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