In this North Allegheny classroom, students learn in lounge-like atmosphere
Greg Geibel's 10th-grade English classroom is unlike any other at North Allegheny Intermediate High School.
All the desks and chairs have been replaced with cafe-style tables and hardback seats, high-top tables with bar stools, restaurant-style padded booths, leather lounge chairs and a love seat that Geibel reupholstered using curtains.
Decorative pendant lighting has taken the place of overhead fluorescent lights, and the bone-white walls have been painted a soothing pastel green with gray and emerald highlights.
More face-to-face interaction among students. Longer attention spans. Better collaboration. Increased productivity. Lower stress levels. And students who love coming to class.
“The room provides a comfortable space, and that makes students more receptive to the subject matter I'm teaching, even if English isn't their favorite topic,” Geibel added.
The room's transformation began one year ago.
“I had an out-of-body experience last October,” said Geibel, who has taught English at North Allegheny for 23 years.
“I looked out at my students one day, and there they were, sitting in a room with metal chairs and rose-colored desks that were lined up in perfect little rows like the ones in 1950s America. Yet, they were sitting there with their laptop computers open and their smartphones on. I knew something was wrong,” he said.
He left school that Friday afternoon feeling frustrated.
“Today's students hang out at Hello Bistro. They sit with their friends in leather chairs at Starbucks. They meet their tutors at Panera. They sit cross-legged with computers in their lap. These kids no longer learn the same way we were taught to learn or the way I was taught to teach. We used to take notes while the teacher spoke. Those days are gone. Today, kids can access the information they need in just four seconds on their smartphones. We need to meet these kids where they are,” Geibel explained.
That evening, while attending an NA football game, he approached Assistant Principal Caitlin Ewing and district Superintendent Robert Scherrer, who were standing on the sidelines.
“I told them I was going to throw out all my desks and chairs on Monday,” Geibel said. “It wasn't a hard sell.”
Geibel recruited his wife, an artist, to sketch some classroom design ideas. He began thumbing through catalogs and researching the psychology of light and color.
“White is the most unproductive color in the visible spectrum, yet schools use it in every classroom because it's the cheapest one to use and to touch up,” he said.
“Fluorescent lights cycle at 60 times per second. Some kids can actually see (the flickering). It causes something called ‘industrial stress.'”
Geibel began the room renovation by dismantling chalk boards over Christmas break.
By March, he had collected all the furniture he needed to finish the room, including two slightly scratched leather chairs donated by Ross Park Mall, an old barber chair bestowed by a friend, and a retro-style love seat that had been sitting in his garage.
He had his students drag their desks and chairs out of the classroom and straight to the auditorium, where they were donated to a school in Virginia that had lost everything in a flood.
He replaced his own desk with a podium he crafted from two empty Peavy speaker cabinets.
“Mr. Geibel told my class that he threw out his desk because it took up too much space and was just a place for teachers to hide behind, which I completely agree with,” said 10th-grader Sari Abu-Hamad, 14, of Franklin Park.
“I really like Mr. Geibel's room. It just has a positive vibe and I'm definitely more positive in the classroom,” added 10-grader Abby Birch, 15, of Franklin Park.
Even students who are not assigned to Geibel's classroom are attracted to it.
“It's funny to hear kids walking through the hall. They walk by and look in. Their eyes get real big, like they're looking into another universe,” he said.
Administrators love it, too.
“The first time I saw the room, I knew kids would thrive in it. Different learning styles flourish in this setting and it's a place where kids want to learn,” said Brendan Hyland, the school's principal.
The renovation cost $16,000, which was funded through the school's building budget. The room currently is being used as an incubator to inspire more faculty to look at their own classrooms differently.
“Greg is one of the most creative individuals I have encountered in my 26 years as an educator,” Hyland continued.
“He is the type of person that will come to you with an idea that nobody else thinks of, and you can bank on it that it is well thought out, doable, and most importantly, is always in the best interest of our students. He is in this profession for all the right reasons.”
Laurie Rees is a Tribune-Review contributor.