To Flex or Not to Flex:  I’ve Been Thinking about Flexible Seating

Being a new teacher at school this past year, I was the recipient of the “new English teacher classroom” that has been passed down for the last two years.  This classroom is located at the far end of the cafeteria, literally in the cafeteria, and came stacked with rows upon rows of forward facing desks, equally spaced in rows, all facing the front.  So industrial revolution-esqe. So not ideal for cultivating a welcoming environment where students to take ownership of their learning by interacting with one another to question and create meaning.

In the hopes of making my corner of the school more welcoming and conducive to English work, I slowly began to create flexible seating areas.  I built this up over the school year, finding more cozy chairs, lights, and touches of home to add, but I will confess: I don’t love my flexible seating classroom.

 

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Isn’t this how we want all students to read in a Book Club?!

 

Let me explain, as there are pros and cons to everything.

Positives:

  1. Students are pretty chill and calm in class (also see Issues #1).  Students are relaxed because the lights aren’t blazing overhead and the furniture creates a homey vibe.  Students enjoy a break from sitting in the rigid desks that are too small for some or built for right-handed writers.  They also have more space for their books, laptops, and notebooks.
  2. Students can settle into our reading time.  I’m not sure about you, but I don’t read for pleasure at home in a rigid desk, sitting straight up.  I read on the couch settled to my gently snoring dog, or I read in an armchair with my slightly overweight dog, or I read propped up on pillows in my bed with my dog who sprawls out to cover half the space.  While I can’t bring Bounder to work (I wish!), I can create the transference of reading atmosphere from school to home.
  3. Students have a choice over where they sit depending on how they’re feeling or what type of work we are doing.  I had a few students who changed seats every day, and some who stuck with the same place. Sometimes a student would move to a new seat halfway through the class, usually to a desk or table after reading time.  This makes seating charts completely unnecessary and beside the point (woo!). Students also exercise soft skills, like compromise and problem solving, when they negotiate their daily seating choice.
  4. I can easily circulate around the room, accessing each student without having to disturb their neighbors in the tight rows of desks littered with backpacks.  Students also have access to one another.

 

Issues:

  1. Students are pretty chill and calm in class (also see Positives #1).  Sometimes the siren song of the plush armchair is too much to resist, and even my most engaged students are sucked into a nap.
  2. Students cannot see all of their peer’s faces at one time.  I didn’t realize how much it would annoy me, but I realized that to me, eye contact equals engagement.  Sometimes, this led to group conversations versus whole class conversations, as one side comment turned into a table chat.  While there is less of a “front of the room” as students are not all facing the same direction, this can be an impediment to the building community at times.
  3. While student seating is flexible, room configuration is not. I only have one projector and whiteboard, so there is a distinctive front of my room, which all the chairs have a vantage point of.  I have a collection of regular desks, two large tables with, a small table with chairs, and a living room set up with larger chairs and a coffee table. There isn’t much flexibility for reorganizing the shape of the classroom to support instruction, aside from group work.  Moving the furniture into an inner-outer circle is near impossible, especially given the four minutes between preps or short precious 40 minutes I spend with students.
  4. Creating these flexible spaces costs money out of my budget.  In total, I think I spent a little over $200. I debated–$200 in books for my classroom or $200 to buy old furniture.  I debated, that is a lot of book money, but figured options for seating would help me cultivate a welcoming, comfortable classroom environment.
  5. Students are always jostling for the biggest, most plush chair, which I suppose cuts down on tardies, but also calls for a bit of regulation of the most coveted chair on campus by me.  This guy: 

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I learned a lot from this experiment and while room 104 has received a total facelift, there are some kinks to work out.  In the fall, I will set guidelines, not rules, to help form clear expectations for next year for how to navigate our space.  I will encourage students to select a new seat each week, so one group doesn’t always sit around the coffee table and students are mixing the voices they’re hearing.  I will also teach the importance of connection and looking at the speaker. Not doing so creates pods that are isolated versus cohesion as a full group.  I will continue to reserve the right to ask students to make a new or better choice in their seating, as well as use the sections of the classroom to a group and regroup as it best fits instruction.  I will also scour the local Goodwills for smaller tables and different chairs that are both more comfortable and flexible.

Aside from the lack of flexibility in the layout and money borrowed from my book budget, I believe creating a classroom with flexible seating was worth it for students. I adapted the “weird classroom in the cafeteria,” as one junior put it, into a space students feel welcome to breathe and relax a little during the day–there is something about being out of a desk and making a choice.  At the end of the day, if students are happy and like the setup, I can be satisfied with that.

Any flexible seating transition suggestions, guidelines, or ideas?  Please share them!

 

Maggie Lopez is enjoying summer vacation and hopes all of her teacher friends are doing the same.  You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

 

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14 thoughts on “To Flex or Not to Flex:  I’ve Been Thinking about Flexible Seating

  1. TeacherTalk July 6, 2019 at 7:43 pm Reply

    I feel that the cost and fire marshall,strictness is really keeping me from doing this. I would love to get some bean bag chairs or maybe an arm chair to put in my class. Also like Sutra Browb said I have around 30 students and a small room so its pretty tough. Would love to implement this eventually!

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    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 3:33 pm Reply

      Eek! I guess the fire marshall hasn’t been past my classroom lately. Yikes! I will definitley think about that when re-designing the layout with new thrift store finds in August. Thanks for mentioning that! I bet even with a small room, one or two flexible areas, like bean bags or an arm chair, could start a conversation with administration and perhaps even funding to try, not to mention buy in from kids. If you try it out, let me know! Best of luck–there are so many aspects to flexible seating, both positive and challenging.

      Like

  2. sarahsake July 6, 2019 at 4:55 am Reply

    Great open learning space! Well done. Can I ask what year level and subject you teach? I was wondering how this would work for different types of classes. For reading it definitely works… what about writing etc?

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    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 3:36 pm Reply

      Hi! Thanks! I teach junior and senior English. For reading, you’re absolutely right, students love it. As for writing, I did keep traditional desks and have three tables (one small, two large). Students would often start class reading in a comfy chair, then transition to a desk or table as needed especially when doing AP timed writings. I also have clipboards around the non-traditional chairs that students use (it would make me crazy, personally!) or students balance their laptops on their laps fairly easily (I do allow feet on the table for this purpose..not the best manners, but a small price to pay).

      Liked by 1 person

      • sarahsake July 8, 2019 at 4:52 pm Reply

        That’s great! I use clipboards too and my students love to lounge around on the floor to do their work or I have tall trolleys they can stand at. Lots of them still love to sit at a table though. I purposely took away some of the tables so there weren’t enough for them all so then they have to think about where they will best learn.

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  3. Sudro Brown July 5, 2019 at 3:20 pm Reply

    It’s a beautiful idea that would never work with my population and class sizes. At least a third of my students would take the opportunity to sit in disruptive groups that I would lose for the whole class year. Also, with 35-40 students per class, I just wouldn’t have the space to spread them out like that.
    Wish I could! It looks like a brilliant space for self-directed learning!

    Liked by 1 person

    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 3:56 pm Reply

      More than having patience, space, and the funding, I think flexible seating is TOTALLY about classroom management which is why it is SO tough! As I mentioned in the post, I definitely need to teach/suggest more routines and guidelines for these challenges.

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    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 3:58 pm Reply

      Thank you so much. As I wrote above, flexible seating is SO much about classroom management which is why it is SO challenging! I definitely need to think more about routines and suggested guidelines that offer choice and rules to find the balance between self-direction and control.

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  4. Colleen July 5, 2019 at 7:59 am Reply

    As an addition, you need to consider that when the local fire marshal comes to visit they will say that all the plush furniture will have to go. So $200 (or more) into a comfortable student space and it is all for nothing. This happened to my district this year. It has been super frustrating. Plus it only takes one bed bug or head lice to rethink the whole thing. (This also happened to me several years ago. But honestly, the eye contact with peers is not to be dismissed at trivial. Great article. We need more critical thinking about the choices we make and why we make them!

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    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 4:00 pm Reply

      Yes–Thanks for the heads up! My admin has been supportive of the experiment, but I am definitely going to check in with them before the school year. Thank you!!

      Like

  5. Lori McQuillen July 4, 2019 at 9:02 am Reply

    I found the same to be true… some students were just TOO relaxed in flexible seating to remain there for instruction. I had guidelines/rules for different grades when doing certain types of work. Fortunately, I had enough room for standard seating and flex seating. I did learn that for 6th grade who are still working on proper penmanship, desk seats were a nonnegotiable for graded work.

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    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 4:02 pm Reply

      I absolutely agree that some tasks are easier at desks or surfaces. With juniors and seniors, I found that many understood that, but may create a guideline around desk work vs your choice seat when it comes to certain tasks, like writing an AP timed essay, so they are focused and their seat mirrors what they will encounter during the exam.

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  6. Joy Kirr July 4, 2019 at 7:41 am Reply

    Maggie, I LOVE this post, as it’s so much of what I see with my 7th grade classroom. I went to #USMSpark (in Milwaukee) this June and learned from Jen Ledford (@MrsLedford6Eng). She has 6th graders, and here are her rules:

    1. No fighting over the fun chairs. – if so, you’ve lost your privilege for one week
    2. Choose a spot that is best for your learning.
    3. All eyes on me during direct instruction.
    4. Put everything back at the end of class.

    My kids run for the rolling chair. RUN. And knock each other off. I love her rule #1. Obvious to her, and amazing to me. 😉 We do have a seating chart, but it’s for when the guest teacher (substitute) is in for me. Keep struggling through it – I think it’s beneficial! I love that you’re trying to work out the kinks. I’d ask the new batch of learners for hints, too! Thanks for writing this!

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    • meglopez0 July 8, 2019 at 4:03 pm Reply

      Yes! I love those rules! So practical and simple. Thank you for sharing and your support–sometimes things that drive me crazy make them happy, so at the end of the day, I keep charging ahead and adapting. We have to, right? Thanks again 🙂

      Like

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