Choosing How to Learn in Ms. Rhonda's 4th Grade Classroom

by Vera Jirnov

Some fourth-grade students read in a cozy wooden loft while others work on math problems at cafe tables looking out at the mountains. Fourth grade teacher Rhonda Hamill's classroom is unusual, even in its layout, with no desks.

In conceiving her classroom, Ms. Rhonda worked on  “different kinds of classroom designs.” Ms. Rhonda mentioned that one of the reasons why she loves Ouray School is “because they are all so open to innovative ideas.”

When Ms. Rhonda first mentioned to Mr. Nelson the idea of building a loft, he thought, “let's do it.” He did have some questions like “what is this going to be like?” and “is it going to be safe?” But overall, he said, he thought it “was very intriguing.”

Mr. Nelson said that he had seen “teachers do some flexible seating arrangements in their classrooms” before, but this was the first loft he had seen.

Ms. Rhonda wanted her classroom to have “a western theme” that went along with Ouray. Shop teacher Mr. Chiang designed the reading loft. Ms. Rhonda mentioned that the loft had to be built in accordance with fire code restrictions.

Mr. Nelson thinks that the loft “creates a great classroom environment that the kids enjoy being in.” 

Fourth grader Alex Jirnov said the loft is his favorite place in the classroom. “There are pillows up there,” he said, and “you can climb up there whenever you want and read books.” He also mentioned that students enjoy spending time in another part of the classroom: “the living room where there are bean bags and a couch.” 

This is all possible because there are no desks in Ms. Rhonda's classroom. The students “travel with knapsacks,” she said: “that's their desks.” One of Ms. Rhonda's goals is for the students “to learn to be independent.“ Part of that is letting the students “figure out where and how they learn best.”

“We can go anywhere we want when we are reading or doing math problems,” agreed Alex.

Ms. Rhonda became a teacher because, as a freshman in college in California, she “would go help with little youth organizations.” One time while doing activities with the kids her friends told her that she should become a teacher. 

Before coming to Ouray, Ms. Rhonda lived in Bolivia, where she “taught 3rd grade for half a year and was a literacy coach for the second half.” She had planned “to be an international school teacher,” she said, but “always wanted to live in Colorado.” Then, during a layover at DFW, she “saw a video on box canyon falls.” Ms. Rhonda knew that she wanted to go and see Ouray for herself. When she arrived in Ouray, the school just “happened to have a 3rd-grade and a 4th-grade position open.” The day after she arrived, she said, she put her resume in.

Ms. Rhonda said that her favorite thing about teaching here is “the students: they love to learn” and they are also “so kind to each other.” Ms. Rhonda says teaching at Ouray School differs from other schools because “there is a lot of community involvement.” 

Mr. Nelson's overall impression of Ms. Rhonda is that she “has been fantastic.” He said  that “she has a lot of experience in reading” and that “she has taken on learning more with our philosophy of the science of reading.” Mr. Nelson also mentioned that “she has fantastic classroom management skills.” 

The other day Mr. Nelson visited Ms. Rhonda's classroom and “saw her using a strategy where she gives the kids a lot of choice.” Mr. Nelson explained that Ms. Rhonda told her students that they either “can choose to work with [her], choose to work with a partner, or choose to work on [their] own.”

“What a great strategy to allow kids that freedom,” Mr. Nelson reflected. “That flexibility of kids taking their own education in their own hands is a great strategy and a great choice and voice for kids.” He believes it “helps students become advocates for their own learning.”