Rethinking the Physical, Part 2: Lighting

After years of transforming my pedagogy, strengthening relationships with students, and retuning content, this school year I’m rethinking the furniture, walls, lighting, and the other physical elements that make up my classroom. Each post in this series details a different element of my room and how I’m reimagining it. This is the second post in the series.

Anyone got fluorescence?

If you work in an office, hospital, or school, of course you do! Bland, impersonal, and unmistakably bright, these suckers are a hallmark of any formal workspace. They’re in every room, every hallway. No area is devoid of them. Their luminescence is omnipresent.

The main draw for these cylindrical mainstays is their immediacy and efficiency. With the flip of a switch — and relatively low energy use — every square inch of my classroom is blanketed with their sanitized luster. They pride themselves on leaving no desk, chair, or wall dimly lit. Their unrelenting beams remove even the hint of a shadow. When they’re on, they mean business! Sure, they’re fragile and must be handled with care, but they make up for their delicate nature with the sheer magnitude of their luminosity. Each one is a workhorse that prides itself on being able to do the job of several of its non-fluorescent cousins.

In addition to their efficiency, another reason why these warriors have been so successful is because of where they’ve been positioned. To avoid danger from prying human hands and minds looking to escape their unfiltered glow, they make their living on the ceiling. This keeps them inconspicuous, far out of reach, and allows them to resist being noticed. Being concealed in plain sight is their specialty: they offer us an essential function all the while slyly operating in the background of everything we do. It’s the perfect disguise.

Having taught for 17 years under the low hum of these impassive lights, I am just now realizing their masquerade. How could I not second-guess them before? How have my wary eyes not led me to look up? It’s sad to think that they have been perched on the ceiling glaring down at my students and me all these years. The mockery!

That ends this year. To help me subvert my fluorescent foe, I’ve introduced several new light sources to my classroom. These new additions are more playful and diverse than their overhead counterparts. And unlike fluorescents, which flatten the room and rob it of dimension, my new lights add depth and nuance. They don’t seek to make the lighting more uniform, but instead strive for the opposite: to make it more varied and heterogeneous — just like the students I teach. These lights accomplish this by being warm, flexible, personable, and fun. When my students and I walk into the room now, the lighting is no longer an afterthought. It’s noticeable and prominent.

Meet my new lights.

Twinkle Lights. I actually used these last year, but in a less purposeful way. What I love about them is their modesty and elegance. The specks of light they emit never feel like the center of attention, but always get noticed. I’ve strung my twinkles along the walls just above our whiteboards. They also crisscross the center of the room above our heads. An extra few feet adorn the outside of the door.

Table Lamps. The soft glow from these puppies is a welcome respite from the harsh overhead punishment handed out by the fluorescents. The presence of these lamps brings a homeyness to the room that we’re enjoying, but still getting used to. I paired one of them with a table near my lounge chairs. A second is in the opposite side of the room on top of the lockers.

LED Strips. With changing colors and expandable lengths, the flexibility of these lights has made them one of my favorites. Their vibrant and chromatic, but also somehow subtle and understated. They have found a home complimenting three walls of the room as well as the rear of the SmartBoard. Their ability to send light bouncing off walls and splashing onto the ceiling takes my students and me to a happy place.

LED Signs. These have quickly become beloved by my students and almost anyone who walks into the room. The confluence of being a wall ornament and a reliable source of light adds to the attractiveness of these signs. I have three in the room, all on different walls. Perhaps it’s too much, but I simply couldn’t resist.

Glow Ball. The most novel of my new lights, the glow ball is pure fun. It can glow as a single color or be set to slowly cycle through hues. Thus far I’ve opted mainly for the latter. Watching it magically transition between colors has put me in a satisfying trance on more than one occasion! Interestingly, a kid recently asked me where I got it because he needed “dorm room ideas.”

With my new friends by my side and above my head, I’m glad to say that the bright, washed-out rays of the fluorescent lights blanket my classroom no more. I still must use them from time to time, but they now play more of a supplementary role instead of a primary one.


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