During the week, students and teachers spend most of their waking hours in schools, yet astonishingly little attention has been paid to how classroom design can shape the learning environment. Renée Heiss, a 20-year veteran teacher in New Jersey public schools, addresses this neglect in her engaging new book, Feng Shui for the Classroom: 101 Easy-to-Use Ideas (Zephyr).
Feng shui, as Heiss defines it, is the “ancient Chinese method of design for balance and harmony.” Increasingly used in the United States by both commercial and residential architects, feng shui incorporates the use of color, shape, and compass direction with environmental elements to create productive and aesthetically pleasing spaces. While this may sound esoteric, or even flaky, Heiss—a former New Jersey Family and Consumer Sciences Teacher of the Year with a background in interior design—emphasizes the practical aspects of the method in her book, which includes illustrations, floor plans, and photos.
Heiss recently spoke to Teacher Magazine about balancing yin and yang in the classroom while also making good use of chi and getting rid of feng shui’s nemesis: clutter.
Q: What led you to feng shui?
A: Five or six years ago, my school needed someone to teach two 7th grade English classes. This wasn’t my area, but I said OK because I figured it couldn’t be that hard—I was a writer [for parenting and children’s publications], after all. But one of the classes turned out to be an extremely difficult teaching experience. I thought to myself, What’s going on?
I realized that it could be the students—many had special learning needs—and even the room. It was very bare, with a few corners that were quite cluttered from what the previous teacher had left behind. The students were unruly. I was learning about the yin and yang of the room because it was a very yang room, with lots of active bodies, noisy children, bright lights, white walls. Everything screamed at you.
Q: What are “yin” and “yang”?
A: “Yin” is anything quiet, subdued, female; “yang” is hard, loud, bright, male. When you have too much of one in the room, the room becomes unbalanced. Too much yin and you feel like falling asleep. Too much yang and you feel like leaving.
In any case, when the students came into the room after lunch, they were always bouncing off the walls. So one day I turned off the lights, and that seemed to subdue them a little. I then had them put their heads down on the desks while I played soft music and directed their thoughts to the class lesson. Over time, they came to expect this to the point where they would come in and ask, “Can we have quiet time?” I was just acting on intuition and my interior design background at this point and wondered if there was something else that could help me with this room. I finally found feng shui and thought that 5,000 years of Chinese design can’t be all that wrong.
Q: So the next year you began to implement feng shui in earnest.
A: Right. I had a different classroom and began to make changes. The major thing was the location of the desk. It was directly opposite the door, which is the worst place you can put a desk because chi, the movement of energy in feng shui, rushes in and just smacks the teacher. You want chi to meander around, to energize students as it moves from one to the other. So I moved the desk so that it’s to the right of the door—where I can see the door with my back to the wall.
Another thing I did is add a wind chime right by the door. This not only adds a touch of whimsy but brings chi in from the hallway. This is important because if the hallways are long, as ours are, the chi will just take off down the hallway instead of stopping and welcoming students. Now the kids, being kids, will sometimes hit the chime, but they don’t know that they’re actually energizing the room by stirring up chi.
Q: What are the biggest mistakes teachers tend to make in terms of classroom design?
A: Clutter is the biggest mistake, hands down. Teachers are pack rats because they think they can use the same materials year after year. But as the years add up, you find that what you were using 10 years ago is outdated and should probably be removed. Feng shui likes to be renewed. So you should refresh the curriculum and the chi that comes with it. All those piles of clutter around the room trap chi.
Another mistake is the arrangement of chairs in straight rows facing the front of the classroom—most people feel more comfortable facing a specific compass direction, not straight forward. So I prefer an arrangement in which groups of four students sit left, right, left, right, all the way around. This way the students form a unit even as they face different directions.
Q: The bagua is a key aspect of feng shui. Exactly what is it?
A: In ancient China, as I write in the book, the bagua was an eight-sided figure that corresponded to eight directions of the compass. However, for our purposes, it’s easiest to picture the bagua as a classroom map with nine sectors. In Western feng shui, the door is always in the northern area of the room, so you’re always north as you enter and face the far wall as south. So as you walk into the classroom, each section of the classroom corresponds to a sector of the compass and has its own color, shape, number, element, and focus.
For instance, wood, represented by the color green, is the element of the east and southeast and manifests itself in your classroom as furniture and plants. Fire, on the other hand, represented by the color red, is the element of the south because of the sun, light, and warmth. In the classroom, fire takes the form of sunlight streaming through windows, which in most classrooms are opposite the door.
Teachers using feng shui need to remember the colors of the bagua as they place their materials around the room. If you have something red in the fire area, that’s good, but you don’t also want something red in the wood area because you’re going to burn up the wood, so to speak. You need to concentrate your colors in the areas in which they belong.
Q: What can teachers do if they take over a classroom space that violates certain feng shui principles?
A: Take windows, for instance. In some classrooms, too many windows bring in too much sunlight, creating a yang environment. To counterbalance this, you want to introduce the wood element by bringing in plants.
Q: It sounds complicated.
A: Actually, it’s just interior design with a twist. Basically you’re adding an organizational tool to all the colors and textures you’d have in traditional interior design.