Flexible Seating by Amy Marshall

guest post iconFlexible Seating and a Classroom Redesign – The Beginnings

The August panic arrived this week. It’s that tipping point in the summer where I’m worried that I won’t be able to get it all done – the fun trips to the beach, the must-do household tasks, the back-to-school planning. I even had my first back to school dream. In this one, I attempted to teach the importance of Shakespeare’s use of soliloquy to a group of fifteen year olds while at the beach. It didn’t go so well. So with my mind beginning to circle around the upcoming school year, I’ve decided to lay out some of the main things about which my mind is preoccupied.

Foremost on my mind is my classroom configuration. For many years now, I have been using reading and writing workshops with a theme based question. One element that is so important to me is collaboration. But for some reason, it’s a real struggle to get the students to do it. It always seems that once they have glued themselves to their seats at the beginning of the period I can’t get them to move. If the person sitting directly beside them isn’t ready to collaborate on a task, then they think it can’t be done. I was sure that someone out there had a solution and the research began. My discovery? Maybe it’s my classroom configuration.

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1: Starting point in August

In the early 2000s, a group of school architects, child psychologists, and educators began to examine the environments in which our students work. They claim that educators need to consider the classroom environment as the third teacher (with the actual teacher being one, and the content being two). Students get their cues about what is important for learning from the things that they see in their surroundings. So, if there are individual desks in rows, they believe that they should be working alone. If there are groupings of four, and only those, they feel that they must work with the people at their table. In Kayla Delzer’s article “Flexible Seating and Student Centered Classroom Redesign” (Edutopia, 2016), she goes on to further explain the role of flexible seating arrangements for the feeling of fluid collaboration.

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2: Starting point in August

After reading that, it made sense to me. While I thought I had a dynamic classroom, it was really only dynamic in my mind. To my students, it still pigeonholed who their collaborators could be and when that could happen. To make matters worse (at least according to the flexible seating gurus), I had a huge teacher desk that dominated one whole corner of the room. Many educators see this as a barrier to students feeling like the have ownership of the space. It sends the message, “This is my place that I allow you to be guest in.” I can only speak for myself, but when I’m a guest in someone’s home, I’m reluctant to move freely about, helping myself to whatever I need. Usually a guest waits for the cues from the host. I don’t want my students to feel like they’re my guest when they are in my room.


Enter the first of my two big experiments this year – flexible seating. Oh, what fun! I spent much of the month of June, measuring spaces, harassing the custodian for stools and tables, designing furniture I wanted my husband to build me. My colleague, who teaches math next door, became excited and started gathering her own tables and stools. It was a fantastic, exciting time – until I saw the custodian removing the desks I had marked as no longer part of my plan. Then my nice, big, safe teacher desk was wheeled away. The final thought of panic arrived as it dawned on me that I won’t have my beloved seat plan.

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The hope for September

So, here I sit in August, wondering if this experiment will garner the results that I want – to make students realize the value of assessing what kind of learning they need to do that day and choosing their setting accordingly. The fluidity of the workshop model will finally be mirrored in the fluidity of my classroom environment. I’m nervous, but excited. Maybe by October I’ll be begging the custodian to give me back my desks.

Amy Marshall teaches grades 9 and 10 at St. Malachy’s Memorial High School in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. She has experienced all subjects, and grade levels from kindergarten to grade 12, but her heart is in high school English. A member of the NCTE, she believes in the power of collaboration amongst teachers and learning from each other. In 2015, Amy was a recipient of a Book Love Foundation Grant to grow her classroom library.

Contact:  Email:  amy.marshall@nbed.nb.ca             Twitter:  @armarshall    



5 thoughts on “Flexible Seating by Amy Marshall

  1. Dana Bundy October 7, 2016 at 9:03 am Reply

    Love it. I’d love to know how it’s going!


  2. Chrystal Hemphill September 2, 2016 at 8:43 am Reply

    I love the idea but what can be done in classrooms that are small and inadequately equipped? Each year I try to work with what I have and make the room feel like home (to me and the kiddos) but it’s difficult when space is limited.


  3. Cyndi Faircloth August 31, 2016 at 5:10 pm Reply

    Yikes! I’m such a creature of habit that not having a desk is scary! Can’t wait to hear how you organize yourself in this shared space! I’m not ready to try this, but I’m curious and may get brave enough to try it…


  4. carriegelson August 31, 2016 at 10:55 am Reply

    Oh, this post speaks to me. I am also having those strange teacher dreams and have been thinking about flexible seating in a big way this summer. I start in a new to me classroom at a new to me school this fall and I have set up with no assigned seating. I anticipate the year with both excitement and apprehension. Gut feeling? My organisation will take some tweaking but it will all work out well. Good luck!


  5. Lindsey August 31, 2016 at 8:32 am Reply

    I hope you will write a follow-up of how this new arrangement works out. Good luck! I love the ideas:)


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