As parents and students stock up on school supplies and replace outgrown clothes, local teachers are readying their classrooms for optimal learning.

High Lakes Elementary teacher Whitney Daugherty made a few tweaks while setting up her first-grade classroom.

She reduced the “teacher-only” area to her desk and a bookshelf to make way for a larger library space. She also dedicated some square footage to writing, collaborative work and a space for independent study.

Daugherty began thinking about how she might improve her classroom last June when she was packing up after her second school year.

“I try to make sure I’m using the space to help the students the best that I can,” said Daugherty, 25. Instead of tailoring the room to her specific needs, “I’m trying to optimize the space so the kids can get pretty much anywhere.”

All told, Daugherty, who recently earned her Master of Arts in teaching from Oregon State University-Cascades, devoted about 30 hours in August to calibrating her classroom.

Teachers learn the importance of classroom design while earning a Masters of Arts in teaching. The best practice for what that looks like depends on current teaching philosophies. Desk arrangements, seating assignments and the placement of learning materials on the wall are all backed by teaching research and theories for the optimal learning environment.

Sunddip Aguilar, an instructor at Oregon State University College of Education, said pod clusters and technology integration are transforming curriculum for the better.

In cooperative learning or problem-based learning, “when you want students to discover, sometimes you need the students to discover together,” Aguilar said, adding that it’s ideal to situate students with different strengths in the same pods so they rub off on each other. “Most teachers believe nowadays that we don’t teach 30 students, we teach 30 individuals in our classroom.”

Daugherty compartmentalizes her room into different spaces. The library nook features organized tubs of books and a soft rug for sitting. On the other end of the room are collaborative table groups where students sit at desk clusters. They can work together or independently. Among other classrooms at High Lakes Elementary, Daugherty distinguishes hers with the wooden “stadium” seats at the front of the room. The design gives students an unobstructed view of presentations and facilitates discussion between the young learners. A length-wise wall is completely cork board, which Daugherty color-coordinates per subject: Math is green, writing is red, reading is blue and so on. Students match their subject binders’ colors accordingly.

In each colored space, Daugherty has decorated quotes and definitions with her own artistic flourish. A banner, made of letters she cut from black and white felt, reads “We. Can. W-R-I-T-E.”

Of her classroom’s decorations, she says they’re “meant so kids have somewhere they can look and refer to whatever materials we’re working with.

“A lot of thought is put into every space in the classroom, including the walls. Can the kids see it? How high is too high?” she said, adding that she removed transparent laminates that can be too shiny from certain vantage points. “It’s a matter of thinking, ‘Where will their eyes be?’ Not mine.”

Teaching according to ‘systems’

At Pilot Butte Middle School, seventh-grade language and literature teacher Karen Corson knows a thing or two about classroom design. Having taught for 22 years, Corson, 57, said it’s important to have a “safe, secure environment” — one that doesn’t overwhelm and welcomes collaboration.

For starters, “Don’t have red bulletin boards,” Corson said, who learned that red commands too much attention during a previous career as a Nordstrom buyer. Instead, Corson opts for “calming colors” such as orange and yellow. The mantra, “You are enough,” guides both Corson’s teaching and classroom design.

“Wherever you’re at right now, I’m going to take you from here to here,” said Corson, making a gesture as if advancing a chess piece across a board. This year, Corson tailored her classroom to the theme of gratitude and celebrations. On a dedicated bulletin board, students will post photos and short, tweet-length blurbs dedicated to what they’re grateful for. Corson christened the board with a photograph of her newborn granddaughter. The celebration bulletin board is one of the “walls” Corson teaches from. She creates blocks of “movement” dedicated to various literary topics and devices. She punctuates those blocks with blank spaces that serve as ideal resting spots for students’ eyes while they’re deep in thought.

Corson, who is also Pilot Butte Middle School’s curriculum coordinator, distributes to fellow sixth- to eighth-grade teachers a “Back to School Starter Pack,” authored by the Teaching Channel, an online community for educators. Throughout the guide, the concept of organizing classroom “systems” is prominent. That’s educator speak for structures and orders that teachers use to direct student activity.

“The systems you put in place will direct the students’ behavior,” she said. For example, she’s angled desk clusters to face material she’s pinned to the walls. In the center of each cluster, Corson situates a work station stocked with school supplies and slots for school-issued iPads. When the tablets are required for a lesson, they’re within arm’s reach. When iPads are not apart of the lesson, they’re shut off and stored neatly, which reduces some kids’ screen distractions.

“This way they become much more attuned to communicating with their groups instead of self-isolating on their iPads,” she said.

A storage space near the door accommodates winter coats and bags, so students bring little with them beyond the necessities to their desks.

“This is what teachers do all the time: You see what works and what doesn’t work,” Corson said with a laugh. “Come back in December and ask me how it’s going. If (a system) doesn’t work, you figure out what adjustments you need to make.”

A nod to Silicon Valley

At Summit High School, Christie McCormick flicked on the lights in her classroom. Tall tables with stools, upholstered chairs and a kitchenette — where tea, coffee and hot chocolate can be made — gave the impression of a coffee shop or a Silicon Valley tech startup’s cozy creative spaces. However, the 10-year-old iMacs that once lined rows of long tables and consumed the room are gone.

“If you thought this no longer looked like a computer lab, ha ha! The joke’s on you,” she said as she opened a storage cabinet. “In here we have 40 Chromebooks, charging undercover. When I took out the (computer tables), the room became a place a student wants to be — it does something to the mindset of the kid when the kid comes in.”

A longtime English teacher whose new charge is program coordinator for Bend-La Pine Schools online, McCormick blends technology with curriculum. About 95 percent of Summit High School students have taken an online course by graduation, she said, and it’s her job to help them complete their assignments by accessing online tools. Her classroom accommodates curling up with a laptop for extended periods.

McCormick has taught in Bend-La Pine Schools since 1990 and has experimented with non-conventional seating arrangements since 2013. She recalled showing the new setup of her English classroom to the school’s budget secretary. Students were spread throughout the room poring over e-versions of novels.

“She said, ‘This isn’t a class room; this is a hangout room,’” McCormick recalled. “‘Then come on in and hang out,’ I said. ‘These are kids earning school credits left and right.’”

McCormick’s class, which is known as “Polo Lab” or “Proctored Online Learning Opportunity,” features conventionally enrolled students. Others, who may have an open period, can drop in and get some work done as if it were a tech-ready study hall.

Aguilar sees this model as informing an increasing number of classrooms to come.

“I think in the future, because of online education becoming integrated in a lot of school districts, teachers will begin to act as facilitators of learning. Students won’t be in block scheduling any more. Students will learn most of their subject areas with one facilitator,” she said, describing how a classroom will transform into more of a meeting spot.

McCormick thinks of the model as the classroom serving as “a hub for learning.”

“For me, the aesthetic invites a whole different way of thinking about what learning is. It’s interesting to me that so many people’s ideas about education is tied to the traditional classroom where the teacher is in the front and the desks are all facing forward,” McCormick said.

“(A traditional classroom arrangement) can be hard to get away from,” she said, adding that she has a projector she uses when she needs to command the entire classroom’s attention. “But once you do, it really frees up all kinds of different learning.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In the original version, Christie McCormick’s tenure with Bend-La Pine Schools was misstated. The Bulletin regrets the error.