Realizing the White Space

Photo by Rene Riechelt (Unsplash)


We returned from the holiday break this past Monday and my room seemed in need of . . .  something.  The layout had remained largely the same since late September:  three formations of six desks each forming a table, with a single desk on the end serving as a head of sorts.  Around the perimeter of the room, a number of tables to be used as breakout areas and design spaces, one corner a reading and inspiration nook.

Yet the room felt it was missing the opportunity for conversation.  Each of my classes seemed to have developed their own cliques within those three desk units.  Some individuals chose to sit at the work tables, effectively removing themselves from the fray.  A proponent of “learn in the best environment for you,” I didn’t think much of these choices until I saw the futility of classroom discussions in that layout. My tendency to stand in front of the room and sage-on-the-stage my neck off whilst students demonstrated increasing degrees of disengagement compelled me to take action upon return.

I spent Monday fussing and fuming with the desks, students lending a hand where they could, but for the most part just sitting back and “waiting for Ryder to figure whatever the heck it is he’s thinking.”  A discussion square of 6 x 4 desks took center stage.

Actually it took all of stage left and right as well.  It completely stuffed the space with backpacks now underfoot, random chairs taking up space in the middle of the circle, the carts I use to create flexible spaces shoveled to the wings.

But I scored myself the discussion area I so desired and the connectedness followed . . .

Not in the least.

The square proved too spacious, the backpacks too deadly, the work spaces too inaccessible.  We lost the intimacies the other design afforded — even if only for those small groups.

Thankfully an exploration of white space via designer David Kadavy to wake me up to these truths.  Certainly his article features more concern with typography, material and graphic design, the principles apply to any functioning environment with intention and a desire to meet user needs.

In creating my precious discussion square, I eliminated the channels that allow space to move and process.  I packed every inch of floor in the room with material to accommodate the desk arrangement.  Even the walls became cluttered with storage carts and furniture with no other homes available.  I crushed our white space.

Rectified today.  We returned to small groups, two quads and two quintets, well suited for our team teaching carousels and incredibly well suited for allow space to think.

As an added benefit in making this change today, I spoke with my AP Lit students about the reasoning for our square’s demise. The conversation wrapped into a lovely conversation about timed writing prompts and the fundamental importance of taking the time to think, to process, to explore the white spaces around a poem or short story, between lines of dialogue or stage directions in a drama, and in the margins of our analytical compositions.

And wouldn’t you know, they don’t miss the square and they already relish the space.

About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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