Middle school has a bad reputation. This turbulent time of change infamously known as the universal “awkward phase” is rough on all of us. Middle school is both equal parts formative and disruptive as it ushers students out of a state of youthful ignorance and into one of a vague pre-adulthood where the complexities of our modern world gain an abrupt yet incomplete clarity. It’s a messy time, full of shaky confidence, confusing social hierarchy, and dramatic shifts in both the physical body and the forming mind. Treating these observations as unfortunate given parts of the average middle schooler’s life, a team of three artists and designers from the Industrial Design department of the Rhode Island School of Design set out with a simple goal: improve the Middle School Experience (MSE) through art and design.
Our research team defines the MSE as the summation of all interactions - physical, emotional, and digital - in which middle schoolers partake, including, but not limited to, interactions with peers, teachers, staff, and the physical school space. Art and design can better all of these interactions through a variety of meaningful applications. To back up these findings, our team conducted numerous experiments, built several prototypes, and reached out to middle school students, faculty, and staff for comments, opinions, and observations on how to make art and design relevant in a 21st century middle school. Cultivating this relevance also means shifting the ideology of educational policy away from STEM and towards STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math). Keeping STEAM paramount in our exploration, our research has revealed two interlinked ideas in piloting this improved approach to middle school education. First, schools must encourage creativity in all subjects through a customizable learning environment. Second, teachers must use this new learning environment to give students the opportunity and agency to collaborate with and teach one another.
Tyvek, Spoons, and Agency
At the outset of our research, we had little idea where our work would take us, but we each knew that as a team our focus was collectively set on finding a way to address the discomforts of middle school. We first reflected on our own (horrible) middle school memories. Blake had a huge fro peers would embed with paper clips and a nose that did not fit his face. Felicia wore exclusively Hot Topic and rocked some awful side bangs. Elizabeth laments an exceptionally embarrassing time at band camp. This discomfort we noticed largely comes from the rapidly changing mind, hormonally charged body, and the presence of unfamiliar social normalcies. To better understand how these changes manifest, and, eventually, how we could help alleviate them, we went straight to the source: the middle schoolers. Our field studies were conducted at two schools in Providence, RI: Providence Community Preparatory School (PCP) and Providence Country Day School (PCD). At both schools, we organized activities that introduced students to STEAM-style making in an attempt to understand what needs are specific to middle school students. Our first activity? Building forts with PCP students.
“You want us to do what?” a seventh grade girl responded when we introduced the first activity: build a fort in the middle of your classroom. Armed with a large roll of Tyvek, markers, tape, and various other building supplies, we gave two groups of four the tools and the freedom to transform their classroom. At first, the students became confused, but suddenly opened up as we began rolling out large banners of Tyvek. Each student naturally fell into a different role within the group: a tall seventh grade girl became an engineer, thinking about how to use pipe cleaners to cantilever the entire structure out over some chairs. One bright and energetic girl exclaimed, “interior design!” and began decorating the space with an exceptionally critical eye for detail and layout of the interior fort space. Two other students became attached to designing the entrances and exits, while one student laid paper across the floor of the fort and sketched out 2D silhouettes of pillows, stating, “We need the space to be comfortable for everyone.”
Our team brainstormed and tested a number of activities to reveal how students think creatively in a classroom, and to help us to understand how to improve the MSE. Some original ideas included collaborative storytelling, outdoor classrooms, and conceptual collaborative work environments, but fort building became the activity of choice for the outset of our research for a number of reasons. The goal of the fort building exercise was to reveal how students work together, communicate, share, and, most importantly, transform the physical space of the classroom. And who doesn’t love fort building?
After the fort was done, we went inside the fort with all the students and asked questions about what they liked about the space they had built and what was missing. “We just want the space to be comfortable!” the future interior designer stated. When asked what their favorite and least favorite things were about their classroom spaces, comfort and customization emerged with every response. “I like how Mr. Greene’s room has pillows and carpet.” “Tables that roll around.” “The stools here are too hard… I like the exercise balls better.”
The student’s remarks concerning comfort, movement, and customization led us to our second project where we asked students at PCP to work alongside us on a project at floor level. We created three bubble wrap seats to accompany three floor desks (cardboard boxes from the FedEx store that we wrapped in paper) and asked each student to create a tiny “Spoon Person.” Using the floor desks as our work surfaces, we worked alongside students to come up with these tiny characters. We told the students that their spoon person could dress, act, and look however they wished. We then asked the students to transform the tops of their desks into a living space for their spoon person.
We witnessed something expected: students portrayed themselves in the spoon people and created spaces that contained objects or activities of their interests. We asked several other students at Providence Community Day School to partake in the Spoon People project and witnessed an identical kind of making. Through this observation our team realized that there is no one-size-fits-all space for students because each is so individual, meaning there is no such thing as the perfect classroom. We learned that it is superfluous to ask, “What is the perfect classroom?” Instead we must ask, “what are the perfect classrooms?”
For every one student who wanted an orderly, “desks-in-rows” kind of space, there was another who wanted his or her classroom to be on a basketball court so they could, “ball and study” at the same time. One student asked for a class that met exclusively on the floor without chairs, except for when she was taking a test where she felt a formal desk was more appropriate. Every student wanted something different, and yet every student asked for agency in the physical making of the classroom. Every student wanted the ability to shape the classroom to his or her needs. This brought us to another critical finding and ultimately the big idea behind our research: schools should foster the creativity of their students by letting them design the classroom.
Allowing students to design a classroom can manifest in extremely simple ways. An insightful sociology teacher, Cauley Greene, started the year off right by having his students construct their desks on the first day of class. “It gives them ownership over the space,” Greene explained. The desks, which Mr. Greene got from IKEA, feature locking casters that allow for mobility and modularity in the classroom. Mr. Greene explained to us how much he disliked the rigid structure of his old middle school and how he is always looking for ways that would allow students to transform the space. The walls of his room are lined with posters made by past and present students; some of his desk chairs are exercise balls, others are pillows. A couch lives in the corner of the room, and an old-school chalkboard resides on a central wall. In explaining the cost of buying new and fancy equipment for his students, Mr. Greene summed up the importance of ownership and agency eloquently, noticing, “It’s nice if it’s new, but it’s nicer if it’s theirs.”
When our research team turned to focus on how to implement art and design into a middle school curriculum we made another puzzling discovery. We asked students if they liked art class and their responses were… not what we expected. “Eh, it’s ok. My favorite class is math.” “I like art but my favorite is English.” “I like doing art on my own but not in class.”
As artists and designers we were struck (ashamed, saddened, heartbroken, disappointed, all of the above) by these responses. Art class is where you get to draw what you want, build what you want, and express your creative side, right? Yes and no. Art class is an essential piece of the 21st Century education pie, but how art and design is approached in middle school will ultimately dictate whether or not it betters a student’s middle school experience and strengthen creativity. This observation highlights another critical finding in our research: art and design in a middle school curriculum is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in improving the MSE of the average student.
In breaking down this finding, let us first explore why art is a necessary condition for overall MSE improvement. Our activities and research rely heavily on the findings of other key studies conducted by the LEGO Education Group, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH), and Ken Robinson’s analysis of creativity. These findings serve as inspiration for our activities and underscore the principle that art and creativity are critical parts of a 21st century education. Art has been shown to increase test scores in all subjects as well as help students develop a stronger sense of identity. Ken Robinson famously argues in his 2006 TED Talk that, “Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Despite these findings, our research has unveiled that implementing a strong art and design curriculum alone will have an ambiguous effect on improving MSE because the benefits of such an implementation will rely solely on the quality of said curriculum. A great art curriculum will surely improve a student’s MSE, but it will not maximize it, thus it is not sufficient. What we discovered was missing from the students art education was relevance. Students were being asked to work on projects they were not passionate about in a space that was uncomfortable. Art class should be a hot bed for creativity; it should be the place where students can build and work on what they are passionate about, much like the way an artist would construct his or her studio practice. What we witnessed was an odd phenomenon: creativity was not being learned in art class but rather through customized learning methods in classrooms like Mr. Greene’s. There must be more than just a single, strong art class to create the best middle school experience. This is where another important observation comes into play in fostering a great MSE through STEM to STEAM. All teachers should embrace a customizable learning environment in order to give students the opportunity to collaborate with and teach one another.
Converting learning spaces into customizable environments applicable to many subjects asks students to think creatively in all fields of study. It also asks the middle schooler to think creatively about the classroom space. We have witnessed that fostering agency in students inspires creativity and sharing, making for a collaborative environment that improves the overall MSE. To test this, we asked students to come up with their own lesson plans in a peer-to-peer teaching exercise, complete with a materials list, location, and number of students they wanted to teach. The lesson could center on any subject, and, because of the student’s class schedules, each lesson had to be 10 minutes long. We wanted to see what would happen when students took charge of their art education and their physical classroom space. What we witnessed excited us.
One student teacher, an eighth grade female, asked for a comfortable space and markers to conduct a lesson on what she called, “Zen Tangle… a form of relaxing” doodling. We presented her with markers and various sizes of Tyvek pillows to sit on for the lesson. After her short demo, students took to the lesson like it was candy (note: it was, in fact, Halloween when we conducted this lesson, so their excitement was two-fold) with some middle schoolers choosing to sit and draw on the pillows and others choosing to work at desks. Some chose the floor. Our second student, a seventh grade male, drew manga in his spare time outside of school (and during school in the back of his notebooks). He wanted to share his knowledge and technique with the class but was apprehensive about teaching. Despite only wanting to teach one other student, he accepted the challenge of teaching a whole room (in front of a camera) and succeeded. Most students chose to work at desks, some chose standing, others chose sitting. Our third student, a pint-sized sixth grade female with a commanding presence, elected to teach a slew of “upperclassmen” an outdoor game she plays in soccer practice, awarding two Dum-Dums to a victor and one to every participant in the game.
The variety of materials, spaces, and experiences chosen by the students surprised us. Our materials list had been minimal. Our time with the students was limited. Our locations varied between indoors and outdoors. Within a classroom, students utilized standing, sitting, and lounging positions to complete the same tasks. And this was amongst only 3 students. With more time, resources, and planned student lessons the possibilities would be endless, thus underscoring student’s needs for customization.
At the outset of this project, our team was tasked with creating a product or system that supported our research. We bounced around various ideas: telescoping desks, writable furniture, chairs for custom seating positions, and an entirely modular classroom. But, through our research and exploration we found creating all of these prototypes was not only outside of our student budget, it was also unnecessary. Instead, we produced Create + Play: A Collaborative Classroom, an interactive toolkit that brings the resources and concepts of a customizable classroom to students and teachers.
This interactive toolkit manifests as a pop-out book featuring a miniature "blank canvas" classroom that students and teachers can use to customize the classroom. It is simple to use: students brainstorm and dream up individually or in groups what they need in their unique classroom environment. Next, students quickly sketch what they have dreamed up on the provided sticker paper or draw directly onto the classroom using dry-erase marker. Lastly, students place their stickers in the classroom diorama and discus with the class what they have proposed.
No longer a blank canvas, the transformed space acts as a visual representation of the customized classroom students desire that encapsulates the values of choice, modularity, and play. If a student feels as though he or she would benefit from combining math and basketball then the student should be given the agency to build a curriculum around this classroom structure and try it along with other students. Heck, let them find the perfect arc angle for shooting a 3-pointer, or come to understand Newton’s laws through a game of 3-on-3.
A playful form language was chosen for Create + Play to highlight that these words and ideas exist for the benefit and betterment of middle schoolers. We must emphasize that his book and these ideas are tools for developing collaborative environments as well as spaces for the individual. The visual, hands-on form language also makes the MSE of each student more transparent, allowing for students to share ideas, curriculum, methods of making, and experiences in a tangible and meaningful way.
Our deliverable is ultimately a framework. Telescoping desks, writable furniture, bean bags, forests, workshops, combination forest-workshops, SmartBoards, astro-turf, chalkboards, shag carpets, rubber floors, blue-sky ceilings, pencils, paper, and tablet computers all have a place in the classroom if it inspires student creativity and improves the MSE of the individual or collective class. All of the above listed things will manifest differently depending on the body of students, but teachers and students should embrace an eclectic approach to improving the Middle School Experience. Agency in the physical making of the classroom will empower students, boost creativity, and encourage peer-to-peer learning. Improving the Middle School Experience through art and design is possible, and it can manifest in every classroom. Despite the discomforts of middle school, whether it’s dealing with braces, immaturity, or just growing up, giving students a say in the physical make up of a classroom space can have an enormous impact. Combining a customizable classroom system with a STEAM based curriculum is a meaningful and efficient way of improving creativity and the middle school experience.
Preview of the print edition below.
Blake Greene, 2016