Why We Gather: The Importance of a Classroom Meeting Area

meeting area

When my husband and I first moved to New York City we lived in an apartment so teeny-tiny that there wasn’t enough room in the “kitchen” for even a a small half-sized refrigerator. The kitchen was just a closet with a stove stuck in it. So the refrigerator was out in the living room, right near the couch. Being new to city-living, we both thought this was hilarious. Every time we sat down on our couch in the living room we’d say, “Hey, pass me a drink would ya?” and then reach over to the fridge without even having to get up. Ha! So funny!

But after a few months of living this way we forgot about it and it just blended into the background, only to be brought to our attention when friends came to visit. Our Vermonter friends, especially, would walk into our apartment and practically shriek, “A REFRIGERATOR IN THE LIVING ROOM? HOW DO YOU LIVE THIS WAY??!!!!!”

“Meh.” We’d shrug. “Everybody in New York lives this way. There’s millions of us. Literally.”

Teachers, friends, can I be honest with you?  That’s kind of what I’m thinking when I visit a classroom with no meeting area. “NO MEETING AREA?!!! HOW DO YOU LIVE THIS WAY?!!”

And I think those teachers with no meeting area are shrugging and thinking, “What’s the big deal? Works for me. No biggie.”

But just because it basically works (like a fridge in the living room), that doesn’t mean it’s actually desirable. You might be so completely used to your arrangement that it seems normal, even preferable — but it probably could be better.

A classroom meeting area changes the climate from an institutional setting to a home for learning.

Creating a comfortable meeting area in your classroom changes your classroom environment for the better in many ways. For one, the learning environment in a classroom is noticeably different from the moment one enters the room. The classroom looks different when there’s a meeting area.

One fifth grade teacher I know is a master at creating a classroom environment that fosters a sense of comfort and safety, even for older kids. Her classroom meeting area is in the corner of her room, where her classroom library lines two sides of it. Kids can sit on the carpet, or on a comfy bench near the window, or can have a turn on one of the bean bags placed long another edge.  A handful of milk crates with pillows on top are available for kids that want to pull one up and take a seat on the edges. She uses lamps and strings of lights to set the ambiance, and often plays ocean waves or nature sounds in the background during writing as white noise so that kids aren’t distracted by the sound of her voice when she’s conferring.

This is isn’t “primary” or “too young” for middle schoolers. This is simply attending to kids’ needs, and being thoughtful about the place where we all spend our days. Often middle school teachers who would like to create a more comfortable atmosphere feel pressure from their colleagues to make their rooms look “older.” My advice is instead of giving in to the established norm for older grades, instead put kids’ interests first. How would the kids like the room to feel? What would be most comfortable and conducive to doing a lot of writing?

Worried that a comfy classroom in middle school won’t prepare them for college or professional writing? Rest assured that even adult professional writers prefer to write in a space that is comfortable and inspiring. That’s why we go on retreats and host workshops in beautiful places like Breadloaf, or the Highlights Foundation.

A comfortable meeting area fosters a supportive community in your classroom.

Whole class teaching, by definition, will not be tailored to every individual in the class, but it will serve many important purposes: it will bring your community of writers together, to be “on about” something as a group, to be involved in the same genre, or process, or overall study at the same time, together. The meeting area is the place where the class has conversations, learns to listen to one another and respect each other’s perspectives. They learn to consider each other’s work, and to problem solve together at the meeting area.

It isn’t the same if kids are doing this work spread out around the room at tables or desks. Kids sit together at the meeting area, usually next to a partner that they can turn and talk to. For whole class conversations, they can easily sit in a circle so that they can make eye contact and listen more actively to one another in a group. Being physically closer fosters more active listening, more engagement, and more empathy for one another as they share ideas, hold conversations, and work together as a whole group.

Gathering at the meeting are is more engaging, and more effective for whole class instruction.

Any time you are engaged in whole class instruction, it will need to be as short and as engaging as humanly possible. To get the most out of the brief whole class teaching you must do, get kids up close to you. Being spread out around the room during a whole class lesson makes it much more difficult to hold their attention (I didn’t say impossible– just more difficult).

When I visit a classroom that doesn’t have a comfortable meeting area, I’m forced to teach from the front of the room. And when this happens, I can’t help notice how much more difficult it is to hold kids’ attention. As a literacy coach, I’m trained to highlight the need for change in the moment, in context. “Gosh, kids would be able to see so much more easily if we were closer together, ” I might say. “If only I could gather kids up close so they could hear better…” “I think the kids near the back of the room would probably be much  less distracted if they were closer to the action, instead of on their own back there.” Often, in the midst of the workshop, the kids and I will create makeshift meeting areas on the spot, just by simply gathering around one table to see what a group of kids have created, or gathering over by a partnership to hear them talk about their writing.

Gathering and sending kids off plays an important instructional role in supporting independence.

When kids are gathered close at the meeting area, you are teaching. You’re teaching kids how to listen actively, how to engage in a large group setting.The implicit message is “Now it is time to focus on what one person has to say.”

When you send kids off, you’re also implicitly teaching “And now you’re own your own. You’re independent now, working at your own pace, on your own things.”  Being physically more spread out around the room creates an environment conducive to working independently, while being gathered close together creates an environment conducive to whole class work.

Think of a sports coach, who gathers her team in for a huddle. When everyone’s huddled in together, it’s to get motivated, to get inspired, to hear a message that the whole team needs to hear. Then… BREAK… off they go to do their own thing out on the field, or court, or trail.

Moving from the meeting area to independent or partner spots around the room provides important physical activity.

Often I’m asked to demonstrate minilessons in middle school clasrooms that are new(ish) to writing workshop and have not yet set up a meeting area. I remember visiting Mr. S’s 6th grade classroom, where the classroom was set up so that kids faced front, in a giant U-shape. The giant U was too close to the walls in the front of the room for kids to gather on the carpet, and there were bookshelves and storage and tables on the other side of the U-shape. The room was filled up on all sides, with the U in the middle.

“Where do you usually do your minilessons?” I asked.

“Oh, they just sit at their desks. There’s no room. That’s why they’re in a U-shape. So they face me and they can still see each other.”

“Oh.” I said.  But what I was really thinking was, They sit like that for the entire workshop? Don’t they want to move? If we just got rid of some of the extra furniture, we’d have some more room…

Why would we expect kids of any age to stay at their seats for an entire forty-five minute workshop? It simply isn’t necessary. Movement get the heart pumping and the blood circulating, which is conducive to engagement and learning. As soon as you call kids from their tables (or U-shape) to a meeting area you’ll observe that the physical movement brings them to life, and being close to you and their classmates at the carpet helps them to focus on the lesson. Simply moving from their seats, to the meeting area, and back again incorporates some purposeful movement that gets the blood pumping, and the brains fired up for learning.

Even if you don’t have a carpet or the ideal furniture, it doesn’t take a lot to make a huge difference.

If you are a middle school teacher who travels from room to room (like I do!), it doesn’t mean it’s not possible to still create a meeting area for gathering, and spaces around the room for independent work. If the colleagues sharing your space prefer a more traditional arrangement — no problem! I like to put tennis balls on the ends of all the table and chair legs so that they can slide effortlessly across the floor. I teach the kids a routine for moving the furniture at the start of writing workshop and voila! The classroom transforms within minutes.

No carpet? No problem. Kids can just pull a chair or a milk crate up and gather over by your easel. If you don’t have an easel, you can tape your charts to the white board temporarily, and save up your budget money to purchase an easel someday (or use something like this).

This is all to say, anything is better than expecting kids to sit in the same seat for the entire workshop with no movement, or to engage in a whole class lesson without gathering up closely to see and hear what’s going on.

Last but not least, I would like to say that there’s nothing really so wrong with having a big U-shape and not much room for a meeting area. It may not be the end-all be-all of your writing instruction. There’s also nothing wrong with having your refrigerator in the living room — if you have to. In fact, my husband and I missed our tiny apartment in a weird way once we moved.  But if you don’t have to make those compromises. . . maybe it’s time to reimagine the possibilities for your classroom and your students.

PS. Let’s keep this conversation going. Share photos of your classroom meeting areas on twitter with the hashtag #TWTBlog for the chance to be featured in a future blog post!