What her students and fellow staffers saw only as an unused computer lab, Shelton Intermediate School teacher Kristen Nigretti took as an educational opportunity.

Nigretti’s vision for the space — once a necessary room assignment before the advent of Chromebooks — was a quiet space for students to cultivate their love of reading. But the design of the space — that would fall on Nigretti’s students, who were given the job of recreating the room, soup to nuts.

“The students had to use the design thinking process and argument writing strategies,” said Nigretti, a teacher in the SIS school of innovation. “They had to present their design ideas using the available inventory (and) scientific research that supported their ideas.”

For Nigretti’s unique lesson plan, she was recognized as the school district’s Innovative Teacher of the Month during the Board of Education’s December meeting.

“This is a great example of design thinking used not only in the context of the middle school space but also used later in life, whether as a designer of space, a designer of technology or a designer of cities,” said school Superintendent Chris Clouet in recognizing Nigretti. “These are all great skills.”

Shelton Intermediate School Principal Dina Marks said the school community is proud of this latest project - and Nigretti’s teaching style.

"This type of engagement is what the school of innovation is all about,” said Marks.

Students, more than 90 strong, formed into teams, then researched the best practical uses for the space, created a design with needed materials all within a $200 budget, and made final presentations to Nigretti, who selected the winner. Teams were required to have two pieces of scientific evidence as well as a plane view and 3D view of the proposed project.

“The students really took ownership of their work,” said Nigretti. “These tasks can be tough for kids, so I thought ‘how can I make our learning as fun as possible?’ Designing the room was a way to get everyone involved and interested.”

The winning team of Brielle Laferriere, Lois Stoverchy, Sophia Goncalves and Demetri Frazese created a beautifully decorated space with couches and aerators — a quiet, calming space for readers of all levels to enjoy a good book.

“There were so many great designs … it was a hard decision,” said Nigretti, adding that it was fun watching the students, some of whom had never used a tape measure before, at their work.

The room even received some statewide attention after a visit by Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel A. Cardona in October. Cardona, led by student ambassadors, toured the SIS school of innovation and got a first-hand look at the new reading lounge.

"So what does a living room designed by eighth graders, for eighth graders, look like? A college campus,” wrote Cardona in an article that appeared on the state Department of Education website. “It was filled with couches, comfortable nooks for reading or completing assignments on Chromebooks, mood lamps, pillows, carpeting and even walls painted in a color that was researched to be conducive for concentration. The only thing you would find on a college campus that was missing was a Starbucks, to which the students stated, ‘I wish.’”

Cardona said the reading lounge represented “some of the best practices in public education in Connecticut. Students were allowed to use their agency to advocate for what they felt was best for learning, teachers facilitated this process by requiring a rigorous process to submit considerations for the room, and leaders encouraged and rewarded this process by allowing school space to be used in ways that students felt were best for learning.”

The students took pride in displaying the room to Cardona, who stated that the process by which it came about was a “great example of engagement, effective pedagogy and rigorous curriculum connections that required academic skills to be applied in an authentic way."

For Nigretti, the innovative lesson plan not only educated students but also created a place for students to relax and read for years to come.

“The outcome is we have a space the students helped create,” said Nigretti. “Hopefully this space serves as motivation to read. Students get to hold a book in their hand, in a comfortable space with tons of places to sit. My hope is this will help someone walk away loving to read.”

brian.gioiele@hearstmediact.com