Pop Up Classroom (What if?)

only when the students arrived class set up happened!!!

Photo of Paula Marra
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Update 2/21/17 

on  10/14/16  Pop Up Classroom was included in the Google for Education Transformation Center


Update 3/23/16

Kalley Hoke has joined our team. She is a 1st Grade Teacher from ZIS (Zurich International School)

From Kalley:

"I began looking into engaging the students fully in setting up classroom spaces by moving (most of) the furniture to the center of our classroom after Student Led Conferences. As part of our morning routine, students shared their responses to What should we do now? Overwhelmingly, their ideas were to tidy it up or put it back. We dove into building empathy for what we need and want through a few flat chat questions and then a photo walk around the school for spaces that were of interest. Each student was limited to 15 photos. Of those 15, they chose two to share on a digital bulletin board and explain why it appealed to them. From those photos, we collected data on students top five spaces. Once we defined our priorities, students prototyped their ideas with a range of medium. After sharing and critiquing prototypes, we chose two areas to test immediately- a quiet reading area and a blocks and game zone. In an impressive amount of time for 6-7 year olds, we moved furniture and materials around to set up those two areas. After our Spring Break, we will continue a new cycle focusing on spaces for writing, and another to address the idea of "bringing the outside in" that attracted many students."


Video Pitch


Update 9/5/15

Classroom waiting for the students::

Before the Students!
JAM (name of my classroom)

I prototyped today to see how to proceed with the students. I wanted to figure out how the moving of the furniture would work! My suggestion is to have everything you need readily available and to have someone with you to move the furniture around. The students can place the materials inside the shelves. We also realized that they will remember better were things go as they are the one who will place.  Next week we start all over.

Update 9/1/15

Team member Robin U describes how she implemented in Middle School, scroll down and check it out, we also have just updated the Pop Up Classroom PDF.

Update 8/31/15

If you have been wondering how to implement Pop Up Classroom in High School team member Lisa Yokana shares how she would. Scroll down and check it out, we also have just- updated the Pop Up Classroom PDF.

Update 8/30/15

Scroll down to see how Michael would implement Pop Up Classroom in his classroom and look at just-updated Pop Up Classroom PDF.

Update 8/29/15 

See below PDF of step by step Pop Up Classroom

working on video pitch

Update 8/23/15 by NYC Design Team

We decided that for the evolve phase each one of us would describe how we would proceed with our specific grades! We will be updating this post often. 

How to get this idea off the ground?

Kinder by Paula Marra:

Asking children how to lay out the classroom only makes sense if the children have a clear idea of what goes on in a classroom - and for kindergarten children, classrooms are a new experience they know very little about, at first. So, the pop-up classroom discussion needs some context. That context will come with time, but we can accelerate things by using a goal-setting exercise that gets the children thinking about why they are in a classroom and what they hope to achieve there.

The teacher should first ask the students why they think they are at school. There will be many different answers: 'because my sister comes to this school"; "because now I am a big boy"; "I don't know". At some point someone will say, “to learn to write”, and the teacher can start  to focus them on learning things at school, and on what they might learn. On a big sheet of paper, posted on the wall, the teacher should break down what learning to write involves (the separate skills - letter formation, left to right...), and do the same with the other (major) subjects. This results in a kind of timeline plan for learning through the year - a work plan or list of goals (see prototype picture).


With that discussion having happened first (at least, the first phase of it), we involve the children in designing the classroom layout: what areas the room should be divided into, the furniture and wall posters/active boards/etc. required in each, accommodations to the needs of the children in general (e.g., heights of the wall posters) and of particular children (e.g., standing desks, quiet/focus spaces - for example, kindergarten students said they would like a “Flow Area” for students who don’t want to be interrupted in their work for snack/break time, and a “Chill Area” for when they just need a minute.

The layout conversation may need quite a bit of teacher guidance in kindergarten, and may need to happen more than once during the year. For example, the teacher may humor a not-entirely-practical idea the students have (especially in kindergarten, where imaginations are vivid and practical experience limited), then later ask them to discuss whether that idea is really working.

By the way, the “why are we here” discussion can also be revisited. In the middle of the year the teacher and students can review the goals and tick off what they have achieved, and they can do it again toward the end of the year, by which time nearly everything can be checked. Then, the teacher can turn the page around and show that the name of the next grade (J1, in this case) is written there - the students are all ready to move on!  (I have done this over the years.)

3rd Grade by Michael Schurr

By third grade, students have already experienced, on average, five years of school and are beginning to truly view their role at school as a learner. For some this happens earlier, for some a bit later, but the average student understands that they come to school to learn.  In many cases, students view the teacher as the holder of all knowledge. Why wouldn’t they. Teachers traditionally set up the classroom in advance of students arrival, making the assumption that “teacher knows best.”

But what if the year started with students deciding what they feel is needed to be successful:

Start with “What if” questions. “What do you like/dislike  about school? What do you like/dislike about previous classrooms? What do you think you will need to feel comfortable and confident when learning new material?

Next, use student feedback to create teams of students to sketch or build prototypes of what the classroom could look like. Everything from placement of furniture, class library, art supplies, teacher desk, etc..  Using the prototypes, students will provide feedback  using the “I like, I wish, What if” protocol.

Then vote on the best ideas which will lead to a prototype classroom. As a class, set up the classroom based off of favorite ideas.

After a few weeks of living in the space, conduct another feedback session where students discuss what is working, what isn’t, what they would change and what they would keep the same. Again use the, “I like, I wish, What if” protocol.  This process will continue throughout the year as the demands of the third grade curriculum change and evolve.

4th Grade by Richard Brehl

Start with a discussion about why we come to school (similar to Kinder, above). Brainstorm about ways we learn. Try to lead them to key ideas such as: learning is about what we don’t know, experimenting and trying new things, making mistakes are how we learn. Getting out of our comfort zone. Learning alone and with others. Where do we learn? How does the classroom affect how we learn?

Brainstorm list of learning activities we do in the classroom. (group work, presenting, circle time, independent work at desks, etc).

Review area, perimeter and measurement.

Students could be asked to measure the room and all the objects in it, then submit ideas for a room redesign, with their proposals documented on graph paper. The students could be asked to make a poster and present their ideas to their peers verbally, and could be asked to explain their thinking in a writing exercise, describing why and how their plan would enhance/support teaching and learning in the room.

Lastly, we go through a feedback phase where students offer at least one thing they like about every other proposal, and one thing about each proposal that they think might present a challenge.

Using that feedback data, we could compile the most popular design ideas into a final design for the classroom.

While we have traditionally done this at the end of the year, I think we could move this to the beginning of the year. They come to us with a sense of area and perimeter, and this exercise is just an extension.

5th Grade by Meg Krause

5th graders have lots of experience in classrooms, and as the oldest students in the Lower School they think they know a lot!

Begin by asking students what they need to learn. Then have the students ask the teachers(s) what they need to be able to teach. (I’m thinking here about things like student engagement/curiosity.)

Then move on to some kind of visual inspiration activity. Students could look through magazines and make sketches. They should include places that stand out for them- so they need to be encouraged to look for images beyond schools. For example, libraries, offices, gymnasiums, zoos, etc. All these images could become a huge collage on one wall of the classroom. Then students use sticky dots to indicate the places that stand out and why.

Next, students could share whatever they find unsatisfying about the present setup. Ask students to draw a map of their current classroom, in as much detail as possible.  Then students use sticky notes to write a word or two that shows how they feel in each section of the classroom.

Once students have identified some wishes for a future classroom and some problems with the present classroom, direct them to work with a partner to identify a need. (Example, HMW create quiet places for reading? HMW design a classroom for more movement?) 

Middle School by Robin U

At our school I was lucky enough to be able to pilot certain types of furniture.  I teach Grade 7 Humanities and I was always moving my classroom set up around (at least three times a week).  For Socratic seminars we needed tables facing each other in a square or rectangle, for a video or pecha kucha we needed all the desks facing forward, for small group projects we sat in table groups of 4 -6 and for whole class simulations we sometimes didn’t want any desks at all.  

Our school ordered 8 tables for me - each one was on wheels and each one had a lever where you could flip the table top and push the tables against the wall or to make almost a wall of their own.  They also put whiteboards on almost all the walls (some teachers in the HS were lucky enough to have the kind of walls that you can write on) so we had great opportunities to arrange the classroom to suit the students and/or our learning needs on a daily basis.  It was so fantastic - so I LOVE your idea and I think it will definitely work.

We made a video of all the different classroom set-ups if you want me to try to find it.  We were also lucky enough to have a few big beanbag chairs which made an amazing reading space for students and we could move that space whenever we wanted.

The kids really liked the flexibility of the classroom space because they had ownership of it but also because I did.  When they came in and saw a certain set-up, they would get excited about what we were doing.  They also came up with their own ideas when they saw what we could do.  I think that MS aged students can clearly see the relationship that Paula is articulating between learning spaces, knowledge, creativity, process and innovation.  

If you don’t have money for these types of tables - you could do the same with other furniture - but with these tables, it’s really amazing.

Introducing the idea at the beginning of the year could be really cool with students writing about what they notice with the different spaces ie. it’s hard to actively listen to others when you have to twist your head around to focus on someone three rows behind you.

High School by Lisa Yokana

I am planning to do this on day one with my architecture I class. I will put all the furniture in the middle of the room and ask them to lay it out so that it works for our class. I will tell them that they can throw anything out or discard for later use. They will be confused. I will then ask them what they think they need to know and how they think they should proceed?

Instead of asking them about the learning first, since it’s high school, I want to have the shock value of coming into a room that’s not prepped for them. I want them to work through the problem. It may take more than one day for them to do this. And I will also tell them, after they start asking questions, that it doesn’t have to stay this way for the whole year but just for the first activity. I want them to be totally confused and then have to dig their way out.

After they actually figure something out, we will process like crazy. We will talk about how they worked, what role they took, how they felt and then about the process that they chose to follow. Then we will talk about what they would do differently next time they are faced with an open-ended problem like this.

I will document like crazy, taking photos along the way that I can post and record some of their responses in the reflection part.

Updated 8/14/15 by NYC Design Team

Class Set Up /Pop Up classroom


The basic idea is to start the year with an empty classroom, and involve the children in designing the classroom layout: what areas the room should be divided into, the furniture and wall posters/active boards/etc. required in each, accommodations to the needs of the children in general (e.g., heights of the wall posters) and of particular children (e.g., standing desks, quiet/focus spaces - for example, kindergarten students said they would like a “Flow Area” for students who don’t want to be interrupted in their work for snack/break time, and a “Chill Area” for when they just need a minute.

This idea could be adapted in a number of ways. Most obviously, the classroom could be redesigned throughout the course of the year, as needs change and/or better ideas emerge. Also, the classroom need not necessarily be empty on the first day: it could have some basic “default” layout that then would be redesigned early in the year – possibly in the first few days.

The conversation can be tackled in an age-appropriate way: with younger students, we can talk about what they will need to be able to do to go on to First Grade at the end of the year, so that they can think of having goals for their year. A simple tool for these children is a list of skills and knowledge, organized by topic, that they should have mastered by year’s end. The children can then check off their progress against the list as they go, helping them to see that they are progressing toward their own goals and take ownership of their own learning. With older students, we might spend less time on the content, and more on process: on what they need when working individually, versus in small or large teams, and how we might structure the environment to support these different types of work, for example.

Of course, the exercise can also be used to help bring relevance to classroom learnings: for example, 4th grade students could be asked to measure the room and all the objects in it, then submit ideas for a room redesign, with their proposals documented on graph paper. The students could be asked to present their ideas to their peers verbally, and could be asked to explain their thinking in a writing exercise, describing why and how their plan would enhance/support teaching and learning in the room. For younger, or older students, the type and scope of exercise could be adapted to a developmentally appropriate level.

Now, when schools lay out classrooms, they know what the rooms will be used for, and they intend their layouts to be useful and functional. And yet, how many of us have not wished, at least now and then, that the tables and chairs had wheels? How many of us have asked ourselves, why are the active boards on adult sight lines, even in the junior school? When we involve the children in classroom design, we see these questions everywhere. Why, when the children’s work covers the walls, is it put high up, for adults to see? Why, when adults now have standing desks in their offices, do children always have to sit while they work? And… why IS there a teacher’s desk?

Potential For Impact: 

It is empowering to the students, it makes it clear to them from the beginning that they have the authority to do things differently if they wish. It kicks off the year with a discussion of needs and solutions based on what is going to be taught. They decide what should be in the classroom, where and when.

In fact, we can think of this as going even beyond finding solutions based on what is going to be taught, and instead think of it as finding solutions based on how we (teachers and students) are going to work together to learn the things the students will need to learn – design for process, rather than content. The challenge for the students is to understand how they learn best, how they best address new challenges, and how to design their space and tools accordingly.

Value Prop/Pitch: 

We would tell the principal that it empowers the students. It is a good way to start a conversation about innovative solutions. The ideas the students come up with might be better than the ones we would have come up with, and it is a low-risk thing to do, since we can change anything that doesn’t work. It also help creates ownership of their learning because they are designing their own instruction from the beginning.

How’d I get this idea off the ground?

In many schools, the teacher has a great deal of discretion when it comes to classroom layout, and can just do it!

However, there will also be rules and regulations affecting classrooms, from (often very flexible) health/safety regulations to possibly quite prescriptive rules in some schools. In more-prescriptive schools there would be a need to get the school’s permission to redesign the classroom.

A question that comes up in this context is, “how will this get scaled?” or, “how will we roll out this new classroom design?” We think these questions can be answered at two levels. On one level, there is no need to scale, or roll out a particular classroom design. Each classroom is being designed – and redesigned, possibly several times a year – by its own students. So, each classroom designed this way may look different to the others (although the students are likely to learn from each other, and over time we are likely to see common themes emerge). But, at another level, there is the question of how to scale the idea of letting the children design their own learning spaces. This is a matter of gaining acceptance for the idea: it must get permission, and it must be adopted. We believe that, beyond the initial “leap of faith” required to test the idea in a few classrooms, it will be the positive feedback from the students themselves that will be the most powerful tool in gaining acceptance.

That said, we think it could be helpful to have a guide, or booklet, offering ideas and suggestions for layout ideas that have been successful in other schools, perhaps by subject and by grade, possibly including purchasing guides for the materials, equipment and furniture (ideally, with prices). Initially this could just be a short slide deck with some example layouts, interviews with students, and teacher notes on the thinking behind each layout. Over time it could evolve into a more detailed “how-to” booklet. Of course, either format could include video: interviews with the students about the process and their reaction to it; images/videos of the layouts in action; teachers talking about the features in their layouts, such as quiet space, collaborative space, etc.

Extensions of a “how-to” could also be possible. One idea is a “furniture exchange” that would list unused furniture available for use in classrooms following this process. It would require some dedicated storage, but perhaps if it was distributed amongst a group of schools it would be worth it to enable more frequent redesign of spaces by students. There could be a web site documenting the available inventory, where student-designers could "shop". This might also really help schools with less money to engage in this kind of flexible thinking about spaces and setup. This might be a way for schools with more money that are able to purchase new furniture more frequently to support schools that are less financially well off in this area. Personally we harvest other classroom's "leftovers" all the time. When someone is getting rid of something, an email goes out and someone usually takes it. But what if no one at that school takes it? This also supports the idea of reusing/recycling.  

How you can get started:

One way to get started would simply be by stacking all the furniture in one side of the room or even outside the room, then hold a circle with the students and discuss what they think they will learn this year and what tools and environments they might need for that. The conversation could then move to a conversation about the layout of the classroom, what it will need to have in it, where those things should go and how the needs and layout might change during the course of the year.

One challenge would lie in how to inform parents about this. Parents are accustomed to seeing classrooms laid out and ready to go when they bring the students to school on the first day. If the classroom was going to be essentially empty on the first day, the parents could be informed of this in the welcome letter sent out at the start of the year. Once the classroom had been laid out by the students, there could be an email sent out to the parents by the teacher with a photo of the new arrangement, and some commentary from the teacher explaining the thinking behind the layout and expressing excitement about trying it out.


Metrics could include feedback from student surveys, and even feedback from parents, in addition to more classic metrics of student performance.

Also, schools could measure how many classrooms were using this process: if many, it would suggest that there is a high degree of teacher buy-in; if few, it would suggest a need to ask why teachers are not buying in, to understand whether they do not see the value, or do see the value but believe it is too difficult, for example.

Materials to get this idea off the ground:

Tables for who liked to work standing up, tables with wheels, pods for who does not want to be interrupted, soft seating, tables you can write on….

Original Post

I have been re-designing my class over the years, according to what I see as my students' needs. By the time they arrive, the class is always already set up for them.

But - what if, when they arrived, there was NOTHING in the classroom? What if, through discussion, we discovered what we would need and where? I  can tell you right now that I would love if my tables/chairs had wheels, if my boards were lower, if the kids could write on the tables, if somehow I had moveable walls and I had higher tables for those who prefer to work standing up.

I always wondered, who are the boards decorated for? Yes, they're full of the kids' work, but are not on their line of sight! The same goes for the active board, and tall teachers often don't lower the active board for the kids to see better... And, why IS there a teacher's desk? 

We all know budget and space can be big issues, of course.

I would love to have a flow area in my class, an area where the kids could work when they do not want to be interrupted while deep in thought, and I would know to let them finish even if it was snack time or playground time. The kids have told me they would like an area where they could chill out when they felt the need. It may not be possible to have these all be separate spaces - I have been able to find ways to work with what I have - but in a perfect world, perhaps they could be :-)

This coming year that is what I plan to do (flow area/ chill out area yeah!) - to talk to the kids about where to place things and we will move them around until we believe we have a basic setup that we like. Of course, it will be a starting point only - we already move the furniture around as necessary, and we will again! 

Evaluation results

22 evaluations so far

1. Potential for Impact: Imagine this solution had near perfect implementation. To what extent would this solution bring about a culture of innovation within a school or classroom?

A lot! This solution would greatly bring about a culture of innovation in schools or classrooms. - 68.2%

Somewhat. This solution would somewhat bring about a culture of innovation in schools or classrooms. - 31.8%

Not much. This solution might help with other things, but I don't see it really bringing about a culture of innovation within schools or classrooms. - 0%

2. Feasibility and Fit: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: If this solution were available to me right now, I would be able to use it with relatively low investment. (i.e. money, time, or skills).

Strongly agree (this solution strongly aligns to my/my school's current capacities). - 68.2%

Agree. - 22.7%

Neutral. - 9.1%

Disagree. - 0%

Strongly disagree (this solution would take a big lift in resources to pull off). - 0%

3. Adaptability: I could imagine this solution working well in a variety of school and classroom contexts across a diverse set of needs.

Absolutely! I could see this working for a variety of schools and classrooms with different or unique needs. - 75%

Somewhat. I could see this working for many schools and classrooms, but it might need some adjusting to fit a broad diversity of contexts. - 20%

Not a lot. This seems like it might be better suited to only a few contexts. - 5%

4. Scalability: To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: This idea could be adopted by an ever-growing number of teachers or students without requiring significant changes.

Strongly agree (this solution could easily scale without any significant changes). - 59.1%

Agree. - 18.2%

Neutral. - 13.6%

Disagree. - 4.5%

Strongly disagree (this solution would require significant changes in order to properly scale). - 4.5%

5. Desirability: Do you wish this solution were available to you right now?

1 - Not a lot. There's not a big need for this right now and/or we use something already that fulfills a similar purpose in my school or classroom. - 0%

2 - 0%

3 - 18.2%

4 - 27.3%

5 - A lot! There's nothing like this already and I'd love to have it in my school or classroom. - 54.5%


Join the conversation:

Photo of John Faig

Love the popup classroom idea. I was thinking about a micro-school and one of the ideas is to align the curriculum with real-world jobs (e.g., newspaper, architect, software developer, restaurant, etc.). The work environment would switch every few weeks.

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