Kerri Wall, Senior Instructional Technology Administrator and Data Privacy Compliance Officer for the School District of Indian River County, works with students in a new collaborative library space.

Mar 22 2024

Flexible Furniture Gives Teachers and Students More Opportunities for Collaboration

Traditional libraries are out — and media centers are in — as a reflection of how modern students learn today.

This is not an old-fashioned library: In the Sebastian River High School Media Center, food and drink are allowed. So is chatting with friends and playing video games. The space is open and bright, with the school’s mascot shark emblazoned prominently throughout.

Officially opened in fall 2023, the new media center is a far cry from the old library space, which hadn’t been updated in 25 years.

“All the walls were painted pink. They used to call the school the pink prison,” laughs Kerri Wall, senior instructional technology administrator and data privacy compliance officer at the School District of Indian River County in Vero Beach, Fla.

And while the space may have been outdated, the bigger issue was that the old library did not fit with the school’s modern learning environment.

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“We’re talking about a lot of books that weren’t even being checked out,” says Wall. “We really wanted to flip the script on what a media center space is.”

Like many school districts across the U.S., Indian River County has reimagined many of its learning spaces — from classrooms to former libraries — to keep pace with new technologies and the way students learn today.

An increasing body of research supports the conclusion that flexible learning spaces lead to better learning outcomes, including increased engagement with content and more positive interaction with peers.

“To prepare students for success in the 21st century, the ability to collaborate is essential,” says Patti Clark, chief academic officer at Lakeshore Learning Materials. “A trend I’m seeing everywhere is the transformation of school library spaces, which are becoming much more vibrant spaces for learning and collaborating, sometimes even developing into the hub of the school.”

Transforming traditional spaces takes planning, budget decisions and buy-in from school and community leaders. Here’s how a few schools took on the challenge.

DISCOVER: What does the modern library look like for K–12 students?

Students Take Ownership of Their Learning Spaces

The media center transformation at Sebastian River High School was the culmination of several years of experimenting with classroom layouts and standardizing equipment such as interactive whiteboards from ViewSonic. Kerri Wall was inspired by new flexible room designs and recognized the potential to transform the Sebastian River High School library into a dynamic focal point for learning.

“The traditional library model just wasn’t meeting the needs of our students,” she explains. “When they weren’t in class, students would be in the hallways, the courtyard and the parking lot, but they were not in the library. They craved spaces that encouraged collaboration, creativity and exploration, not just quiet study.”

With strong buy-in from Superintendent David K. Moore, Wall began the journey to transform the library by holding vision planning sessions with parents, teachers and students.

“We took all of that information and came up with our wish list of things we wanted the space to be,” she says. “And the No. 1 thing was that it should be the heart of the school.”

Wall met with several companies to help redesign the space and eventually chose CDW’s Blueprint to Design service to bring her team’s vision to life.

“I have never dealt with furniture in my life,” says Wall. “I’m never involved with decisions about facilities, construction or demolition, and I was terrified. In the end, I was truly surprised by how easy it was.”

Today, the redesigned media center is a world away from the “pink prison” of the past. Flexible furniture accommodates diverse activities. Collaboration spaces equipped with cutting-edge technology foster group projects and presentations. A dedicated tech center empowers students to troubleshoot their peers’ devices and acquire valuable technology skills.

Separate classroom spaces within the media center cater to various learning styles, featuring everything from a stadium seating in one area to movable tables and chairs, and can be used as a conference room ideal for focused discussions.

One of the most significant transformations lies not in the physical space but in the mindset shift. Media specialists, once hesitant to lose the library, are now embracing their new roles as facilitators and guides, creating engaging activities and supporting student-led initiatives.

DIG DEEPER: Tech-savvy librarians provide value to modern students.

The media center is now open before, during and after school, including during senior privilege and lunch periods, fostering a sense of community. A student-operated food and drink concession adds a touch of entrepreneurship and responsibility.

“It’s incredible to see students taking ownership of their learning space,” Wall says. “They understand it’s theirs, and that empowers them to use it responsibly and creatively.”

Furniture Meets Students’ Social, Emotional and Physical Needs

In schools across the country, Patti Clark has seen how the thoughtful selection of furniture can positively impact students. She tells the story of a school in Atlanta, where new seating included movable stools. The teacher would come around to each group, carrying her own stool with her, and talk with students eye to eye.

“The students told me the teacher was spending more one-on-one time with them,” says Clark. “I’m not sure if she actually was, but because she was sitting down on their level instead of looking down at them at desks, they felt seen. They felt they knew the teacher better.”

This is what school leaders at Gary Community School Corp. in Indiana wanted when they started revamping the district’s learning spaces.

Leveraging federal funds, Toni Mitchell, GCSC’s Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief project manager, led a districtwide initiative to overhaul learning spaces across five elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. Keeping students’ social, emotional and physical abilities in mind, Mitchell selected inclusive furnishings, such as flexible chairs, mobile tables and desks, cushioned seating, storage units and rugs.

LEARN MORE: Here are six creative ways to spend K–12 ESSER funds.

Along with furniture, the district added digital whiteboards, laser printers and other technologies, all of which required a network infrastructure upgrade.

With the classroom spaces completely transformed and the new network infrastructure in place, GCSC proceeded to build its first large public space: a high school media center.

“The library was a very dated, traditional, wood-clustered environment that embraced a collection of books,” says Mitchell.

Slated for completion this school year, the “modernized, up-to-date media center will promote books and technology,” Mitchell says. “It has dedicated learning spaces, including three glass-walled collaboration rooms, a robotics ideation room, a podcasting room and a makerspace room.”

Mitchell says furnishings and the school -environment are key for learning and for social and emotional health. But this outcome would not have been possible without support and input from the school community and vendors.

“If physical surroundings are not flexible, they can — and often do — negatively impact one’s physical, mental and social well-being,” Mitchell says. “The reconfigured learning spaces are empowering in that students and staff feel valued and believe it’s evidence that someone is listening and someone cares.”

Photography by Josh Ritchie

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