During the COVID-19 lockdown last spring, I looked for some cross-generational books I could read-aloud to my eight year old daughter that portrayed families bonding together while going through a difficult time. Laura Ingalls Wilder's classic story Little House in the Big Woods, which chronicles the difficulties of log-cabin American life in 1871, seemed to help put things into perspective. One aspect of pioneer life that fascinated my daughter was the one-room schoolhouse the Ingalls sisters attended.
In a one-room schoolhouse, there are just two pieces of design: the room and the seating for students. Moving forward through history, these two elements – the space and the seat – became the focus of repeated reinvention and modification. The long stiff wooden benches of Ingalls Wilder’s schoolhouse morphed into individual metal desks with chairs. The desks then transformed into lightweight and movable workspaces. Later, the desks disappeared altogether in favor of conference-style tables. Today, in recent twists, tables have become chairs, chairs have become ottomans, rooms have no front or back, and lightweight wheeled tables easily transform into smart work stations to suit the varied needs of students. Educational design has evolved to accommodate the students and, like the students, the learning spaces are flexible and dynamic.
When the topic arose in fall 2019 to redesign the FIS Elementary School common area, also known as the Rose Carpet, Elementary School Principal, Grace McCallum gathered a team together to reimagine and reinvent the social hub of the school. “We wanted a space that made our students feel that this was their space,” said Ms. McCallum. So naturally, since they are the primary users of the space, Elementary students were engaged early in the process to work in concert with the design team led by FIS Assistant Director Finance and Operations, Jana Schlichtenberg. Ms. McCallum noted, “It was important for us to listen to the students’ voices and how they wanted to interact with the space and take their needs into consideration.” Ms. McCallum was especially proud of the student designers and noted, “they did an excellent job gathering the opinions of their peers and curating ideas.” For example, then Grade 3 student designer Lyla Gartner contributed the important plea to have “no itchy fabrics!”
The team, which included teachers, students and administration, created archipelagos of furniture in bright colors such as yellow and teal that subtly divide the space into little pods that come together to create a greater, cohesive community. A truly flexible space, it meets the variety of needs students have throughout the day: a carpeted area with a coffee table and flexible furnishings invite peer-to-peer discussions, while tent-like structures act like quiet, kid-sized sanctuaries and let the students’ imagination run free as they take a moment for themselves with a book or just their thoughts.
Grade 5 student Olivia Eklund praises the collaborative tables that rotate upwards to “transform into whiteboards.” These same wheeled tables can be easily reconfigured by the students in various ways, including an option to have a child pop up like a prairie dog through a central hole created when the tables are connected. Student designer Lyla Gartner said she prefers the shelving structure where ordinary shelves are refashioned into loungers that suspend students above the area in whatever posture they find comfortable while leaving room on the neighboring shelves to display student artwork.
With the goal of widening the sphere of learning from the confines of the classroom, the new common area is a differentiated learning environment where students can organize themselves in small groups to work outside the classroom, find a peaceful retreat for independent study or comfortably meet with friends.
Another exciting renovation for FIS took place on the Wiesbaden campus and involved the remodeling of the Library Media Center. Library spaces are moving away from being areas for hushed silent work to more active spaces and the new library is no exception with flexible learning spaces to collaborate on projects and LEGO tables to spark some creativity.
After months of preparation, FISW’s new Library Media Center opened its doors last September and welcomed students with brightly painted shelves that display books more prominently, ten different types of seating, interactive game stations, browsing bins for popular books and self-checkout terminals that encourage independence. Cozy carpeted areas with Scandinavian-style seating invite discussions and a green room makes digital storytelling possible.
Natasha Pollack, the FISW Librarian, notes, “The FISW Library Media Center is a community learning hub. Our library serves to inspire and guide learners on their personal learning pathways. We aim to provide learners with access to relevant information through dynamic virtual and physical spaces. The Library Media Center fosters collaboration, communication and innovation.”
Whether it’s the new Wiesbaden campus Library Media Center or the Oberursel campus’ Elementary School common area, these dynamic learning spaces are expanding on their legacy roles and morphing into multipurpose places of connection. Unlike education in the pioneer days, learning isn’t just a single mode. It’s a changing rhythm of focus and interaction, collaborating and socializing, rest and rejuvenation. It’s working with technologies, as well as books and desks. The new FIS spaces play a role in making that happen and offer choices to support the different rhythms of scholarship and the differing needs of students.
A lot has changed in education from the one-room schoolhouse days, but one thing remains the same, we shape our places and our places shape us.
Story contribution by FIS Parent, Juliette Gustavsson