The power of Querencia in the classroom (or for non-Hemingway fans-Martha Stewart)

Wikipedia tells me querencia is a Spanish phrase describes a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home. It comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.  In bullfighting, when the bullfighter prepares for the kill that will end it, a bull may stake out turf—querencia—a place in the ring where he feels strong and safe.

This idea (except for the part about the bull being killed at the end) captures how I want kids to feel in our classrooms-safe and powerful.

Teaching is such an engaging and demanding craft because it demands our minds (and hearts) to work in so many ways. We have to to be artists, scientists, psychologists, and interior designers. We have to make efficient and aesthetic and maintainable use of space whether new 800 student home at High Rock in Lynn and or our single hallway of classrooms overlooking a construction site in Boston.

In the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching (2.2D) the specific behavior is designs the physical space to make it inviting, purposeful, and a reflection of the students in their room (Their Happy Place).

There’s a fierce irony that I am talking about design.  I am actually not allowed to hang anything on the walls of my own home because an almost pathological inability to work in straight lines and because I once proposed that a Pearl Jam poster would add to the decor.

Five thoughts about the querencia of a classroom

Sparse and neat trumps messy and over-packed.  There is an attachment amongst many of us in education to the  rumpled professor archetype.  Wallpapering the room with quotes and stuffing the cabinets with materials is nice for some of us but it’s bad modeling for the many kids who need to develop stronger organization skills in order to thrive in school.  One of our favorite guiding principles is if a student in the room can’t explain its purpose, it probably shouldn’t be on the wall.

Fight entropy.  Many classrooms start beautiful and decay.  It’s helpful for schools to build in regular refresh, reset moments for classrooms.  It’s even better when teachers have a plan for how and when they will update their classrooms. This can be as simple a student job to make sure no papers are falling off the walls and that the tracking chart for mastery quizzes is updated.

Big beats small.  I lost my glasses about a year and half ago.   As an observer in the classroom I am often squinting to read to read what’s on the board and the walls.  It’s a safe bet to say that there’s always at least one kid who needs them and doesn’t know and one kid who should  be wearing them but isn’t.  The little inspiration quotes are often unreadable (not to consider incomprehensible).  It’s also important to remember that our perspective as teachers is constantly flitting around the room, experiencing the space from all angles.  In most classrooms kids spend a bulk of time anchored in one spot.

Create curiosity gaps with your design.  Above the bulletin board Ryan Weaver of KIPP Academy Boston creates a series of visual anchors to preview the units of study for students throughout the year.  This is a marvelous example of dual purpose design.  It builds curiosity (one of the character strengths key for future success) and it makes long term planning evident.  This builds students’ confidence in the teacher and makes the process of learning more transparent to kids who often feel like they are lurching from subject to subject without any clear path.

The simple touch on Elizabeth Vetne’s Visual Arts I board is used in many classrooms across KIPP Massachusetts.  Giving each lesson a title makes the content stickier and also draws reading skills across the content areas.  Much more to come about this classroom and the mind-blowing power of great arts teaching.

Find dual purposes for your design.  Fernando Acostas’s bulletin board for problem solving is a lovely example of tying math problem solving strategies to the character strengths the school is working on.


Some questions for the designers out there:

I am also curious about how classroom design enables or prevents the classroom routines from becoming a well-oiled machine.  Any thoughts?

Doubly curious to hear about people who have taught their kids flexible seating arrangements well.  This is a missing tool in many teachers’ toolbox including my own-how to get kids to efficiently move from pairs to groups to to seminar circles to testing rows.  I have imagined a room where the teacher calls out a signal and the students know how to quickly rearrange the room even in the space of the period.  I know the arrangement impacts kids success at many activities (i.e. just try doing groups in a traditional college lecture hall).

What helps a messy teacher?


11 Responses to “The power of Querencia in the classroom (or for non-Hemingway fans-Martha Stewart)”

  1. Christina Braganza Says:

    In terms of how classroom design enables or prevents the classroom routines from becoming a well-oiled machine, I’d actually take this a step further and say classroom design can also enable differentiation. Whether it’s a kidney table or a group of desks in the shape of kidney table, having a space to strategically pull a small group of students is incredibly helpful. Simply having that dedicated space in the room seems to increase the likelihood that a teacher pulls a group of struggling students for additional GP or quick reteaching during a warm-up.

    • mrdolan Says:

      Great point to envision classroom design as an influencer of teacher behavior.

      I wonder if that changes the way leaders think about who gets to make those decisions.

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  2. jsmith6 Says:

    Depending on the grade level, I think student assistants can be huge for messy teachers. Figuring out ways for your organization systems to be clear (and even better if tied into your content), and then training students on how to use them. Some collect papers and then input them into the correct location. Then you process them (grade, provide feedback, input data, etc.), and put them in a new folder/file/whatever. Other students are trained in delivery. They come in first thing in the morning, and deliver them to students (this system works best with student mailboxes).

    That’s just for paper flow (my biggest problem), but in any part of the room putting an exceptionally organized student in charge can be a huge help. They feel ownership, and keep me in check. Sanitation Specialists were hands down one of the best decisions of my second year of teaching.

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