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Physical Space and the Writing Process: Classroom Connections

posted: 1.31.11 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

How do our physical surroundings affect our writing? Do our writing spaces lend themselves to distractibility or to sustained concentration? How can we become more aware of our writing environment, and use it to our advantage, even if it is not an advantageous or inviting space? I consider these questions through a writing and revision practice that can help us pay more attention to our writing classrooms—and our needs as writers.

Over the years, I have worked with students in developmental writing in many different classroom spaces. My favorite space was under the apple trees at a large research university in the rural mid-Atlantic. It was summer, and I remember apples falling and the first dry leaves crunching under our books and notebooks. The grass served as soft and fragrant carpeting as the writers and I discussed and composed reflections on The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

I found a very different space for writing in a computer lab at an urban Midwestern university. The students’ computers were arranged in two separate rows at opposite sides of the classroom.  The teacher’s computer was on an island at the very back of the classroom. The room had no center, and the students could not see each other, or me. The computers made a loud and constant humming noise. No windows opened to the outside, and fluorescent lights flickered over our heads.

Whether we hold our classes in seminar rooms or boiler rooms, writers can compose close observations of our physical surroundings. When we focus more consciously on space, we also attend to distractions that may keep us from concentrating on our writing. If we learn to respect our writing space, and learn to make accommodations for distractions, we also learn to respect the many processes through which writing develops and flourishes.

The following questions can be used as a catalyst for writing an observation of our physical classroom spaces:

  • Seating: Are the desks and chairs movable, or bolted to the floor? Are the desks large enough to hold all of our writing materials? Are the chairs comfortable for the different sizes of our bodies?
  • Sound and Ventilation: Are the rooms reasonably free of interfering noises? Do the heating and cooling systems work appropriately for outside conditions? Does the classroom have windows that can open to the outside?
  • Walls, boards, lighting: What color and in what condition are walls? Are there sufficient dry-erase boards or chalkboards that can be seen clearly from any angle in the room? Is the light sufficient for writing?
  • Layout of computers: If there are computers in the classroom, how are the computers arranged? Is it possible to see the faces of the other writers in the classroom and to hear their voices?
  • Online spaces: What percentage of our teaching and learning takes place online? Do we write with course management systems, Twitter, Facebook, or blogs? What are our needs as writers if the classroom is no longer contained by walls or doors? (Some of my fellow Bits bloggers have tackled similar questions.)

To develop our observation skills beyond the basics, we also need to make connections from physical space to critical thinking. The Web site Tomorrow’s Professors (#1069) recently posted “Seven Tips for Improving Instructional Skills: Reminders for Teachers” by Walter Jacobs Jr. Tip 3 suggests that we “Ask questions dealing with ‘how,’ ‘why’ and ‘what if.’” Such questions ask us to think more deeply and to pay more attention to the relationship between our physical surroundings and our processes as writers.

Critical thinking can help us to link two seeming different concepts together. How is physical space related to the writing process? Why does this connection matter? What can we do—as a community and as individual writers—to stay focused on our writing? As we continue to explore our thinking, we concentrate more deeply—and open ourselves more fully—to writing and its possibilities.

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Categories: Developmental
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4 Responses to “Physical Space and the Writing Process: Classroom Connections”

  1. Sig Says:

    Very nice points Susan — reflection and mindfulness are so important and the space in which one writes does deserve and need more of that “respect.” Makes me wonder how one’s writing space can be examined not just for distractions (prioritizing “efficiency”) but also for stimulation (emphasizing creativity)? Online forums are an example of this problem — how much is web 2.0 hurting my attention span, and how much is it actually helping me think outside myself? Could make a huge difference when you’re talking about writing in a strictly timed group setting or writing at home… thanks for the great post!

  2. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Sig. Attention and writing are *so* interconnected– and such a struggle for so many writers, “basic” and “advanced.” I’m especially intrigued by your analogy of distraction/efficiency and stimulation/creativity.

    In “Writing Through ADHD,” I write more about how distraction has the potential to lead to creativity. In other words, when distraction can be identified, then writers are able to *absorb it* as part of the writing process. Inattention can be generated through the slightest sound penetrating through the door, the barest perceptible flicker of a florescent light. For someone with inattention, the smallest disruptions can lead to brain freezes. So the idea is to bring awareness to what causes the brain freezes, and what to do about them.

    Nonetheless– I *really* like the idea of examining writing space for stimulation. That could be another way of claiming agency over the brain freezes. And your ending question about web 2.0– how it hurts/how it helps attention span– also gives me a great deal to think about.

  3. Debbie Says:

    I agree that room layout is critically important. I’ve been in many classrooms where students have to crane their necks just to see the front of the room. Other classrooms are set up with the projector or desks blocking the screen. It’s important for teachers to sit in the various desks in the room to see what the view is like from the students’ perspective.

    Computer labs (especially for younger students), are often set up so the teacher can see the students’ screens (thus ensuring the students are working on their assignments and not wandering off elsewhere on the internet). Yet teaching to students’ backs is certainly not ideal. I don’t know the solution to this, though.

  4. Susan Naomi Bernstein Says:

    Thanks, Debbie, for your thoughtful comments. It is crucial for teachers to experience classrooms from students’ points of view—both literally and metaphorically. And I definitely agree that we face a difficult proposition in some computer labs. We teach to the backs of students’ heads—so that we can monitor their use of computers. This arrangement seems to value computer function over the students’ needs. On the other hand, I would prefer that students engage with course materials in class, rather than the countless non-classroom-related distractions offered by computers. I agree that this is not an easy problem to solve.

    I continue to imagine an ideal space: a large room with several rows of computer stations to the side, and regular desks (including the teacher’s) arranged in a circle in the middle. The screen and board would sit at the front, in order to provide a common point of focus. Also, the room would be clean and bright, with soft natural lighting, good ventilation, natural soundproofing, and windows that open.

    This arrangement, with its multi-purpose, multimodal functions, would be especially helpful for younger students, as well as for students enrolled in developmental writing. The room would have workspaces that students and the teacher would use at different times for different purposes. Teaching and learning would become the center of the classroom, rather than computers (or the equally frustrating absence of computers). Although I have never taught in that ideal room, I still believe in imagining what education could become. We may not have access to such spaces and places at the current moment. But writing down our ideas can help us to envision a more accessible future for all of us.