Blinded by the Light——Windows, Feng Shui, and Classroom Design over the years

Last night I attended a community meeting in a local grade school (Benjamin Franklin, In Kensington, a San Diego neighborhood) and was struck how much had changed while some things remained the same.  It took me a while to understand why it felt so familiar to me when I finally grasped that it was a virtual copy of the room where I spent part of the second grade: Queen Anne Park School in my hometown of Lebanon, Oregon.  The school buildings were constructed within 2 years of each other (1929 and 1931, respectively), so that probably explains a lot.

My hometown had a population explosion during the 40’s, going from a population of 2,729 and more than doubling between 1940 to 1950, reaching a population of 5,873 in 1950.   This was mainly due to increase in demand for forest products during WWII. Lumber mills were springing up everywhere.   There was even a housing project to provide shelter for all the new workers.   This eventually lead to the construction of three (prior to that there was just one) additional elementary schools between 1945 and 1953.  By the time I entered the first grade in the fall of 1958, I ended up at Santiam School, (which I attended, except for a brief period at Queen Anne, for all six years of elementary school) which was a slightly more modern building (1945) with certain similarities in design. (Sadly, neither of these schools are still standing.)

The main thing in common between all three schools are the large, tall and northern facing windows.    Thinking this might be a common principle in classroom design, I did some research on the Internet, lacking a decent set of encyclopedias.    Class room design in the US was still following principles laid down in 18th century Britain, at least it was in the 40’s and 50’s.    The concept of tall, large windows was important in an era before electric lights as room brightness was determined by the size of the windows, and classrooms were also laid out so the windows faced North as much as possible so as to avoid glare in the classroom.  If the windows couldn’t face North, the other favored direction was East, so as to avoid glare from the afternoon sun.   And sure enough, both elementary schools I attended had windows that faced the North.

It turns out that those large windows were important for reasons other than being able to see or to avoid being blinded or cooked by the sun streaming in from severe angles in the winter.   Students learn more readily (up to 26%, as evidenced by standard tests) when there is significant natural light in a room, and students learn faster in rooms with larger windows (as opposed to those with smaller windows), at least according to some studies.   The view counter to this (opposing views on views), is that students learn better while not being distracted by what’s going on outside the classroom, although this would, presumably, be affected by the actual view: as when kids are looking to see if the snow is “sticking”.  Some current studies suggest that the best of both worlds might be to provide natural light via skylights, although there is a reactionary contingent that feels there are actually some benefits to students taking “study breaks” by daydreaming and gazing out the window.  I’m inclined to embrace that view, having taken one of those between 1966 and 1970 or so.

When I was a senior in high school, the school district purchased some “portable” temporary classrooms.   Not only were they from the early 50’s Soviet School of Architecture, but they featured two small, heavily tinted windows that didn’t open.   It was a considerable challenge for me to stay awake in a room that would have made a nice pharmaceutical warehouse, and was forced to switch from window gazing to pee-chee decorating to pass the time.   At least they had a clock, for habitual clock watchers.  (I have heard reports that a teacher who taught in one of these classrooms in the 1980’s had a sign near the clock that read “Time Passes—–Will You?”   I rest my case.)

  clock 3

As for the rest of the classroom, a lot of the stuff was the same, although they did not blackout curtains as they no longer show 16 millimeter films, or even film strips, as there were a large CRT TV and VCR affixed to the wall over the teacher’s desk, although I imagine some schools now use video projectors.  The A/V club must be somewhat different now.  The blackboard was replaced by whiteboards and the chalk was replaced by erasable magic markers.  There was a large pull down Mercator map of the world on the wall and I was happy to see that students were still being convinced that Greenland is larger than China, Alaska much larger than Mexico and South America is the same size as Europe, instead of twice the size.   The individual desks I remember have largely been replaced by tables, (at least in the rooms I peeked into) which seemed to be grouped many different ways in each of the rooms, so ‘flexibility” seems to be paramount.   I also missed the classic alphabet penmanship chart that was almost always above the blackboard, like in the photo below:

I was happy to see that it hasn’t been replaced by a chart identifying where all the buttons in an I-phone are.   The kids probably could teach the teacher about the phones, anyway.  This brings us back to the classroom in San Diego and 2012.    I was having a great time checking out the nice, bright red sunset when I heard a voice:   “Sir, the meeting is over every one else has left.”   Some things never change.

(For a more animated look at how schools used to be, check out this silent film from {John Brownlee’s YouTube page} 1951:  Lebanon Schools)

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