For those of you who follow our blog regularly (thank you by the way), you know that in September my classroom went flexible. I can't take credit for the idea. My co-teacher, Hannah was dying to try it and so when my assistant principal asked if we would be interested in piloting a flexible seating classroom the answer was yes. Hannah and I did a lot of reading and research, she scoured the internet for deals and then one day we headed to IKEA.
For less than $500 and some donations of pillows and art from friends, we transformed our classroom--adding tables where we kids could stand, high stools, low stools, rugs and some coffee tables. Instantly I loved the way the room looked and felt. It was homey, more inviting than ever and seemed to whisper "collaboration" when I walked into the room each day. Oh, and I almost forgot--I also ditched my desk. I keep my stuff in a bin and I now work where ever I find myself in the room. Needless to say, this is a year of big change for me, my co-teacher and my students. I promised to report back -- so here's my midyear evaluation of flexible seating.
What's really working
This is a room built for team work, communicating and sharing. The vibe in most of my class periods is fantastic and it changes my teaching. I have always strived to be student-centered rather than teacher-directed but just being in this space amplifies this way of thinking and learning. The students rarely work on their own (which is a good thing)--and they definitely are not in rows that seem to say the teacher is the most important person in the room.
Not having a desk, means that I circulate in the room (as does Hannah) even more than I used to. I also find myself sitting down with the students and engaging with them. I like to do the assignments alongside them. Not having a desk or place to retreat to when they are working, is a constant reminder to engage with them as much as I can. This gives me the chance to model what I am asking of them, and also reminds me how long it takes to actually complete the work I am asking them to do.
I am surprised by how little they move around. We are creatures of habit. When I go into a meeting I tend to sit in the same place; kids do the same thing in the classroom. They find where they like to sit and that's where they tend to sit each day. There are some kids that move around a lot, but most of them want to stick with what they know and who they know. If this were an elementary school or even a middle school on a block schedule they might move more throughout the day but with short class periods of less than 50 minutes, beyond the movement that I ask them to do through activities like brain breaks or 'give one get one," they aren't changing up their seats much.
Perhaps even more surprising, the majority of students do not like sitting on the floor. I think this surprises me because I love sitting on the floor, but I notice that students typically gravitate to the high tables or regular tables. A handful of kids love the floor so I am glad we have it as an option, but it's not nearly as popular as I expected.
The downsides...I'm not going to sugar coat it
I have to admit--when you try something new--and when everyone is talking about how amazing this new thing is on Twitter and oohing and ahhing over pretty pictures on Pinterest you want it to work. You expect it to work. You think--if I can't make this work--what on earth am I doing wrong? Well, for one of my classes--it just isn't working despite all of our efforts.
In one of our team taught classes, Hannah and I were spending too much instructional time reminding kids of the flexible seating expectations and then moving them around when they weren't meeting the expectations. We were losing time--and we were fighting the same battles every day, which caused some students to think that they were being singled out (because they don't have the maturity to understanding that their off-task behavior is distracting their learning the learning of others thus, causing us to move them). It also was wearing Hannah and me down.
Seating charts exist for a reason--some kids need them. If they are near friends, they talk, they distract, they stop learning. Bottom line: some kids can't make the right choice for their best learning. That's not to say that in a year they won't make the right choice--that's just not where they are right now.
We created a compromise for this class. They have assigned seats--but they can ask us to flex into two spaces for the day--the standing tables or the coffee tables and pillows. It isn't our original vision, but I have to put my teacher pride aside and realize that this isn't about me, it's about them. It's always been about them and that means doing what makes the most sense for them. The day that we implemented the change, we saw a big improvement: more focus, more engagement. Sometimes being a good teacher means recognizing that something isn't working and changing it--even if the educational buzz of the year is telling you to do the opposite.
In the end... no one approach will work for all of your kids
All in all, I like flexible seating and most of my kids do too. It works for most of them, and it offers something different from the six other classrooms that they visit each day. Variety is the spice of life and we are offering variety. But it doesn't work for all classes and it isn;t loved by all students. One student said "I don't like flexible seating." You have to love middle school students; so many of them will tell you exactly how they feel even when you haven't asked. And trust me, that's hard criticism to hear when you have put so much time and effort into creating something you want your students to love; your classroom.
"That's okay I said, What kind of seating do you like?"
She returned confidently, "I like desks in neat rows."
Many of the students started vocally disagreeing, scared that upon hearing this I would take away their flexible seating.
"I get it." I replied with empathy. "Do your other classes have seats in rows?"
I responded, "I am so glad that you get what you like in those classes and some students get what they like in here."
My favorite Rolling Stones song rattles in my head "you can't always get what you want but if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need."
Sometimes what a teacher needs is honest feedback to keep us humble and encourage us trying new things. No matter what you choose for your classroom design it will not work for every kid--I don't care what the internet tells you--it won't- because the 130 kids I teach are all different and unique people. But flexible seating might get them to try something different, to learn in a new way--in other words, they might just get what they need.
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