The classroom experience

Thanks to Charles Mackenzie-Smith who, as a guest blogger, has kindly invited us into his Japanese classroom. The philosophies and strategies are certainly applicable to teachers of all Languages, and even those with limited budgets can take elements from his classroom to apply to their own. Personally, I am completely impressed by his classroom, which I think is more of an ‘experience’. Show this blog to your administration and I’m sure they will be impressed too.

Charles Mackenzie-Smith is a teacher at St Paul’s School, Bald Hills, Brisbane, Queensland. He currently teaches Pre-Prep to Year 7 in Japanese. Charles has a Master of Education as well as qualifications in ESL. He is a public speaker and advocate for engagement in the classroom and the seamless integration of ICT in the classroom. He runs a website called “St Paul’s Junior School Japanese” which is available for all schools to access and can be followed on Twitter

Creating a vibrant/Engaging/Immersive Learning Space at St Paul’s School
I’ve moved teaching spaces a lot in the past 15 years of teaching. I’m not just a fortunate private school employee. I’ve worked in state schools as well in an area that some would class as a lower socio-economic demographic. I know what it’s like to have a limited or non-existent budget and I also know what it’s like to teach without your own classroom. I did it for 9 or 10 years. It wasn’t very good. No student work could be displayed, sometimes I had limited board space in other teachers’ rooms because they understandably had things that they wanted to keep using after I moved onto the next class and their non-contact time was over.  The teaching and learning of Languages was affected.

So, when I was given an opportunity to have my own space, I jumped at it!  I didn’t have a budget per se but did have a supportive admin which made all the difference. To understand how I was able to design my room it is important to understand how I garnered support. That support I must say, without grandstanding, was well-deserved.

I had spent many, many years building a program at my school which was successful, fun and engaging and had made the key learning area of Japanese important. I involved parents, I set up a website so students and parents could demystify Japanese, so that they could revise and engage with their families at home and I could extend my allocated influence of 45 min per week to much, much more. I ran parent classes to teach Mums and Dads about Japanese, I hosted many, many Japanese tour groups from our International School and involved them with our own Junior School students. I fought very, very hard to make sure that students would engage with the subject, parents took an interest in it and created a groundswell so that Japanese could not be ignored. In fact, when Pre-Prep was introduced at our school in 2012, the parents requested that Japanese was included in their children’s curriculum.

In 2009, the Director of Junior School and Deputy approached me to tell me I had been allocated a room. It was then that I was able to secure the $3000 funding from the St Paul’s Association to fit-out a room. So, our School Association is like a school’s P&C. They raise money and contribute it to projects that they deem worthwhile and in the best interests of the students. I applied to them with the backing of our Director of Junior School and was able to secure about $3000. Operating on that budget, I had to work out what was necessary for a learning space that would be functional and authentic as well.

If you don’t know what an actual classroom in Japan looks like, they are nothing fancy, just functional.

So I decided to base mine around a “Washitsu” ( formal Japanese room). I also made sure that I would incorporate my technology-driven passion just to contradict the traditional and simple and also to serve the needs of our 21st Century learners. I had to have a projector and a designated i-pad hub. Hopefully, very soon, I will also have a class set of laptops. We have to find funds for the laptop charging trolley (another story!). So just like a little microcosm of Japan, I have managed to sit tradition and technology harmoniously side by side.

A Breakdown of each element in the classroom
I must admit that the original items were purchased 3 or 4 years ago for my old room but prices of the products have not increased markedly. Traditionally, a Washitsu will have Tatami mat flooring. In a classroom, that was neither practical nor affordable. I decided that we would have 2 mats, 1 for display in the Tokonoma (display alcove) and 1 under a another piece of furniture

Tatami Mats x 2
Were $160 each in 2009, now $220 2×220=$440
Japanache (Southport)
TATAMI(click any image to see a larger version)

We also felt that Shoji ( sliding rice paper doors) were an important feature
Shoji 4 Panel Example $199  3x 200=  $600
Cheaper examples

Vinyl Cushions x 30   $600
Donut Mini-Seats
Cheaper Options for $7.80 per cushion

Low Desks (Seats 3) at each x 10 = $150 each.    $1500
These were built by a staff member’s father who was a handyman (he has since sadly passed) but I’m sure that with a bit of not too much searching around, there will be someone in your community who is willing to commit to this. Think Manual Arts/ITD, a local Men’s Shed, a handy father or mother, someone in the local classifieds.

Shoe Rack = Bag rack, Book hutch, Converted Book Shelves. (Free) With the shoe rack, we turned a set of shelves on its side and nailed in more shelves to make hutches. Can be easily done with someone who knows how to measure, cut and nail. A fellow workmate and I were sitting around and I was looking at an extra bookshelf that we had and I said to him, “What if we turn this on its side. It would be a great shoe rack?”  With his handyman ‘smarts’ and my initial idea, we collaborated and created (and isn’t that what it’s all about?)

Hand made with Tatami Mat inside and scroll from Japan. It is a matter of getting someone (a parent, a janitor, a friend, a handyman, manual arts/ITD) to make a frame to surround tatami mat and then to rise vertically to hang scroll. $30 in pine, $15 in black paint.  $45

Outline done by visual art teacher on heavy duty paper and coloured/painted by year 2 students

Vase and Cherry Blossoms
Target $30-60

Shoji windows
You can turn windows into Shoji quite easily (See this photo and comments). I’ve used thin pieces of wood and glue and carefully glued them to windows in my old room. I’ve also stencilled on windows and doors.

Shoji Lamps 3x $50 = $150
Japanese Style Lamps- Also check lighting stores/Bunnings

I have a reward system in my class and each week, I choose students who are really trying their hardest to learn and get involved (think very young students). They get a chance to sit in the Zaisu (legless chairs) if they are chosen for great attitude and work ethic (everyone ends up getting a turn). It’s a great incentive to feel extra-special for a lesson $39US each (Consider the postage about $40 for each one)
Could be easily made by cutting legs off chairs.

E-Learning Hubs/ Quiet Spaces

Visual Stimuli
As we all know, designing an immersive learning space can only do positive things to ‘switch’ students on from the moment they walk into the setting. If you are going to get inspired and create your own space, remember it has to be functional and practical as well.

There are a number of ways to secure money (legitimately!) it just takes a bit of planning and foresight. Get your admin on board. Put together a proposal and get some quotes. Do some research on the impact that such a setting has on learning outcomes (there’s plenty to back it up) and just do it. It’s a great ‘office’ to work in every day and your students will love it too.

Special thanks must go to Dr Paul Browning (Headmaster of St Paul’s School),
Mr Jon Andrews (Executive Director of Teaching and Learning)
Mrs Marianne Connolly (Director of Junior School)
Mrs Julie Bryce (Manager of Teaching and Learning)
Mr Kevin Mc Vay (Teacher/Carpenter/Friend)
Mr Allan Lihou (Teacher/Decorator/Friend)
Mrs Heather Gibbs (Former Head of Resources)

Old Room in 2009 1st Attempt:
2009 ROOM

New Room in 2013:
2013 ROOM


5 thoughts on “The classroom experience

  1. A wonderful classroom and evidence of great passion on the part of Charles. Just a hint, I have a few zabuton in my reading corner, they cost 100yen from Daiso. Don’t know how anyone feels about buying a ‘class set’ during their next trip, but they are light, and even with postage would probably turn out to be quite a cheap option.


  2. Thanks Charles for sharing all of the detail of creating your learning space. There are many inspiring ideas here. All the best for 2014 in your refurbished room.


  3. What an absolutely fantastic and engaging setup Charles has created here! An interactive and humanised space that clearly demonstrates the power of the learning environment as the 3rd teacher in the room. Thank you for sharing Charles 🙂


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