It sounds fun, right? Not so fast. The night before the first day of school I woke up in a cold sweat, with visions of classroom chaos dancing in my head. This doesn’t usually happen to me anymore. I usually am filled with excitement and confidence about the first day. I’ve been teaching a long time and I know how the first day will unfold. But this first day felt different because I knew that with my “new” and “flexible classroom” that I had relinquished my routine. Flexible seating literally meant that from day one I had to be flexible, to give up control, and it made me beyond nervous. What had I done? Had I completely lost my mind?
Three weeks in and I can say with complete confidence that I am sold on flexible seating for my middle school history and civics classes. I don’t think I will ever go back to the old way of doing things. Here’s are some reasons why:
I want to be there and so do my students. I have always liked our classroom, now I L-O-V-E our classroom. It feels cozy and comfy and happy. It feels less like work and more like joy. The students feel it and I feel it. Good vibes seem to bounce off the walls. Notice how I say our classroom. It feels like ours, not mine. Something about ditching the teacher desk and making the room more like a living room, evokes a communal feeling of ownership and pride.
The students feel empowered by something as small as a pillow. So much of what our students do is controlled. The first day a student walked in and looked at the coffee table and its accompanying cushions. “We can sit there?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied. “Today?” she clarified. “Yes, today.” I answered. “Yes!!!” she exclaimed running to a pillow and beckoning to a friend, a smile lighting up her face. I had given her a five dollar ikea pillow to sit on and it was like I had given her the world. It wasn’t about the pillow, it was about the choice. I had given her just a little power over her day.
With flexibility comes student ownership. The students know the expectations. The choose where they can sit each day and where they work best. If they don’t choose a place where they can work, I move them. This puts the ownership on them. Before with a seating chart I was in charge of putting them in the right place at the right time. Now, we start with a positive intention. I start with the belief each day that they will make a good choice and they start the day knowing that the ball is in their court.
I interact with students more than ever before (and that’s saying something). I’ve always moved around A LOT as a teacher. Don’t most of us? But I never realized that the desk is like a sun until mine was gone. You can get caught up in the desk’s gravitational pull even when you don’t mean to. Now that the desk is gone, I don’t have a place to call my own so I orbit around the room interacting with students even more. I work among them rather than apart from them.
* * *
I cannot tell a lie: there are challenges. I don’t really have a place to put my things -- so my items are a little scattered, but I am a neat freak so it still works. I am not sure how well this would go over for teachers that don’t put a premium on organization. Also, learning names when kids are constantly moving is maddening. I usually know every child’s first name (and I teach about 130) by the end of the second day of school (it’s one of my teacher talents) but this year, I didn’t get the names until day 6. Lastly, you have to be far more aware of who can sit by whom and still learn. With a seating chart, you move the student and the problem is solved. In this situation, you have to monitor and discuss student behavior more with the students themselves. I think this is a good thing. You count on them to be part of the solution rather than solving the problem for them -- but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a bit tiring or time consuming compared to the easy fix of the tried and true seating chart.
The year (as we all know) is young. I will check back in later in the year to let you know how things are going. Until then, I will be teaching and learning with my students and if you catch me at the right moment, you might find me doing so from the perfect position at a coffee table -- atop a very comfy pillow.
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