Saturday, April 16, 2016

Flexible Seating for Flexible Students

Creativity, collaboration, critical thinking skills, and rich communication are just a few of the things teachers are demanding of elementary age students these days. Teachers are hoping to help build these skills in students and when you see a glimmer of the end result it is beautiful. But as with many beautiful end results, the path can be rocky and ugly. We expect our students to be flexible and constantly try new learning strategies, move from subject to subject with a couple of minutes transition, and continuously adapt to new technologies. For some reason desks in rows facing forward, just doesn't quite seem to fit this type of learning environment. 

I believe if we want students to eagerly tackle any new challenge through critical thinking skills and creativity with a positive attitude, we are going to have to model the same behavior every single day. When I was first introduced to flexible seating, I was intrigued but had many questions. I wrote a blog post last fall when I finally took the plunge. I remember being curious if it would actually work and if it would be beneficial to students. Now that my students and I have lived in our flexible seating world for several months I thought it might be helpful to the hesitant teacher for me to explain how the rowdy kids in 3 make it work.

Low coffee table, rugs and standard height table at front of room.
Side note: My entire front wall is painted with whiteboard paint. It is incredible!

Where did all the furniture come from?

I spent $10 for the body pillow and bought the three blue rugs for $29 each. Almost every other piece of furniture came from the school storage building. I asked the custodian to help me find any table that could be adjusted to different heights. The only other table was an old coffee table we had at home in our shed. I wanted students to be able to sit on the floor and work at a table. 

High table with stools at the back of the room.
The red bench was discarded from the media center a few years ago and I snatched it up.

All of the furniture I added was discarded from somewhere else. It isn't in great shape, but after a good scrubbing it was all serviceable. The rug under the table is a new hack. This week two friends decided it would be fun to put the rug under the table and work in their "cave." I told them it was fine as long as it didn't become a distraction. I drew the line when they taped notebook paper together to form a curtain around it. I like to keep eyes on everyone! In the beginning, one of my students was afraid he would miss his desk, so I left four in the room. He has continued to choose a desk every week. 

One of the original well-loved baskets that has seen better days.

Where do the students keep their stuff?

This was my biggest concern. At first, I bought plastic baskets at the Dollar Store. Some of the first baskets started cracking within a few days. Since they were $1, I thought I could afford to pick up replacements. Interestingly, I've noticed some students don't mind when the baskets start to break as long as it is still serviceable. The blue basket above is cracked around the top edges. Other students start asking for a new one at the first sign of wear and tear. 

This $1 basket has held up better than most.
She keeps all small supplies in the fluffy pink pencil pouch.

On my trip to buy some replacements, I was disappointed to find the Dollar Store no longer carried these baskets. The other large baskets available for $1 actually turned out to be much sturdier. My students are still using both versions. The students keep all of their supplies in their baskets. Any small items like pencils or crayons are kept in a pencil pouch in their basket. When I ask students to put everything away, they know this means anything they own in our classroom should be in their basket or out in the hall in their backpack. It's actually made cleaning up the room much quicker.

One of the newer, sturdier baskets and no, they are not all this neat.
Some have papers sticking out all over the place. 

 I had no idea where we would store all of these baskets and had visions of me trying to convince my husband to build an elaborate shelf system one weekend. A student actually thought of the solution as I wondered out loud. The students keep their baskets with them during the day. The baskets are either on their desk or on the floor beside them. It saves so much time to have everything within an arms reach. After I tripped over baskets twice, we made a new rule. All baskets on the floor must be under the table or desk, or against a wall. At the end of the day the students simply move all of the baskets on top of a desk or table. Since we have so few desks, our room is much more open. Our custodian appreciates how easy it is to sweep and mop our room after school.

My four desks in the middle and a small, average height,
round table are the only items in the center of our room.

How do students choose seats?

As with anything, some places in the room quickly became coveted areas. I didn't want to have students arguing over seats. On Monday morning, I draw names and students are allowed to pick seats in that order. I had planned for these to be their assigned seats all week. Since I have 22 available places and only 18 students, I've noticed students will move during the week to a new seat. Of course, that often creates a chain reaction of moves, but the students usually do it during snack or lunch. Sometimes they've noticed the place they chose just isn't very comfortable. Other times, they realize they've been reprimanded more than usual for talking and probably need to sit by someone else. In six months, I have never had to make a student move to another seat. I have made suggestions when I notice an issue, but I've never had to force a student to move.

How does it affect behavior and engagement?

The flexible seating approach is a novel idea. Teachers are always exposed to new ideas that sound awesome. Several years ago, I had all of my students sitting on yoga balls. For my class that year, it was a disaster. I'm willing to try anything, but I've learned to judge everything and decide if it is truly beneficial to my students. There is no question that the students prefer this approach to seating. They have more room to spread out, and students love choice. However I've seen tremendous improvement in behavior. Allowing students to move so freely gives them an easy opportunity to make good choices. My students have risen to this responsibility. I was very clear that this is a privilege, and it can be taken away. I've also not had a single student or parent complain about the person sitting next to them in six months! How awesome is that? 

I work with students from my kidney shaped table, but some students also choose to sit there.
They know they might have to move if I need to work with other students.
I've found some students really like sitting this close to me, because it is easy to ask for help quietly.

I was more concerned about engagement. I was surprised to find out that my students seemed more focused on lessons and whole group instruction.  Giving them the freedom to easily move away from any distractions has proved to be very beneficial. Students organically move around the room during small group work. 

At the back of the room, I have a taller table with adult sized chairs.

What about next year?
As a teacher I'm sold on flexible seating. I think it has made a positive difference for my students. As we near the end of the year, I have no doubt I'll always look for ways to incorporate this into my classroom. I would suggest that teachers considering ditching the desks try it for a few months. My administration was very supportive, and our custodian who did most of the heavy lifting was intrigued by the idea. Even if you don't have that much help, start small. Buy a few rugs or large bath mats. Move the desks to the edge of the room. Look around your house or in thrift stores for old coffee tables or high top tables. I would love for you to let know how you figure out a way to make it work.  After all if we are expecting our students to flex their brains with creativity and critical thinking, we can do a little of the same and give them the proper environment for that type of important work.