community · environment · writing workshop

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!

19 thoughts on “Why We Gather: The Importance of a Classroom Meeting Area

  1. I really appreciate reading your support for a meeting area. I’ve been teaching with a meeting area for seven of my eight years teaching–four years in middle school with 7th & 8th graders, and the last two teaching 11th & 12th graders. Since I started teaching at my high school two years ago, I have been challenged by students who feel that a meeting area is elementary and belittles them. Finally, last year, I attempted another structure (not rows) that would maintain a distinction between whole-class meeting and independent practice without so much chair movement. It was terrible. My formative assessment struggled significantly because I no longer could listen-in on student talk during the lesson, and students were less engaged in our work together. Really. Finally after a week of that, I returned the classroom to the horse-shoe configuration of group tables that creates a large space in the middle of the classroom for our work together. I thought students would groan when they returned on Monday morning, and while a few did, most were relieved. They also noticed a big difference in their experience with a meeting space and without. I then started to think about how to talk to high school students about meetings and independent work in the real world. When I worked in an office at a University, there certainly were lots of conversations we could have held simply by turning our chairs or standing in doorways, but there was a formal meeting space for those times when we needed to put our heads together to focus on specific issues or solve a problem–and we had to move to it. The meeting didn’t come to us. These are real-life translations that are important for students to experience in the classroom.

    Today, my students from last year, who are now seniors, are here on campus picking up their schedules. I love to see this transition into the senior year, and I love that they are coming to see me, giving me hugs, looking around. One student put her hands on her cheeks and said, “Oh, I’m going to miss this room.” There are no posters on my walls (I need the space for our process charts, models and student exemplars). There are no quotes posted around the room. My bulletin board–covered in school colors–is otherwise empty; it’s awaiting the parking lots where students will place their reflections. It’s seriously a blank slate with white walls. But these students are telling me that it’s warm and safe and that they learned here, when they looked at the walls this morning and said, “Where is our work?” “Where are all the charts?”

    I think it’s because of our amazing work together that is anchored by a meeting.


  2. Thanks for the lovely picture of your classroom meeting space. It looks cheerful, organized and inviting…not just an afterthought. I think it’s a good idea to have places kids can move to, even if it’s a small move. Kids need to move! And so do teachers to get a different perspective on their students! Great post.


  3. I love the way you begin this piece. And I couldn’t agree more about the importance of a meeting area. I just got rid of my teacher desk and purchased more pillows so that my classroom meeting area could be larger and more comfortable.


  4. I have been so excited to see middle school teachers in my district beginning to put together gathering areas in their classrooms. I love this line from you blog best:

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

    This is so true – I also love that you remind us that the writers we want students to emulate like to write in comfortable spaces! Of course they do! Students do too. Agree with Kathleen, must read for all teachers!


  5. Beth, this is so important! It’s not just about the rug, or the shelves. When we physically meet, it gives kids, this generation of whom is used to virtual space, the frame of mind that, “yes, it’s workshop time…I need to do certain things!” It’s not necessarily about the “stuff” of it, but about the learning place you take them! So important!


  6. This is a meaty topic, Beth, and bravo to you for taking it on. I’m certainly convinced! I love your points about a meeting area helping to establish independence. The meeting area helps to delineate whole-class instructional time from independent work time. It sends the message that when students are in the meeting area, their job is to listen, learn, and practice skills and strategies that will help with their independent work. Then when kids go off to work, they move to a different part of the room, sending the message that their job is to try out what they’ve learned. And moving more – YES!


  7. Yes! Thank you! I teach 7th and 8th grade, and start every minilesson in a meeting area. It is the biggest question I get from other teachers: why? Why squeeze 27-30 14-year-olds into a circle? It is the greatest instructional decision I’ve ever made. Each student becomes a part of the class, each student sits as an equal member of our community, no one can hide in the back of the room, and no one can dominate the front. Thank you so much for the validation in this post. I’ll be posting a picture of my meeting area on Twitter soon!


  8. Again, as so often, your post is so timely. What a wonderful invitation to middle school teachers to take a leap of faith into trying this out. Thanks again for supporting my work as a coach with such heart, insight, and relevance.


  9. LOVE THIS POST! I loved the first draft you shared and I love the final one even more. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

    I like the tie-in with Breadloaf and Highlights. We can and should teach students to work in the same ways professional writers work. If it weren’t for the comfort of my own writing space, I would never get anything done!


  10. Great post and great points. We love “the carpet.” And what you say about writing workshop space applies so much to how we teach in the rest of the day. No carpet- no problem. IKEA makes very thin, inexpensive carpet squares that take up next to no room to store and can easily apply more comfy sitting spots than bare floor. I noticed they were fifty cents a couple weeks ago. Thanks for sharing.


  11. What a great post! Loved the mention of one of my favorite learning havens, Bread Loaf! I love my meeting space and use it much more often than the rest of my classroom!


  12. I was actually wondering about this as I begin thinking about room setup for fourth grade in a 4-7 school. You have prepared me (in case I need to defend my choices) because I will certainly have a meeting area. ( we can’t get into our building yet. Sigh… Breath)


    1. I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes having less time to set up is not such a bad thing. It forces you to really prioritize and decide what do I REALLY care about most. What are my MUST haves before the kids come. Of course, having a little extra time is nice too! Good luck!


  13. What a beautifully-crafted, convincing statement on why meeting areas bring so much to students in writing workshop! If I wasn’t a believer already, I would be one now. I love the story of the fridge in the living room and how you connected it to becoming used to spaces in our classroom that might not be the most beneficial. The comparison to a coach giving a pep talk, then sending the team out to do their thing really resonated. I think this post is a must read for all teachers.


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