Century-Old Decisions That Impact Children Every Day : NPR Ed Alexandra Lange's new book has insights on the influence of school and classroom design on children's learning throughout history.

Century-Old Decisions That Impact Children Every Day

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School architecture has changed over generations. We've gone from one-room schoolhouses to open classrooms, from blackboards to whiteboards to tablets. And yet, schools designed for one era often have to meet the needs of students for generations to come. Anya Kamenetz, of the NPR Ed team, takes us to a 90-year-old school in New York where you can walk through history all the way to the present.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Near Manhattan's garment district stands the former Straubenmuller Textile High School.

ALEXANDRA LANGE: Half of a city block - it's huge.

KAMENETZ: Alexandra Lange is an architecture critic. Her new book is "The Design Of Childhood." We've come here to see how the decisions made by architects and designers shape the way children learn and teachers teach. Our first stop is the big historic lobby - the year, 1929. The walls were painted in frescoes by artists for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Lange says this school is a classic example of a building boom that started when big city public schools began replacing the old one-room schoolhouses. Straubenmuller was a vocational high school, the first one ever built to serve the local textile industry.

LANGE: So this school had a room with weaving in it. It had a room with fake department store windows.

KAMENETZ: We huff and puff up the stairs to the fifth floor classrooms. This was the era of conformity, says Lange.

LANGE: If you measure a classroom in St. Louis or Chicago or New York from 1925, the proportions are probably going to be within a foot of the same.

KAMENETZ: Rooms were typically built for 56 students. The windows here start about three feet up. And they go all the way to the ceiling - more than 12 feet high. This wasn't exactly a flexible layout. Classroom desks had cast-iron pedestals fixed to the floor.

LANGE: The light was ideally supposed to come over their left shoulder, illuminate their book open in front of them. And that way, they would have less eyestrain.

KAMENETZ: Of course, this plan assumed that every single student was right-handed. Now, we're going to fast-forward a few decades. Alexandra Lange says that starting around the middle of the 20th century, school design started to loosen up. And lesson plans did too.

LANGE: So we've taken the elevator to the seventh floor, and it immediately feels really different.

KAMENETZ: Today, this building hosts six different New York City public schools all packed in together. The seventh floor belongs to a public middle and high school called Quest to Learn, which uses game-based and project-based learning. This is what they call the commons.

LANGE: There's a curve at the end of the hallway. And there's an open sort of lounge space where kids are sitting on poofs and other soft furniture.

KAMENETZ: We walk up to two kids sprawled out in the hallway working on an assignment. Their names are Damion Albert and Robert Parker. And they're in sixth grade.

DAMION ALBERT: Mostly I'm out here because it's hot in our classrooms. Our class is so noisy.

ROBERT PARKER: A lot of distractions.

LANGE: Do you guys distract each other?


KAMENETZ: How come?

ROBERT: We're best friends.

LANGE: There was definitely a feeling, at a certain point, that those fixed rows of desks were not the way to get kids to learn - not the way to get kids to be creative.

KAMENETZ: In the experimental 1970s, this idea was taken to the limit. Schools were built without interior walls at all. They were called open plan. And they were groovy but too loud. OK, let's get up to 2018. It's an era rich in creativity even if it's not rich in investments. Orlando Garcia teaches 10th-grade English.

ORLANDO GARCIA: So out of "Fahrenheit 451," they discuss the perils of inadequate school systems. So then they look at the problems within their current school system, identify those problems and then research solutions.

LANGE: He says one year the kids came up with the idea of putting tennis balls in the feet of the desks and chairs. So now his class sounds like this...


KAMENETZ: ...Instead of this.


GARCIA: Why do teachers always have desks in traditional formations? It's because getting them into those nontraditional formations sometimes takes time and-or getting a class back together after the noise disruption takes time out of the classroom instruction.

LANGE: Sometimes you can just buy what you need to solve this problem, but that's not possible for a public school. And so the tennis balls are actually a great hack.

KAMENETZ: They're not as beautiful as the WPA mural in the lobby. But they are useful and another way the students have made this 90-year-old space their own. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News, New York.

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