About a year ago, I was sitting in my local craft coffee shop, reading the afternoon away.
I began to people watch.
The man lounging in the leather arm chair; the woman meeting with a client at the long wooden table; the small group of teenagers giggling and taking selfies in the corner booth. I began to see the coffee shop through my teacher lens. What a great concept for collaboration – flexible seating options.
Then came Pinterest.
I soon realized that a lot of educators were already on the “choice in seating” train, and it had an official name: Flexible Personalized Seating. Our school happens to be embracing Flexible Personalized Learning with scheduling courses, so I thought, “Why not?”
I spent my summer scouting on Facebook Swap Shops, scavenging at garage sales, and rummaging in thrift stores. I ended up spending a total of $90, sans the donated items. (People, I have found, love to donate items to teachers. All you have to do is ask.) A little less than $100 got me a couch, a bean bag, an area rug, a tall table and stools, two comfy arm chairs, a video game chair, and some lamps.
Then it was time to put it all together. I created a library space with a rug and bean bags; I lowered a round table for floor seating in front of the class; I put tables together, allowing seating for eight and for collaboration; I opted to turn out the fluorescent lights and turn on about eight lamps.
The first day of school, I had a slide on the projector with simple directions: “Welcome. Flexible Seating. Find a seat that will allow you to put forth your personal best today. No saving seats.”
Then, days two through seven, I changed it up: “Welcome to class…Flexible Seating!!! DAY 3: You CANNOT sit in the same place as Thursday or Friday!!!!”
Students, like most of us, are creatures of habit. I tried to break them of the habit of sitting in the same spot every day. They soon learned that they would be trying out a new place each day. By day seven, I was able to ascertain if some students needed more guidance with their seating “choices.” Throughout the year, students, of course, mostly chose to sit with their friends. Because I wanted them to really collaborate with a variety of other learners, I would re-group by using the old “I’m gonna number you off” technique. I found that leaving it up to fate to group them for collaboration was the most effective, but the students still had choice in WHERE they worked. So, it worked.
Classroom design can help to develop skills for life and work beyond the classroom. Self-directed learning and collaborative problem solving are essential skills for success in any classroom, but especially for high school seniors who are preparing to enter the workforce or college, where these skills will only be amplified.
I have personally witnessed community learning and its benefits in my classroom. This year, by creating a community of writers who are allowed to be creative and engaged, we increased winnings in the Scholastic Writing Contest by 400 percent. Sending 32 students with their 44 pieces to be recognized at the state level was a testament to creating a community learning environment. In addition, three of my students placed in the top six in the state of Missouri with their project-based inquiry project for National History Day. This was unprecedented in the history of our school district. I believe it was due, in part, to a collaborative environment that led to true critical thinking and learning.
These goals are attainable with flexible seating because it allows for comfortable conferencing with students for feedback. Typically, student in my learning environment spend their time facilitating their own learning, in a workshop style, by collaborating and thinking critically. My role is to meet with them individually in their personalized learning space to check progress and provide timely feedback.
It is the most powerful tool I have used in 17 years of teaching.
It is easy to track the growth of my students and see them succeed, both inside the walls of my classroom and outside the classroom, with authentic audiences.
Try some flexible seating in your classroom. Maybe just a few lamps and bean bags. Maybe some patio cushions and clipboards. Let students roam and find a place where they feel less constricted. You just might find that by being flexible in your classroom design, you become flexible in your teaching design.