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The 10 finalists in Slate's competition to improve the American classroom.

The "21st Century Classroom" Finalists

a school desk After we invited readers to design a better fifth-grade classroom a month ago, Slate received more than 350 ideas, ranging from the innovative to the utterly fantastical. Voters and judges have winnowed those entries down to 10 finalists, from which we will choose a winner at the end of this week. (More about the winning entries below the lists.)

The top five entries, according to the number of reader votes:

1. The Integrated Green Rooftop Learning Lab, by Studio G Architects
2. The 21st Century Outdoor Classroom, by REAL School Gardens
3. Virtual Classrooms Monitored by Expert Learning Agents, by Bill Lauritzen
4. New Education Paradigm, by Mark Berger
5. MONTESSORI ... like Prego sauce, it’s already "IN THERE"! by Terri Sherrill

The top five entries, as picked by our panel of judges:

1. Guided Learning in a Complicated World, by shellyQ
2. Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, by Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeianova
3. A Teacher's Dream Classroom, by Zelda
4. Classrooms: A Collaborative Student-Centered Environment, by Brandi Johnson
5. The School as Laboratory: Learning by Doing, by Billy

When students are asked to reimagine their learning spaces, they often put classes outdoors, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the top two vote-getters by far are outdoor classrooms—The Integrated Green Rooftop Learning Lab, by Studio G Architects, and The 21st Century Outdoor Classroom, by REAL School Gardens. Nature was an element of the top judges’ picks as well. Having grown up in frigid Wisconsin and now living in drizzly Seattle, I find the idea of spending the school year outside impossibly gloomy, or just impossible. But outdoor classrooms, also called Schoolyard Habitats, do exist. I’ve never heard of one as comprehensive as these Hive entries, where, especially in warmer, drier climates, you can imagine hands-on learning in weather stations and greenhouses combining with old-fashioned book-learning to give students motivation, practical skills, and a taste for the science and engineering disciplines our leaders demand we improve. Not to mention some much-needed vitamin D.

You might feel like you have seen third-place vote-getter Bill Lauritzen’s Virtual Classrooms Monitored by Expert Learning Agents, a fantastical experience guided by brain and body sensors and a virtual instructor, before, because you watched The Matrix. Some readers will have seen Terri Sherrill’s MONTESSORI ... like Prego sauce, it's already "IN THERE"! before, because it’s an exhortation from Montessori advocates to replicate that approach. Montessori classrooms are organized so that students can select their own activities from around the room, working independently in small groups.

A variety of spaces within a room: That was central to many of the Hive entries and to four of the five top judges’ choices. (The judging panel included Trish Fineran, a fifth-grade teacher at Hollin Meadows Science and Math Focus School in Alexandria, Va.; Jeff Kennedy, a museum designer from Somerville, Mass.; Ronald E. Bogle, the president of the American Architectural Foundation; and me.) The judges’ highest rankings went to two entries that were somewhat similar: Guided Learning in a Complicated World, by shellyQ (whom I’d guess is a teacher—who else thinks about where teachers and their aides can stash supplies?), and Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, by architects Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeianova. Both addressed comfort, provided project space, and, most important, were built around the idea of students not just being addressed by a teacher but working independently and working together.

Oh, and the kids in these designs are visible at all times. That wasn’t the case for all the entries: Some included reading lofts, a cool idea but (unless they are glass-bottomed) highly impractical for teachers who want to keep tabs on their charges. None of the entries from students were rated as finalists, but some—The Shockers and Cube Crew’s 21st Century Classroom—came close. Given that children are the end users for classrooms, it comes as no surprise that they had some good ideas: personal space, areas that can be curtained off for meetings, class pets, laptops for all.

My fellow judges didn’t share my enthusiasm for the couple of rolling classrooms that were entered, though some voters did. Probably those voters were among the thousands of Americans who spent at least some part of fifth grade daydreaming about zooming straight out of the school building. It’s our hope that some of these terrific ideas Slate readers generated will catch on, and we’ll have classrooms that schoolchildren are actually thrilled to spend their days in.

You can vote for you favorite finalist below.<See the full text of this article, and vote if you like, at>


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