The evening air is growing crisp, the Great Minnesota Get-Together is over, and across Eden Prairie, educators have spent countless hours preparing their classrooms for their new pupils.
In three classrooms at Cedar Ridge Elementary School, that preparation doesn’t include one item that has long been a staple of teaching: individual desks.
Suzanne Neison, Sara Nelson and Jill O’Toole have all received funding from a program at Cedar Ridge to overhaul their classrooms’ furniture over winter break. For now, they’ve used existing supplies to create a space that encourages more collaboration and small group work, which is part of the district’s trend toward personalized learning, including the $39.9 million Designing Pathways referendum that voters passed in May.
“Who wants to sit at a desk all day?” Nieson asked.
She has taught first- and second-grade for 30 years, 18 of those at Eden Prairie schools. When her second-graders caught their first glimpse of their classroom on the school’s Aug. 28 open house, it was a colorful mix of open carpeting, tables for group work and a few tiny standing desks sized for students who still haven’t lost all their baby teeth.
“It’s amazing how many kids want to stand and learn,” O’Toole said. “It was freeing for them not to be confined to one little location.”
O’Toole often finds herself joining her fourth-graders where they learn, too, whether that’s on the carpet during reading time or at a table to oversee group projects. With a new reading curriculum that involves more discussion among classmates, the move away from desks will benefit her classroom this year, she said. At an open house, parents and students alike were excited to see the changes, she added.
“It’s very much hands-on, so we need the space for different activities,” O’Toole explained.
With that flexible layout comes changed classroom needs. Without a desk’s storage space, the three classrooms now rely more on rows of cubbies and bins to house folders, notebooks and pens. Thanks to a 30-hour class over the summer, all three teachers also condensed or removed many of their own belongings in the classroom to make space for those changes.
“I got rid of 50% of my footprint,” Nieson estimated. “I wanted them to have access to their stuff.”
“Anything that is out, the kids should be able to use,” Nelson said. It felt hard to dispose of shelving and storage space, Nelson said, because “as a teacher, you never know when you’re going to need something,” but donating decades-old teaching manuals and outdated books made sense and helped free up space for students.
“In this day and age, I’m not going to look through a book. I’m going to look on the internet,” she added.
Some sections of the classrooms’ walls were blank, or held empty picture frames, ahead of the first day of school. They’ll soon be filled with photos of the class or drawings and projects that students create as a way to make the space feel like a second home, Nelson said.
“They take ownership over it, then it does become our classroom,” she said. At the school’s open house, her third-graders already began to make the classroom their own by planting seeds in a hydroponic plant tower that Nelson uses to illustrate a curriculum about life cycles.
Teachers who aren’t getting new furniture this year will also benefit from the experiments in O’Toole, Nieson and Nelson’s classrooms, said Cedar Ridge’s Principal Amy Jahnke, although it might take a while for their turn to upgrade their own classrooms.
“As we move along over the coming months and years, we will learn (from) our teachers’ first-hand experiences of what works well and may be suitable for replication, and also what needs to be modified,” Jahnke wrote in an email to Eden Prairie News. “Due to the number of classrooms across the district that will be updated, this is a staged process that’s starting this fall, continuing over winter break and will continue into next summer.”
Even with more modern classroom layouts, some things don’t change, like the amount of time it takes to turn an empty room into a colorful and welcoming space for learning. Nieson and O’Toole both estimated they spent around 40 hours putting their classrooms together this year. Nelson changed the color palette of her room and ended up painting several stools and a table to match. In past years, Nieson recruited her husband and four children to help stuff folders and make banners, but with her youngest attending college this fall, she had to turn to a neighbor’s daughter for help.
“When you’re a teacher, your family does all your work,” she joked.
But even after long hours of preparation, Nelson and her colleagues were excited to welcome their students into the classroom that they would, inevitably, make their own.
“There’s not many jobs that you can start anew every year,” Nelson said. “I still get nervous, 17 years later.”
“I’m really energized. Seeing the kids alone − that’s why we’re here,” Nieson added. “I would just say I have the best job in the world.”