A New School is a Narrative: How the Story of Your Building is Written and Revised

The building of a new school is analogous to writing a complicated novel. What do you want your story to be? And how do the readers of your “building text” not only get changed by the narrative, but change the text itself?

Prologue: Who is Shelby County?

Shelby County is just east of Louisville, Kentucky. While it has a rich tradition of being agrarian with picturesque horse farms (the county seat of Shelbyville is touted as the “Saddlebred Capital of the World”), it is also a growing community with a strong industrial manufacturing base and subdivisions of apartments and houses constantly in construction. The district of Shelby County Public Schools has approximately 7000 students of significant diversity. At least fifty percent of these students are free and reduced lunch. Approximately twenty percent are Hispanic, some enrolling with little or no English speaking ability. We have felt growing pains in our school demographics for several years, particularly for our middle school students; for a time, space limitations meant that only sixth and seventh graders were actually in our middle school buildings, while the eighth graders were housed in wings at our high schools. Therefore, building a new school was an urgent project.

As a district, we believe strongly in personalized learning that breaks the outdated industrial model of all students receiving the same teaching at the same time simply and only grouped in same age cohorts. In 2017, with many levels of stakeholder input, we created our Profile of a Graduate (PoG), which began us on a still ongoing journey toward a competency-based education system where Shelby students transition into adulthood not just as fact-memorizers but as critical thinkers, responsible collaborators, effective communicators, lifelong learners, global citizens, and inspired innovators. Lastly, we want students to demonstrate their learning in meaningful ways, such as project exhibitions and (at transitionary grades of 5th, 8th, and 12th) in Defenses of Learning where they present a body of evidence that proves their mastery of the Profile of a Graduate. 

In this background context of community demographics and teaching imperatives, Marnel C. Moorman (MCM) became our newest school, which broke ground in summer of 2018 and opened in December of 2019 with approximately 700 students grades kindergarten through eighth grade.  As we designed and opened MCM, we had to ponder: how will this new school exemplify the story of Shelby County and what we pedagogically and philosophically believe is best for learning?  

In Medias Res: The Story of MCM So Far

Marnel C. Moorman School is centered around three “neighborhoods,” for K-2, 3-5, and 6-8 grades. The classrooms inside of these neighborhoods consist of multiple features to physically open and be visible, such as partition walls between rooms and motorized garage doors with clear glass. Each neighborhood is a hub around a “collabrador,” a flexible learning space where students can easily and fluidly move in and out of, in small groups for short-term needs or in large groups for more structured experiences such as an exhibition for community visitors.  

Even the name collabrador signifies our PoG “Responsible Collaboration” that occurs here, as well as the ease of student movement.  It echoes a quote from a teacher in Nora Fleming’s highly illuminating Edutopia article “Designing a Public School from Scratch” (which highlights the opening of a new California K-8 school): “One of the first details a substitute will notice is the tremendous amount of trust evident on our campus.”  We trust and encourage our teachers to move and group students as necessary to best meet their academic and social-emotional needs, and in turn trust our students. The nature of grade levels, and even the idea of what a classroom can be, begins to blur in these multi-age neighborhoods.

Inside a classroom, it is often difficult to determine where the front of the room is, due to the mobility of much of our technology, such as interactive flat panels mounted on wheeled carts.  As Steven Ward put it (one of our Studio Kremer architects that helped plan for Marnel C. Moorman), MCM was “the most untethered school we’ve ever designed.”   Students are 1:1 with Chromebooks, so the WiFi allows for anytime, anywhere learning.  Up high on the collabradors are outlet pulleys, dangling the potential of power to wherever a student might need it, unrestrained by fixed wall outlets.   With whiteboards on partition walls as well as on rollable stands, and giant sticky posters hanging from garage door windows, the prospect of “vertical learning” is omnipresent, allowing students the easy and instant ability to demonstrate PoG “Critical Thinking.”  

Two major presentation spaces provide large projector/LCD screens and seating for audience members, perfect for student exhibitions, Defenses of Learning, or to simply provide another opportunity to demonstrate being a PoG “Effective Communicator.” MCM’s Curiosity Center includes the school’s library, a student production studio, and meeting rooms. The last space to highlight is our Project Lead the Way/STEM area where our students are encouraged to be PoG “Inspired Innovators” as they program robots or design new inventions. In short, the narrative of MCM perfectly models the ideal story of what Shelby County Public Schools wants for all of its students. 

The Story Revises Itself

The drywalls and doorways of MCM not only dictated some changes in teaching and learning, but created a new cultural language (or in the words of Fleming’s article above, an unique academic “nomenclature”).  Mere words on a blueprint such as “neighborhoods,” “collabradors,” and a “Curiosity Center” became living concepts that foster a fluid, flexible, personalized, student-centered learning experience. The transparency and visibility of the classrooms has encouraged our admin to roll mobile standing desks around the neighborhoods of the school and interact with staff and students in ways not possible in a traditional facility, which has further increased our teachers’ openness to feedback and support. Lastly, one of the most exciting aspects of MCM is not only how the space amplifies a shift in pedagogical teaching, but how the teachers and students are naturally transforming the space, both real and virtual.  An example of this was during the pandemic. While students were at home, exhibitions continued in virtual space with teleconference software and the determination of teachers figuring out the logistics; when your real world building offers such a rich learning environment, your expectations for such a space continues even when COVID-19 forces you outside of it.  In a sense, the transformative aspects of Marnel C. Moorman meet the transformation of the teachers’ instruction in a virtuous circle, one we hope perpetuates in an infinite loop.

Epilogue: What’s Next?

As we fully return from the pandemic, there are untapped growth areas of MCM to explore, such as outside presentation spaces that could house larger groups of parents and community members for expanded student exhibitions. We also might see different patterns of migration of students as the need for contact tracing fades; instead of garage doors or partition walls moving once every week or two, perhaps they will open and close as needed in the middle of the day. Lastly, we hope that teachers and students continue to “hack” the physical space of MCM in ways that alter its initial intent so that learning remains in a perpetual evolution.  (Indeed, MCM staff help inspire teachers across our district to hack their existing traditional spaces in order to innovate their teaching, and are inspired in turn.)  While the brick and mortar construction of Marnel C. Moorman is the “foundational text,” the “setting” of what school is and can be is changing to reflect our learners. Our teachers and students are not just the characters of the MCM story, but its authors.  

This article is based on a November 2021 presentation Adam gave at EDspaces21 in Pittsburgh titled “Drywall and Doorways: How Pedagogy Transforms, and is Transformed By, a School.”  (Special thanks to Jeremy Adams of Studio Kremer for attending and assisting with the Pittsburgh session.)

Adam Watson

Adam Watson has been an educator since 2005, beginning as a Nationally Board Certified high school English teacher and currently serving in the role of Digital Learning Coordinator for Shelby County Public Schools. He loves to share his edtech thoughts, tools and strategies on social media, particularly on his YouTube Channel, Facebook page, and blog Edtech Elixirs, as well as leading conference sessions regionally and nationally on transformative educational practices. In 2019, KySTE awarded him the Kentucky Outstanding Leader of the Year.