Tuesday, August 2, 2016

"Flexible Seating" Classroom

When I arrived in my high school English classroom in August 2014, I left much of it as I found it. As I've written about before, I was nervous, low on confidence, and trying to do things "the right way," so I left the desks in the forward-facing rows as they had been.

I left my desk alone, too, sectioned off at the side of the room, a little bubble for adults only.

That worked fine for a year. I hardly even thought about it. I had so many other things going on. Occasionally I had the students rearrange their desks in small groups for activities or fish bowl discussions, and a few times we moved them to the side of the room completely to have the entire floor plan at our disposal, but we always moved the desks back into rows before the bell rang.

In August 2015, I stepped into a coworker's room and saw her rearranging her desks in a semi-circle and remembered that I had other options. Yes. Yes, this was what I wanted. I went back to my room and did the same. (The lone desk to the side is for the para I had in my room a couple hours of the day. Oh, and for the record, yes, the light at the far side of the room DID work, the students just decided that it made the room too bright to have both on.)

But the students hated it, especially the juniors and seniors. Accustomed to the status quo, they became nervous at the prospect of all being on the same level, not being able to feel like they're more prominent than the others or hide behind anyone. So I moved back to the rows temporarily (I noted that the other teacher did, as well, only keeping the semi-circle arrangement for a small seminar class) and started thinking about my next move--a deskless classroom.

I did a bit of research on going deskless (links below) and decided that it was too big of a jump to make immediately. Instead, I opted for what I called a "flexible seating" arrangement at the start of the second semester. I was thinking about surprising the students with it, but then I realized that that wasn't helpful behavior on my part.

Instead, I discussed with each class how they felt they learned best and then relayed my plans to them. I let them know that if they felt like they learned best while sitting in a desk, that would still be an option. However, if they felt more comfortable laying on the floor to work, that would also be an option. We discussed what acceptable behavior in the classroom was and how it would be handled if behavior wasn't acceptable. I particularly enjoyed this conversation because it felt authentic, and we revisited it a few times throughout the rest of the year. The students could tell that the flexible seating arrangement was something I enjoyed being able to provide, but that I was nervous about being told off by administration. They reminded each other that, "If another teacher walks in right now, they're gonna think you're sleeping if you're laying like that. They're gonna tell the principal, and he'll make us bring the desks back. So you gotta sit up and look like you're working!"

The day before Winter Break, I had the janitors help me move all the desks but five to storage. My husband and I just so happened to be buying new furniture around this time, so I brought in all the cushions from the old ones. (I considered bringing the couches themselves, but had no good way of transporting them the hour's commute.) There were also five plastic chairs that belonged at the back computer table (which no one ever used. I considered repurposing that table, as well, but never got around to it) in which to sit, but mostly they wound up serving as places to put things.

And the students thoroughly enjoyed it. They spent a couple of days exploring different seats but then settled into their claimed spaces for the rest of the year, as human nature is wont to dictate. Some students still felt more comfortable at familiar desks, and during junior and senior English, all desks were filled every day. Another favorite was under the computer table because even older students like to hide like preschool students do! (The room was such that they were still completely visible while under the table.)

Thus, here is how the room looked between classes (cushions were stacked by the back wall at the end of the day so that the room could be vacuumed):

And a couple of action shots! The timer indicates that these pictures were taken during daily writing time:

The biggest change for me, personally, came one morning when, completely frustrated by something or other, I realized that I was "hiding behind my desk" and "needed to be out on the floor with the students." I had a couple of students help me pick the teacher desk up, turn it around, and shove it against the wall (so that the drawers could still be accessed). I disconnected the desktop computer, connected it to the SmartBoard (quite tricky since all of the wires needed to stretch to where they were going now), and instead, used the laptop as my primary computer because it was able to roam the room with me. The "teacher chair" became available for anyone to use, much to the joy of my freshmen.

Here's a couple of action shots during homeroom from those times:

On the note of the "teacher chair" (which was gone from the above pictures. Maybe I was sitting in it that day?), I was actually surprised that there wasn't any fighting over it, which was unexpected because there was only one. The students must have recognized instinctively that if it became an issue, it would be the first thing to go. Thus, I never had any problems with it. The one, small thing that DID come up was that while a freshman was rolling around in it, he had to be reminded to watch where the wheels of the chair were so that he didn't crush anyone's fingers in the process. He did, after that, and no one was hurt.

So! Takeaways? Hmm..

This is definitely achievable and definitely leads to a more relaxed atmosphere that increases student engagement. For the record, the administration was always open to allowing me to try. Most of my pushback came from other teachers, some of whom actually walked into my classroom and scolded me for it, telling me to change it back. I replied that I had consent from administration and smiled politely until they left. The para and some of the students told me at the end of the year how surprised they were that we had so much success with it. I'm glad they considered it a success, but even more so, I'm glad that we experimented with something new.

Further Reading:
MindShift - To Foster Productivity and Creativity in the Classroom, Ditch the Desks!
EdTech Magazine - Is It Time to Get Rid of Desks in the Classroom?
Daily Press - Classroom with no desks a hit in Newport News
Tim Bedley - My Unusual Elementary Classroom
Milwaukee, Wisconsin Journal Sentinel - Some schools giving desks the boot
Indonesian Teacher Reflections - My Deskless Classroom...
Grant Boulanger - Reflections on teaching without desks
Utah's KSL 5 news at 6 - 4th grade teacher Annette Krueger (Youtube)
Punavision - Punahou School, Honolulu, Hawaii's French Teacher (Youtube)