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Space as the Third Teacher

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

As Director of Operations and Administration at the Lang School, my role touches on various daily activities, but one of the main responsibilities is the care, maintenance, and design of our physical environment.

Our school's mission is to serve our 2e students. Two tools we use to fulfill this mission are the design of curriculum and the particular teaching techniques and methods that provide a foundation for our work. What may be less obvious is the important work that our operations team does to ensure that our spaces and the physical environment in general are aligned with an understanding of the needs of students and teachers, the requirements of the curriculum, and our teaching practices.

Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi said, "There are three teachers of children: adults, other children, and their physical environment." I'm not sure I would have understood or believed that statement as strongly until I started working on the facilities and physical assets and attributes of The Lang School. I've come to understand that every aspect of the design of space impacts on our learners. Even the angle of a particular light installation can affect the mental and emotional stasis of some of our students.

When I first walked through our space and saw the incredible details that were taken into consideration during the build out of the space, it blew my mind. From the high tech sound abatement on the inside of the walls, to the graduated heights of the lighting in the gym so no student has to look directly into a light, to the 30+ blue and green paint colors that help to convey a sense of calm and connection, Lang's facilities live and breathe the core principles of our mission.

This past summer, the intersection of mission and facilities took a most tangible form as we expanded our upper school into additional contiguous space next door. We approached this new space with hope and wonder for what it could become, and most importantly, how we might design it to put our students' experience at the center of the decision making process. We knew we had constraints of time, materials and resources and wanted to balance these to best achieve our goals.

Sometimes in the designing and implementing phases, we can experience "mission drift," and get caught up in the economic drivers of a build out, or how a particular decision will affect the staff, rather than the students. While this does happen, fortunately, we have done enough infrastructure work to always endeavor to center this work around the needs of our students.

Schools also have a tendency when designing space to make big changes over the summer when kids aren't in the space. This certainly has practical implications, but it can bypass important opportunities to learn about how best to use space. With this in mind, we made essential changes over the summer (e.g., painting, improved lighting, and furniture) to be ready for the start of the year. We resisted a number of larger imagined changes with the idea that we would learn from our students and teachers about how they are using the space to support learning. This will generate important data that we can use in the second phase of design to ensure that we are designing with students at the center of this process. It also means that we may be able to create opportunities for students to engage with and learn from architects/designers and gain insights about the work that they do as we continue to refine our spaces for learning.

We are excited to learn with our students and to continue to grow and design our spaces so that they align with the needs of our 2e learners, support our rich curriculum, and provide a foundation for our teaching practices. In this way, we are able to ensure that our students are at the center of everything that we do.

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