Elementary School. There are quite a few more listed on Bob’s page, but these are my favorite.

Energy Dashboard from Discovery Elementary School

We do so many things because it’s what we’ve always done or because it’s a habit. For many things that is just fine. We can’t analyze or question everything we do. But sometimes, we really need to take a step back and do some serious thinking. Listening to Bob talk about school design made that very clear to me. He talked about school design the way many educators talk about teaching. The idea that we need to ask what we want, what’s our goal, what do we need to get there, and what are the best options available to us.

The great majority of schools I’ve spent time in (as a student, as a teacher, as a parent, as a visitor) have looked pretty much the same. The shock and excitement at seeing something different, something innovative in a school says something about how rare that is. We know exactly what to expect when we visit a school, no matter where we are in the country. One of the biggest problems with that is that schools last a long time. A school building may be used for fifty years or decades longer. Renovations are expensive and limited. It’s difficult to take a shell and make it into something new. Typically renovations make that shell larger or newer-looking. Not different.

The fact is that the building in which a school, a group of learners, spends its time, makes a huge difference in how that time is spent. Our principal and librarian have been doing an amazing amount of work to renovate our school library. Their greatest challenge? Lack of money – no, although that’s a big one. Lack of ideas – not at all, there are plenty of those. Lack on innovation – no way, they are thinking very creatively. The greatest challenge is that the space is set. They can’t change the rectangle with the few windows very high up. If they want to try something new, they have to make it happen in that space.

There is such potential in school building design. But what we tend to do is what we’ve always done.

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