School Open Classroom Environment

Our Building and The Open Classroom Concept

Green Lake Elementary School is situated on 3.3 acres in the beautiful Green Lake/Roosevelt neighborhood and urban village, just one block from Green Lake park, the most highly used city park in Seattle.

The original school was a two room school house built in 1891, housing 3 grades and 36 pupils. As the area grew, due primarily to the gold rush in Alaska, so did the school. Two additional rooms were built in 1901 until in 1907 a large addition was completed to the site, housing nearly 700 pupils. Eventually grades 7,8 and 9 moved to the new John Marshall High School just down the way. Additional land was purchased by the School Board which now borders our neighbor, The Hearthstone retirement residence.

After many different renovations, additions and demolitions, the school was modernized in 1971 with a new, state of the art facility which embraced the “Open Classroom” concept. The building was designed with 7 regular classrooms and 5 very large, open classrooms to accommodate and support rich special-needs programs as well as highly flexible usage. An additional wing was slated to be added west of the main building (where our two portable classrooms sit) for a multi-purpose room and lunch room.

Today, Green Lake Elementary School teachers, parents and staff have embraced the flexibility of the space and proudly house Team A, team-teaching and looping. The layout of the school facility is fully utilized to the benefit of the students, fostering creative, open and nurturing education for everyone. Many teachers share space with each other, gaining peer insight, cooperative teaching, flexibility and synergy.

History of the Open Classroom Concept

The 1971 design of Green Lake Elementary School is primarily a result of the open classroom movement, which arrived in the United States in the late 1960s from Great Britain. For more than a decade, U.S. schools had been blamed by various critics for a multitude of issues, including urban decay, failure to develop enough engineers and scientists, racial segregation, hostility to disadvantaged children, and for producing uncreative graduates who lacked the ability to question authority. The open classroom concept resonated with those who believed that America’s formal, teacher-led classrooms were crushing creativity. It mirrored the social and political culture of the 1960s and 1970s with the civil-rights movement, antiwar protests, feminist and environmental activism. All across the U.S., traditional school buildings were torn down to make way for this new building design and educational concept.

In both Britain and the U.S., the open classroom contained no whole-class lessons, no standardized tests and no detailed curriculum. The children came into contact with books, things and each other at various “interest centers” and learned at their own pace with the help of teachers who acted more as coaches than lecturers. Teachers structured the classroom and activities for individual students and small groups around reading, math, science, art and other interest centers based on the principle that children learn best when they are interested and see the importance of what they are doing. A variety of ages was mixed together in a cooperative learning environment.

By the mid 1970s, the attacks once again began on public schools. As before, the critics mirrored general social trends—namely a conservative backlash against the cultural and political changes of the 1960s and 1970s. With the help of the media, a perception grew that academic standards had slipped, that desegregation had failed and urban schools were becoming violent. A return to basics was called for and open education was no longer the answer. Suburbs and cities began building more traditional schools with a single classroom for each teacher.

Currently, there are competing traditions in teaching—the teacher-centered instruction where children are mostly presented with knowledge by the teacher, and student-centered instruction where knowledge is generally “discovered” by the student. This ideological “war” over the best way to teach science, math, writing, reading, civic engagement and values continues as schools have historically been battlegrounds for solving national problems and working out value differences between conservatives and liberals. These are all generalities, and at Green Lake Elementary School, both concepts are put together in a hybrid that brings the best of both together for an optimal educational experience for our kids.

Today at Green Lake Elementary School:

The school has embraced the layout of the school building by utilizing the 5 “pods” (large, open classrooms intended for more than a single class) to promote team-teaching in our primary and intermediate grade loops. Although each pod contains multiple “interest centers,” the teaching methods used in the pods are a hybrid of traditional teaching concepts and the open classroom concept. Children are assigned to an individual teacher at the beginning of their 1st/2nd or 3rd/4th grade loop, at which point the teachers in the pod work together to provide the best educational experience for each child. The large spaces allow teachers to team-teach, thereby taking advantage of each others’ areas of strength, style, creativity, and peer insight. The large, open classroom space also makes Green Lake Elementary School the perfect home for our superior Team A program for disabled students. This important program could not exist in a traditionally sized classroom and requires the unique flexibility found at Green Lake Elementary School. In addition to the five large pods, GLES has 7 individual classrooms and 2 on-site portables which house our kindergarten and fifth grade classes. The school also has a full-sized gym, library, art room, and music room.

The design of Green Lake Elementary School compliments our team-teaching/looping concept, which in turn has prompted our excellent faculty to look for and implement innovative programs such as Everyday Math by the University of Chicago, “The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking” by the Riggs Institute, and the Institute of Systems Biology/National Science Foundation's hands-on science programs.

Taken together, our curricula and classroom design lend themselves to the development of a small, creative, nurturing, and thoughtful school. The variety of ways the space can be changed to accommodate our dynamic school population and teachers' needs makes Green Lake Elementary School a progressive facility that fosters learning, self-reliance, critical thinking, and citizenship skills. We take pride in our community of kids and their families, neighbors, volunteers, teachers and staff at Green Lake Elementary School. It is truly a great place to learn!

“I think (the open-concept) raises the standards for teacher and student performance because this layout promotes daily collaboration among teachers. Furthermore, teachers are aware of what is happening in other classrooms and they are exposed in a way that most traditional classroom teachers are not. Because of this exposure between teachers and classrooms, teachers are constantly evaluating and refining their own teaching practices, which only benefits students. I also think the open-concept allows students and parents the opportunity to develop rapport with other teachers in the building, thus fostering a real community within the school.”
--Joey Mertel