Classroom Campfire, Coffeehouses & Caves

The kids’ names are memorized, the first stack of papers is graded, and the first cold has passed through.  I’m deep in the trenches of a new school year, but my battle plan actually began over the summer.  With enough time to reflect, plan, and dream big during those warm months, I typically bite off more than I can chew and choke a bit on the sustainability of my early choices.  This year, I took a big bite out of my classroom arrangement.

It has been years since I’ve reconsidered the layout of my classroom: partially because in trench warfare you don’t get a lot of time to reconfigure, and partially because I like my set-up and it’s working for me.

The Classroom Campfire

The Classroom Campfire

But in August, we are overly-ambitious. In August, we are readers of too many articles.  So in August, I read this article and was inspired to make my classroom a more flexible learning space.  In the piece, David Thornburg presents three “archetypal learning environments” that summarize the primary ways we learn: on our own, with a group, and from an expert.  The author then correlates these learning styles with physical spaces:  “caves,” “water-coolers,” and “campfires,” respectively.  I found this concept fascinating, especially in conjunction with current research on differentiated instruction and Universal Design.   I wondered if simply providing all three learning environments in my classroom would help me to engage all learners on all levels at all times. I felt challenged to consider whether or not I could provide high quality instruction without relying on the campfire (with me as the expert) as the primary form of delivery.

One of 4 Coffeehouses

One of 4 Coffeehouses

So I set out to rearrange my room, providing Thornburg’s environments to my students with greater purpose, frequency and variety. First,  I minimized the “campfire” to 10 students total and located it near the projection space in my room.  I wanted to make the teacher’s desk more accessible to the campfire concept, so I removed my personal belongings in an effort to make the “teacher desk” simply the expert desk. I also rotated the desk to open into the classroom, instead of dividing the expert from the campfire.  Tables that were once joined in a linear fashion I grouped into “coffeehouses,” which I consider the more teenager-friendly version of a “watercooler.”  Here, I knew I would make use of my lessons that involved small group discussion and project based learning.  Finally, I recruited some free standing desks to tuck into the corners of the room and serve as “caves.”

One of 5 Caves

One of 5 Caves

Rearranging the physical space was the easy part of this commitment.  Adapting lessons that regularly enabled all three learning styles, however, was far more challenging. I knew that over the course of a term, I certainly made use of these three learning environments, but my challenge here was doing so with greater purpose, frequency, and variety.  So I rewrote my first unit to include a daily choice– students were presented daily with a “Poetry Face Off” and then elected whether to annotate that poem with me in the campfire, with peers in the coffeehouses, or independently in caves.  It was an uncomfortable risk to let go of whole group instruction, but I’m starting to like that level of discomfort in my classroom.

Even more bothersome than lesson planning was wondering how often I should allow students to dictate their own learning space/style, and how often I should require them to try other styles?  By simply rearranging the desks, I had called into question the fundamentals of my practice:  

  • How much did I trust my students to drive their own learning?
  • How heavily did I weigh my own expertise as the “deliverer” of content and “director” of learning?
  • How much naivete would I communicate with my students as I navigated something new?
  • How would I communicate expectations and hold them accountable when they weren’t in my direct view?
  • Would it be possible to build classroom culture and community without direct guidance?

As with all great risks, I couldn’t plot out the potential outcomes.  I simply had to, in the words of Edgar Allen Poe, “ride, boldly ride” in the direction of Eldorado.  There are things that I would change for next year, of course, but on the whole, this experiment has given me the opportunity to learn about my students in a different way.  Instead of collecting early assignments to try and get to know them individually, I’ve had a chance to observe them as individuals in my classroom and interact with them in a more authentic way.

I’ve got a much smaller campfire, allowing me to make individual connections earlier in the year.  For example, it would have taken me a month to pull out Heather’s comments in a large group, but in the first week, I was able to give her a non-threatening space in which to contribute.  I was able to read my students’ abilities in a quick, formative way by having small group discussion from day one.  I was also able to just connect with them less as an authority figure and more as a coach.  It might sound silly, but in my campfire I can sit in a chair and speak in a lower voice, and I think that has given me the chance to come across more as a coach and less as a dictator.

164170012The students are also independently establishing an important aspect of my classroom culture: collaboration. While I was unable to doctor the groups as much as I would have liked, the self selection told me which students could handle working with their friends and which couldn’t.  I was sure to assign them a weighty task, which forced them to consider whether they could risk spending the hour socializing.  It also told me where my classroom cliques were, which informed my seating choices on days when students didn’t self-select.

Because of a simple change in physical space, my students have also differentiated their own learning from the first day of class.  The kids who needed to be challenged began by electing to work alone, assuming that they would want to work at a quicker pace. I watched as they slowly gravitated into other spaces, learning from me and from their peers with far less resistance.  The students who were anxious about underachieving began in the campfire, and when they trusted themselves, began to work with peers.  From their choices in physical space, I was able to deduce students’ needs and guide them on a more individualized learning path.


Holly Zimmerman is an English and Speech teacher at Groves High School in Birmingham.  She holds a bachelor’s degree in English education from Western Michigan University, and a master’s degree in educational policy from Harvard Graduate School of Education.  This post was likely co-authored by her frolicking four-year-old or her giggly baby, who make teaching far more challenging and remarkably more worthwhile.


Notes from the Classroom

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