By Annette McLoughlin

While the City is in the process of developing a Master Plan, the Rye City School District is also looking to create a strategic map for the future. The Board of Education is conducting an analysis of its facilities with a plan that calls for making necessary infrastructure improvements to aging buildings and developing a strategy to maximize the available space. A third objective is to make alterations to classrooms to reflect the latest research in learning, research which advocates the importance of helping students to develop the 21st-century skills required for success in today’s global, digital workplace. These skills include collaboration, creativity, inquiry, ingenuity, and problem solving.

It was with these objectives that the Board of Ed recently hired architectural consulting firm Fielding Nair International, which specializes in the design and renovation of educational facilities. Their work is research-based and their experience is extensive, stretching from as far as Kobe, Japan, to very local school districts, including Chappaqua, Bronxville, and Edgemont. Their guiding mission is to modernize educational spaces in a way that marries learning research with the design of school facilities.

The theory behind the cause to update classrooms (or learning environments) is called Project-based Learning (PBL) or active learning. It’s believed that with PBL, students learn in a deeper way and develop creative, problem-solving skills when they’re actively engaged.

This approach represents a shift toward a more student-focused learning, the goal of which is to help them master not only the tangible, specific elements of a curriculum but also to simultaneously engage them in cooperative interactions and problem solving. PBL advocates would say that in the end, you have a student who has better acquired the knowledge while having fostered creativity, flexibility, and an ability to collaborate.

This PBL approach to teaching requires some modifications to the traditional classroom set-up, whereby the teacher’s desk is at the front of the room and the students are seated in rows. What do Active Learning classrooms and learning spaces look like? At a basic level, they are structured to be adaptable in that there are multiple surfaces for students to work (whiteboard on tables, desks walls, etc.) and furniture on castors to accommodate flexible project settings and allow for study groups of varying sizes. Additionally, the class is engineered to incorporate access to digital technology. Teachers can position their own mobile desks to accommodate each lesson or project of any given class and day.

Some schools have created large areas known as Learning Commons or Communities, which allow for even greater flexibility and a wider array of group structure with the enhancement of powerful digital collaboration tools. Superintendent Dr. Eric Byrne, previously the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at the Chappaqua Central School District, oversaw the construction of Chappaqua High School’s own Learning Commons, called the iLab, and is a proponent of the Project-Based Learning initiative.

Rye’s public schools have started to take small steps toward this educational evolution. Midland has converted their computer lab into an active learning space and has several teachers studying how to take full advantage of using this type of space. Osborn has also converted their computer lab, replacing desktop computers with mobile devices and incorporating more flexible furniture. The Rye High School PO sponsored the renovation of two of its classrooms as a test and they were completed in early October.

Rye High Math teacher Jeff Shannon, one of the teachers now using the newly redesigned classroom, is enthusiastic about the difference. “The desks allow for students to collaborate on a whole other level. Students can compare their work with the work of their tablemates very easily when writing on the whiteboard desks. The students also get excited to use the desks and often ask for Expo markers to work on classwork. The way the desks are molded together promotes collaboration among students in a way that single-rowed desks could not. We also use the standing whiteboards to compare students' work. This makes the learning more personal as we are able to see the different ways students are solving the questions and learning from each other's mistakes.”

Fielding Nair International’s study results for the District will be presented in early 2018.

Redesigned computer lab at Osborn School

Rye High School students in one of two new flexible classrooms