Innovative classroom setup planned for new middle school
Some teachers are skeptical the changes will work
by Carter Pape
The Times-Independent
Jan 31, 2019 | 1145 views | 0 0 comments | 47 47 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Design plans for the new Grand County Middle School are nearing completion, but architects on the project and some GCMS teachers are in disagreement about a few of the finer details, including learning spaces that will be shared between classrooms.

During a meeting with GCMS staff on Monday, Jan. 28, representatives from MHTN Architects, a design firm based in Salt Lake City, led a presentation of some of the design features teachers could expect at the new middle school. Architects also took feedback from teachers as they made final tweaks to their plan.

Many of the firm’s design choices were not controversial. The middle school will feature a double gym equipped with enough space and equipment to accommodate two basketball games at the same time, separated by a large curtain, a request specified by the school district early on in the project.

The cafeteria at the new school will be adjacent to an outdoor seating area protected by a canopy, giving students access to relax and eat outside after lunch, and the BEACON and mentoring programs will have their own space right by the school’s main entrance.

Two points of contention for teachers on Monday were the design of the new school’s media center and what some called a “fishbowl” approach to classrooms.

The new middle school will contain three main classroom wings. One will have a computer lab, maker space, art room and a room for family and culinary sciences. The other two wings in the school will house the seventh and eighth grade classes.

As currently designed, classrooms in the grade-level wings will each have a wall made mostly of glass. Each such wall will be equipped with a typical swinging door for regular access in and out, and they will also have two sliding glass panes that teachers can use to open the classrooms out to the hallway.

The open nature of the classrooms in grade-level wings is a feature MHTN architects said many modern schools around Utah and the rest of the country are using to create collaborative learning spaces between classes.

As a vice president at MHTN, Brian Parker leads the team of architects working on K-12 projects for the firm. Parker said that he has overseen multiple successful projects that implement the collaborative space design.

Some GCMS teachers expressed skepticism that the open design would serve as anything but a distraction for students, who would be able to see from their desks their classmates across the hall.

“If you’ve got a classroom and somebody across the way is doing something fun in their classroom or something that’s causing...I just know how middle schoolers are,” one teacher said during the meeting. “One of our biggest challenges is helping them minimize distractions, and I feel like this just creates it.”

Other teachers said that they had observed schools around Utah using collaborative space designs similar to what is planned for the new Grand County Middle School. Those teachers said they were surprised to see that the structure worked elsewhere.

Parker offered such an anecdote about a school he helped design, where he said he sat outside a science class with a group of other architects and administrators. He said that during the observation, he only noticed one student in the class glance out the window toward him.

“It’s hard to imagine because of all of your shared history, but what I’ve seen case after case, and I’m talking from first graders to high school kids where we’ve seen this in schools across the state: it becomes a new normal for the kids,” Parker said.

The meeting ended before teachers could reach a unanimous agreement about the collaborative space design. However, prior to that discussion, MHTN representatives resolved a disagreement regarding the media center, which some teachers said needed to have more desktop computers available for students to use.

According to school librarian Joan Cannon, students frequently use the computers at the middle school before the school day begins, making the library a social space for students.

“In this middle school, the kids swamp the library first thing in the morning and are on the computers,” Cannon said. “They’re playing their games on the computers; it’s a social thing. They’re there, I’m in there with them, and it’s fun.”

The teachers and architects agreed that the computer lab would also be a space designated for regular classroom use, and that the media center would get more desktop computers than previously designed, to function better as a social space.

Parker said that plans for the middle school would near completion in the coming week as they reviewed the design with various groups at the middle school, and a finalized design would arrive in the coming months.

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