Inspiration for the new adventure:
After a recent trip to the American School of Bombay (Mumbai) to collaborate with teachers from all over the world for the CIE conference, I was inspired by how teachers at ASB were using flexible seating options at both the elementary and middle level.
The teachers at the lower levels were trying to give space to those kids who needed low stimulation zones, places to get comfortable for reading, places that encourage positive interaction, or places that would promote focus. The teachers were collaborating with students to find their “just right” working environment.
Some teachers scheduled students to rotate through the different types of seating. Some teachers allowed students full choice of seating, but with this students were asked to reflect on those choices and possibly take some risks with seating choices in the future.
Some kids need to stand. Some kids need to get away and hide in a small cozy space with a book. Some kids need to lay on their bellies, engage their core in order to write a story.
From past posts, readers know that I have a fully moveable classroom. I can move desks out, I can raise them for standing, and I can roll them into any configuration. I have wobbly chairs and rolling chairs and bean bags. Up until this point, I have never really given my students free reign to design their best learning environment. I design the environment.
- Silent reading days mean bean bags.
- Group work means clumped desks for 4.
- Working on laptops, desks face out so I can see screens.
- Working in pairs, desks in rows and faced forward.
- Class discussion means a u-shape.
Knowing that we would soon be working on individual research projects and writing assignments, I decided it was time to leverage the resources I had to give my 6th and 10th graders a choice over their learning space. I wanted them to engage in figuring out what configurations help them to be more productive and focussed.
On the first day that students had their choice of seating, I met them in the hallway to discuss seat selection and set some ground rules. The room was already arranged with bean bags, yoga mats, standing desks, and regular desks.
Students experimented with various styles, some moved up to 3 times during the lesson. Others were the most focussed I have ever seen them. They barely moved except to type.
I allowed students to listen to music, but I also played music that was subdued and calming. Students commented that the atmosphere was more like Starbucks and less like school.
By the end of the week, students remarked, “I hope we never have to go back to the old way of sitting again.” One student even went so far as to encourage my daughter to sway my thinking. She was cornered at lunch with a, “Hey, tell your mom we should be able to use yoga mats the rest of the year.”
Students are more relaxed and focussed when working independently. When doing high stress activities, like expository writing or research, students often work well for about 15 minutes and then begin to lose engagement. Or they completely shut down before ever being able to start. With the varied seating students were much more able to work for a steady 35 to 40 minutes, often being completely quiet, except to ask questions or seek feedback. Anxious students didn’t panic, they just dove in and began the writing process without shutting down.
Students respect each others space. One challenge, especially at the middle level are students who have trouble defining their space. These students will often take over a two seater table, pushing their table-mate to the outer edges unable to work. Or these students might mess with their table-mate’s belongings. When things get difficult, these students also tend to pester to distract themselves and others from the work. When on a bean bag or yoga mat, these students had their space defined. It was shocking how different their demeanor was when they had a spot just for themselves to move, squirm, or just lie on their bellies.
Students can be trusted to be on their screen when I can’t see it. This is a hard one for me. I like to be in control. I like to see my student screens to give them an added sense that I am watching what they are doing. When students are sitting in a variety of places and positions, seeing everyones screens at once is impossible. There were only two instances where students were playing games instead of working, but they were quickly found out. Their faces gave them away, as well as their lack of progress during the lesson on their document. But even when screens are all facing me, there will always be one or two who will try to spend their time doing something other than what they are supposed to do.
My feedback and interactions with students were more personal. When students are sitting at desks, I am usually standing up or bent over a student’s work. My conversation is with one student, but if they are sitting at a table with another person, or if the desks are close together, everyone can hear my feedback. When students are spread throughout the room in various working positions, I found I was much more likely to get on the same level as the student to talk to them. My conversations were quiet and only heard by the one student. In general, I moved around the room more and I was more interactive while they were working independently.
After three weeks of experimentation I’m ready to give my students more agency in how and where they work. But there will always be times when I need to dictate how to arrange the classroom. Tomorrow, for example, the librarian will be teaching the students how to construct a Works Cited page. I have told the students we will all be seated at table facing forward. It will be much easier for me to see screens from the back while the librarian gives instructs from the front. This will allow me see who needs help and support, and who is doing fine on their own.
My students and I will continue to experiment and discuss what is working and what needs fixing. There is no turning back now. The reduction of stress in the classroom and the increase in student focus has made learning more relaxing and ultimately more respectful in my classroom.
Students feel empowered to make decisions. And students feel cared for and respected because they are given those choices.
My Current Classroom Furniture Wish List:
- 4 more bean bags
- 6 full length yoga mats of my own (I’m borrowing mine from PE)
- 2 low sitting tables for 2 with square cushions for seating.
Are you experimenting with classroom seating? How are you empowering students to rethink the classroom environment?