Flexible 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.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @armarshall
Tagged: Readers Writers Workshop