Clearing the one armed bandits

wp-1458042250935.jpgThree times a year, our classrooms transform: round tables are replaced with rows of tablet-armed desks during the state testing weeks of January, June, and August.   We call these desks one-armed bandits.

The change from tables to desks is a physically dramatic event.  The classroom turns from an expansive, wide space with 6-7 round tables, to a tightly–packed, orderly box filled with metal and laminate desks. 

Why do we normally have round tables instead of desks?  We believe that learning happens when people share ideas and listen to each other.  When we started High School of Language and Innovation in 2011, we cleared away hundreds of one-armed bandits, and replaced them with dozens of round tables.  The simple difference in shape is profound: at a round table, you must look at each other’s faces.  It’s an open invitation to interact.

As our school grew in size over the years, we acquired more classrooms, as we share a campus with four other schools.  One summer, I showed our new classrooms to a group of 10th grade students, thinking they would be excited by the sunny, bright new space.  “What do you think?” I asked them.

“I love it!” replied one boy, his eyes glowing.  “Are we going to be learning like that from now on?”

I looked where he was pointing: rows of straight, cramped one-armed bandits filled the classroom.  We hadn’t yet cleared the desks away, and the student thought we were going to keep them.  “Is the teacher going to stand in front and teach the whole period now while we sit at our desks?” he asked hopefully.

I was surprised, yet I understood his enthusiasm.  Sitting at a desk and looking at the back of someone’s head is far less awkward than looking into a person’s eyes.

What happens after four years of learning with others at round tables?  This past January, students from our first graduating class returned from college to visit us.  We asked them, “What did you learn in high school that helped you for college?”

“Learning to work with people,” most of them replied.  “If I have a question, or want help studying, or I have a project, I just ask someone if they want to work together, and we do.  We have group projects too, and I always know how to get the group to work together.  We thought everybody in college would know how to do that, but it turned out they didn’t.”

So we’ll keep our round tables, and continue the seasonal storage of desks.  As much as it would be easier to provide our students the escape and solitude of the one-armed bandit, we’ve seen the difference it makes when we allow them to see each other, and experience the richness of a team.

Photo credit: Julie Nariman

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