Creative learning spaces make coming to class fun for Jefferson Hills Intermediate students
Arianna Peters sits down in a booth, kicks back and gets ready to learn.
It feels more like she’s at a fast food joint than school.
There are tables, chairs and booths in the maroon-outlined, Chick-fil-A themed classroom at Jefferson Hills Intermediate School. Trays hold classroom essentials. Math concepts related to cooking and adding up a bill line the walls. There’s even a sign announcing pickups for to-go orders hanging in the corner.
“It’s so much fun to sit in a booth at school,” said Arianna, 8, a third-grader. “I feel like I’m relaxing while I’m working, and that makes it more fun.”
As Jefferson transitioned from a K-5 elementary to a grades 3-5 only intermediate school for 2018-19, the building also underwent a complete overhaul during which teachers were encouraged to create fun, engaging classroom spaces where students would want to learn.
Their efforts resulted in classrooms that look as though they came straight from Pinterest. Others send students far away to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Students can pedal on bikes while reading in the library-turned-media cafe or lounge on a couch in the hallway while getting advice from YouTube’s “Kid President” on the TV screen hanging above.
“I think we were put in a unique situation where we had the opportunity to reinvent the way we do school,” Principal Chris Very said. “The No. 1 thing we were looking to create was excitement and enthusiasm.”
Teachers took the challenge to a whole new level, Very said. They spent their summers and their own money to transition the classrooms into cool spaces for kids. Their personalities shine through in each room.
About 80 percent of the classrooms at Jefferson now offer flexible seating, Very said. Many classrooms also have collaborative learning spaces. There are 726 students at Jefferson this year.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see a traditional classroom with rows and single-seating here,” Very said. Some classrooms still have desks, but teachers use them in a creative way.
Jefferson first had flexible seating in one classroom only three years ago at a teacher’s request, Very said. Now, couches, benches, bouncy balls and even kids stretched out on the floor on carpets are commonplace.
“I think you’re seeing creativity at it’s best. This is all about what’s best for the kids,” said Matthew Patterson, assistant superintendent of elementary education.
“We’ve challenged teachers and principals to think differently about what we do and how we provide education,” he said. “The climate that’s provided by the classroom arrangement really enhances what we’re trying to do from an achievement perspective.”
The charge to teachers was: “Try it. Just be creative,” Patterson said.
While change is never easy, he said, it’s already paying off with the students.
“The smiles on those faces says it all. They love coming to school,” Patterson said.
Lori Lawry, a third grade math teacher, sees that excitement every day.
The booths inside her Chick-fil-A classroom were so popular she had to assign seats because students were rushing to get to class to get that special spot.
When searching for a way to make her classroom a fun learning environment, Lawry came up with restaurant theme and found the Chick-fil-A in Robinson was remodeling. She called, and they offered to donate as much as she could take.
Six tables, two benches, 10 chairs and a hand sanitizer dispenser sat in her garage for the summer. She hoped they would fit in the classroom when she had access to the school.
“I wanted the students to get excited to come into the classroom, and they do. They’re very eager to learn,” Lawry said. “It motivates them to want to come to school.”
C.J. Smith, 8, said the classroom is different from any other he’s ever been in. He loves it.
The class feels so much like a restaurant for Mia Riepole, 8, that she wants to eat all day.
“It makes me hungry,” she said, with a giggle.
Down the hall, a light hangs on the “front porch” of Donna Zang’s third grade classroom.
“It’s home. It’s my living room,” Zang said of the rustic farmhouse classroom she designed and built.
After finding a large cable spool on the side of the road last year, Zang put it in her car and rolled it into class. The kids loved it.
“I thought, ‘OK, we’re onto something here,’” she said.
A parent got her two more. Her brother, who works in construction, got her another two.
In all, she ended up with six cable spools that she turned into desks. She stained them herself and added plastic to the top to serve as a makeshift dry erase board for students.
She got pieces of wood and turned to the old plastic chairs in her classroom into wooden benches. She built couches and her desk for the classroom.
The brown accented wall features inspirational quotes, and a table saw turned planter.
“I like to say it’s like Chip and Joanna Gaines threw up all over it,” she said.
Zang has seen a difference in her students as their learning space has changed.
“I just think it gives them more freedom. It gives them more choices. It’s just more fun,” she said.
Students recently were sprawled out on the floor and working together on assignments in the new writing workshop space designed to look like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School.
All writing spaces at the school are themed after Harry Potter, to encourage the idea that writing is fun.
“They’re entering into the writing world just like they’re entering Hogwarts,” said fourth grade writing teacher Kristin Kulikowski. “We’re just trying to bring the magic of writing to them.”
The library was transitioned into the media cafe after teacher Stephanie Martinis, her family and members of the TJ football team spent the summer condensing books and removing shelves from the space to give students a menu of options to choose from.
“My vision was to create a space for kids to be excited about learning and to give them choice and give them space to collaborate,” Martinis said.
After a mini-lesson, students can hope on bouncy balls with wheels to ride around the room and select their books.
There are couches and chairs where students can read quietly. Or, they can build LEGOs or sit on a bench and ride a pedal bike while reading.
For Maria Ferris, 11, a fifth-grader, the bikes offer a fun new way to read.
“You can pedal and not get distracted while reading because you’re already doing something,” she said.
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.