How Flexible Am I?

  • Elementary
Jennifer Wisner

How flexible am I?  This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately as I make plans for my classroom next year.  I recently read an article entitled “Century-Old Decisions That Impact Children Every Day” by Anya Kamenetz.  It describes Alexandra Lange’s new book, The Design of Childhood, which connects architecture and room layout to the type of instruction at the time.  

She begins with the schools built in the 1920’s. “These rooms were designed for one type of learning only: direct instruction. They had rows of individual desks, originally fixed to the floor, facing front — a slight update from the one-room schoolhouse days, when students often sat on benches.”  She continues on to discuss the open-concept schools of the 70’s with their common meeting areas and doorless spaces. This building style disappeared when the emphasis on standards-based instruction returned. However, now there is another movement in architectural design for classrooms. “You're seeing all kinds of different learning encounters essentially set up through the architecture. These ideas are layered in with newer concepts like sustainability and portable, digital technology. Instead of being fixed to the ground, desks and chairs may be on wheels.”

 For next school year, I have been given the opportunity to design a flexible seating environment for my classroom and I   keep asking myself: What do I want the architecture of my room to reflect?  How flexible am I? I have been dabbling     with student choice seating for a while. My room is filled with yoga balls, stools, benches, lap desks, and chairs. I teach   students how different types of seating suit different types of learning styles.  Each morning, the kids choose the   seating that they feel will make them the most successful students.

 I was excited to select new furniture, however I did not understand until reading this article how it could   impact my teaching.  In my head, I planned on arranging my room in a similar way next year and starting off with similar lessons to launch this new seating. In fact, my initial selections included a designated area for cafe styles tables with their twisting chairs as well as an area for “cookie” desks (crescents) with rocking stools.  Kids could be stationed in the library area with some adjustable cushions or in a table group with rolling chairs. These selections were very similar to the furniture currently found in my room, just with wheels and varying heights.

Then I realized I was not fully taking advantage of what this alternative seating had to offer.  It was hard to admit that while I had many options, my choices were not very flexible. This new furniture was an opportunity to meet the needs of my students while also transforming my teaching practice.  To do this, I needed to discover my own flexibility. What control could I release and where did I want to stand firm? I used three questions to help prioritize what I wanted my space to say about my teaching. Then I began looking through the catalogues again.

How do I create mobility within the classroom?

This is something that does not currently exist in my classroom.  The old desks that I have are huge and heavy to move. They reflect the early 80’s when technology was stationary and interactions between students were limited.  Introducing mobility into my room would mean students could collaborate more on project-based learning assignments. 

As I flipped through the ordering catalogues, the mobility of furniture centered on desks and chairs with wheels. These larger pieces can be wheeled around to suit the instructional need or student grouping. Shape plays a role in this too, in the sense that desks can be grouped in different configurations depending on if they are trapezoid versus crescent (two of many options).   Arranging larger tables around the outside of the room and allowing smaller desks to roam the middle was a new possibility for me. While I gave up a formal seating chart in years past to encourage student choice, allowing the students to have a voice in the layout of the space was a revelation. Understanding that this layout would change throughout the day was another piece for me to consider. Would my student desks even have an assigned spot? Or could they be anywhere in any configuration in the middle of my room?

How do I create a furniture arrangement that promotes student collaboration for a variety of different purposes?

Allowing students time to collaborate through discourse is a priority for me in my instruction.  Most of this talk time was currently happening on the floor in my classroom. I have a large carpet area and students also fill in spots between the furniture when working in pairs.  My goal with this new furniture was to enable table space to be conducive to small group and partner work. As I was ordering, I realized that choosing a desk shape that would give students the most options was hard.  The cookie shape only allowed for three or more kids in a group, while some individual seating options were shaped for alignment in even numbers. Would a mixture of desk types look too mismatched? However, I also considered my open spaces that had rugs and other soft seating options.  Some kids prefer collaborating on pillows or a couch. These open spaces provided flexibility in the sense that they could accommodate any size group, including whole group instruction.

How do I shift my role from direct teaching to facilitating student-directed learning?

This was tough.  Several of the “featured classrooms” in the catalogues did not have a clear front or back.  In fact, it was hard to find the traditional “teaching spot” from where the lessons are delivered.  My classroom, as it exists today, is set up with a large carpet space at the front of the room with the projector right beside it.  The classrooms pictured in the magazines, though, had several work spots with common areas located in the center of the room. White boards that rolled sounded amazing, but how does that work with a projector and document camera?  Could we use our iPads more in a small groups in the place of so much projector time? Would my students DO more, rather than WATCH more if I stepped back from the document camera? It would mean structuring my lessons with an entirely different perspective.

With these questions in mind, I made my final furniture selections and determined how I wanted to define my space, and thereby my instruction.  In case you are wondering, I went with:

12 individual diamond tables that roll

3 short cookie tables

4 individual tables that adjust in height (and roll)

2 cafe tables

6 oodles (adjustable stools that rock)

6 raised stools that swivel

12 chairs that rock slightly in any direction

2 rolling whiteboard cupboards

1 rolling technology cart

And the layout?  The beauty is that it can change.  Come fall, my students will help define their own learning space and collaborate with others to create a classroom that suits their needs--at that moment. This layout will evolve over the course of the year and even throughout a day.  Just like Lange mentions in her book, the architecture of our classroom space will encourage new learning encounters to happen in ways that my previous layout did not support. It will be flexible!

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