Inside one Naperville middle school, at least three classrooms have obvious themes and very few -- if any -- traditional desks.
One looks just like a campground, another is all about the Windy City and a third has a color scheme so well-defined it could have come from an interior design magazine.
A fresh look isn't the purpose of these unusual classroom designs, but it's a means to an end.
These rooms feature low coffee tables surrounded by pillows or beanbags, geometric taller tables flanked by large exercise balls or wobbly stools built to be unstable on purpose, even old podiums converted into standing desks. Students choose to lounge on a couch, sway on a rocking chair or sprawl on the floor, and in these positions, teachers at Scullen Middle School in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 say they're learning.
"The beauty is the engagement," seventh-grade social studies and English language arts teacher Moira Arzich said.
Conversations stay on topic. Chromebook screens stay on tabs for research and writing, not gaming or chatting. Students can squiggle and squirm, fidget and fuss and still think, maybe even clearer.
"It's actually really comfortable," seventh-grader Gaurika Suresh says from a rocking chair while she researches presidential inauguration speeches during Arzich's social studies class. "It helps me think better now that I have a comfortable place to sit in."
Scullen educators, led by Assistant Principal Scott Loughrige, say they believe in the power of place, space and setting to influence education, and they're putting that belief into practice.
In select classrooms and the library media center, students are free to choose the posture and environment most conducive to their learning. They're free to work closely with their peers or choose a corner to think by themselves. These freedoms make learning more personal and less structured, in a way that leads to increased participation, educators say.
"All students learn in a different way," sixth-grade math and science teacher Courtney Voise said.
"We pay attention to how they learn best and then we make it happen for them," library media center director Angela Weigard said.
The partial transformation from traditional classrooms began a year and a half ago. That's when the library media center underwent a $14,000 renovation, largely funded by the parent teacher student association, to install movable furniture of various sizes so teachers could bring their students to work in small groups for a change of scenery.
The next summer, Loughrige said the library had a garage sale of sorts, allowing teachers to choose pieces they could put to creative use in their rooms.
At the same time, Arzich led a study of the book "Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Factors we must Master to Truly Transform our Schools," which promotes better use of physical space to enhance education. And Loughrige took a group of teachers to the Google offices in Chicago to observe an unusual workspace in person.
To put the concept in action, teachers like Arzich and eighth-grade English language arts teacher Jenny Albert also went furniture shopping, with Arzich spending roughly $2,000 of her own money on new and thrift store pieces to give students various learning environments.
"She wanted to create this space that has it all for each child," Loughrige said.
In her room, done up in coordinated shades of red, black and teal, Arzich lets students choose their seat each day and hears them groan if they're too late to snag a popular sofa seat, exercise ball or wobbly stool.
Sixth-grader Ellie Schultz usually looks for a beanbag or a stool when she enters Voise's math and science classes.
"It just depends on how I'm feeling," she said. "It's more comfortable. You're not in a stiff desk all day."
In the old school of classroom design, student desks were arranged one behind the other in rows facing the teacher. There, pupils were expected to sit silently and be "vessels" for learning to be absorbed from the teacher, Loughrige said. It was a "cells and bells" style of education, he said, but it's run its course. At Scullen, he said nearly all teachers have redesigned their classrooms in at least some small way to foster a more flexible atmosphere.
And these changes are only the beginning, Loughrige says. In future years, he hopes the school will be able to provide funding for teachers to redo the furniture in their rooms to offer more seating choices. He also hopes to upgrade the larger open areas in each section of the school where pods of classrooms connect to make them better spaces for collaboration.