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The Changing Shape of Education

The Way We Teach

A series of articles and posts about the academic program at Miss Hall's School.

The Changing Shape of Education

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Miss Hall's Magazine. Read the full issue here.

Mathematics Department Chair Trish Shuart is not alone in envisioning the classroom possibilities come September 2016. For one, Ms. Shuart is among a diligent group of Miss Hall’s faculty and staff taking part in Building Committee meetings tasked with overseeing the School’s most significant capital project in more than fifteen years. For another, Ms. Shuart will be among the faculty regularly teaching in the new academic building.
“There are all sorts of possibilities — from incorporating more technology into the classroom to having more space for students to work in small groups,” says Ms. Shuart, who regularly introduces videos, websites, and digital lessons into her classroom. Proximity to Math Department colleagues and spaces in which faculty can more conveniently meet and work will also help facilitate collaboration within departments and across disciplines. “I’m excited to be sharing the space with the Science faculty,” she adds. “The physics classroom will be right across the hall, and that’s a natural pairing for STEM-type (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and other projects between the two disciplines.”
Construction crews broke ground this summer on the first on-campus expansion since the Anne Meyer Cross ’37 Athletic Center (2000), the Elizabeth Gatchell Klein Arts Center (2001), and the Humes Euston Hall Library (2001). A new academic building will be home to the Science and Math Departments and the Horizons program. Across the pond, a new residence hall will accommodate thirty students and two faculty families. (For renderings and updates, visit The buildings will dramatically reshape the campus, but beyond that, the academic building will accommodate an ever-evolving program in ways that go far beyond adding space.
“The spaces are designed by the ambitions for the program,” notes outgoing Dean of Academics and Faculty Thomas Wheelock. “The Building Committee’s discussions and decisions included conversations about how faculty teach, how students learn, and how both of those continue evolving. The curriculum should shape the facility, and the planning for this building has been driven by the program.” The building’s first floor will include three laboratory spaces, Horizons offices and meeting space, a common room, an innovation studio, and several workrooms for multiple uses. The second floor will feature four mathematics classrooms, physics and chemistry labs, math and science project rooms, and additional workspaces. The 18,000-square-foot building will be situated between the Schoolhouse Wing and the Klein Arts Center, overlooking the pond.
As the Building Committee tackled its work, common themes emerged, notes Director of Finance and Operations Suzanne Baumgarten, chair of the committee’s Design Team. “Flexible spaces are very important, especially as education continues evolving,” says Ms. Baumgarten. “We want spaces that will meet our needs now and be relevant years from now. And, we want collaborative spaces. We know that innovation comes from collaboration, so we are trying to create spaces where people can work together, whether it’s a corner nook, a meeting room, or small gathering spaces.” Adds Building Committee Design Team member and Studio Art Teacher Ellie Spangler, “We talked a lot about spaces that are open, inviting, with plenty of natural light and furniture that’s moveable, flexible, and durable. Each teacher has their own style of how they want to use the classroom, and the goal is to have spaces that can shift and adapt.” Conversations also included practical considerations, such as storage and access. “These are things that make life easier in general, but they also make it easier to facilitate delivery of the program,” Ms. Spangler adds.
Adaptability, flexibility, and ease of collaboration are key considerations that go into the design of 21st century classrooms, agrees Chris Brown, an Associate with Flansburgh Architects, the Boston-based firm designing the facilities. Spaces that facilitate projects among classes; spaces in which students can work independently; and spaces that allow students to collaborate with others were also at the forefront of conversation. “We want to allow the teachers to configure their classrooms in a way that promotes the learning and teaching elements the best,” says Mr. Brown. “The challenge is how do you make an adaptable space that’s also suited for a specific level of learning or specific subject? For science, we worked with an integrated approach, meaning classrooms are designed to accommodate various styles of learning. The idea is to create spaces that are open enough and adaptable enough so that they can be occupied differently, accommodating general sciences, for example, but also so that they can be used for more specific, technical work in the later years, as students advance through the curriculum and move into more specialized science studies.”
Horizons, the School’s experiential, service-learning and internship program, also adds a unique element to the building, which will include office and meeting spaces dedicated to the program, Mr. Brown notes. Many Horizons projects are, by nature, interdisciplinary, incorporating elements from multiple departments. Having a sizeable and dedicated space in which that work can take place, will help facilitate those efforts. “The building will very much become a Horizons building on Thursday mornings,” he says, with folding glass doors that allow the Horizons space to open into the first-floor common room and adjacent innovation studio. As such, the Horizons program can expand to occupy a significant portion of the first floor as needed. Faculty in the Horizons program are excited for the collaborative and flexible space, notes Director of Horizons Alison Basdekis. “Ninth graders will use the space for a variety of on-campus workshops that promote academic skill building, interpersonal efficacy, and philanthropic literacy,” Ms. Basdekis explains. “Upperclasswomen who work on-campus, in a remote capacity, will better connect to off-campus partners, and the students who work off-campus will finally have adequate space to build and showcase long-term projects connected to their community-wide work. We are also very eager to be able to host larger gatherings of both students and community partners.”
Beyond formal classroom and gathering spaces, the building will feature areas for informal collaboration, small-group study, and independent and project-based work. “The more intriguing spaces are ones that did not appear in the original concepts,” Mr. Brown adds. “Eddies of space in the common room and in group study spaces upstairs are considered ‘collective’ spaces, encouraging the exchange of ideas. Downstairs, there are smaller project rooms designed as brainstorming spaces. These spaces are ‘thought incubators,’ where two, three, or four students can get together to ponder, imagine, and develop ideas.” The first-floor innovation studio is for exploring STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) and related high-tech projects such as robotics, animation, industrial sewing, and three-dimensional printing. “The innovation lab is outfitted for multiple uses, where science, tech, math, and many other disciplines will experience a fusion of ideas.”
The building will also facilitate connections with the outdoors, Ms. Baumgarten adds, with classrooms that will open into the courtyard and outdoor “classroom” spaces, such as terraces. Another element the committee took under consideration was how both buildings fit into the character of the campus. “We wanted to keep in mind the Olmsted design of the campus and the Georgian architecture of the Main Building,” she says. Mr. Brown agrees. “The Georgian Revival architectural style of the Main Building was employed for campus cohesion,” he notes. “However, inside, more liberal interpretations of this style yield a central skylight, significant interior glass, and contemporary lighting. The building’s contemporary updates invigorate— without detracting from—core Georgian architectural ideals. The buildings are very much ‘Miss Hall’s.’”
The project won’t solve all of the School’s facilities needs, Ms. Baumgarten notes. Currently underway is an assessment of all campus and noncontiguous MHS properties. Additionally, the Campus Master Plan will be updated in the coming year. Both efforts will help with identifying remaining facilities needs and with making decisions for repurposing spaces in the Schoolhouse Wing after departments move into the new building, which is expected to open in the late summer of 2016, in time for the 2016-17 academic year.
Until then, there is much to do and additional possibilities to consider. For Ms. Shuart, the Math Department Chair, those possibilities are wide open. “It will be helpful to have the space to break into small groups, to have more whiteboard space where students can work, and be able to move more easily about the classroom,” she says. “A lot of learning is collaborative, interactive, and interdisciplinary, and these spaces will in invite that. Being in close proximity as a department will change the dynamic, as will sharing spaces with the Science Department. The whole environment is going to be more engaging, which is how students learn most effectively.”
“ . . . we want collaborative spaces. We know that innovation comes from collaboration, so we are trying to create spaces where people can work together, whether it’s a corner nook, a meeting room, or small gathering spaces.” ~ Suzanne Baumgarten, Director of Finance and Operations, and Building Committee Design Team Chair
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Located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Miss Hall's School is a private, college preparatory, boarding and day high school for girls in grades 9-12.
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