Flexible seating is the latest trend in the classroom environment. However, flexible seating in high school where there are big bodies, big desks, and limited space is a challenge. How can we incorporate the philosophy of flexible seating with our 30+ students?
Traditionally when we enter a high school classroom, the visual layout is predictable. 25-30 desks, in rows, facing front. Sometimes there are a few posters hanging, maybe a couple bulletin boards, but is clear by the environment that this is a classroom in every sense of the word. Lately, as I scan Pinterest and Instagram there is this trend emerging of what’s being considered flexible seating.
There are couches, bean bags, reading nooks, crates with pillows, standing desks, even yoga balls, and students are allowed to pick what fits best for them each day. Some may think this is not conducive to learning, perhaps making learning too “fun” or too “individualized,” where learning should be structured, but when did we begin to equate learning with boredom?
In the primary levels, it is completely normal to have a very visual appealing classroom, lots of colors, playful manipulatives, even full themes threaded through the decor, but at the secondary levels, the comfortable and thematic playfulness is almost frowned upon. Even when it is encouraged, it is difficult because there are almost 200 bodies who come in and out of the classroom any given day. Sometimes classrooms are shared by other teachers, which means they must compromise to make the room breathe the joy of learning. Oftentimes it is just easier to keep the class in rows and move about our days.
So how can we change Flexible Seating?
It will take some practice and very clear procedures, but it is very doable to reconfigure the classroom to make the space conducive to the type of learning that is occurring on any given day. It is all too common for high school classrooms to be set up in rows facing front. The message we send is “I am the teacher, I am in control, and you are going to sit and watch me.” This message often contradicts our mission of putting learning in the hands of the students and helping students take responsibility for their own education. This environment immediately turns the teacher into a preacher and leads to passive learning. Consider adjusting your space into a circle, square, horseshoe, debate style, or groupings.
This is a non-verbal way of saying welcome to OUR classroom. Working with teachers to step out of the role of preacher and into the role of facilitator, is so difficult when we take into account how we were taught, the needs of standardized testing, and the expectations of departments. If we think back to how most of us were taught, especially if we have just come out of college, it is traditional for the class to run much like a Sunday afternoon in church. There is a leader standing in front of a congregation, and the participants sitting in rows attentively listening to the message of the day.
However, if we are building 21st-century classrooms, it is time for us to step away from the podium and place the learning in the hands of the students. Changing up space will assist in breaking the historical preacher-teacher environment. Here are 5 ways you can change up the room and provide more flexible seating.
The theatre environment is the traditional high school set up, rows of desks facing front. This setting can be used when you need to impart knowledge that students can’t get anywhere else (which isn’t much so you shouldn’t have to use it very often).
Groups and pairs are great for everyday work. They don’t have to be actually doing group work in order to be in this setting (in fact don’t do group/pair work unless it has a purpose).
Debate style has rows facing each other and can be used as debate, but also as an everyday setting.
A discussion is set in a circle, sometimes a double circle and again doesn’t have to be used only for discussions.
Away, literally no desks. This is great for stations, gallery walks, 4 corners, walk the line, or any activity where you need space.
It is important to teach your students how to alter the space, and practice often so they can completely change the environment quickly without losing instructional time. Meet with teachers who share your room and design a theme that works best for both of you. Allow your students to move. Allow them to stand or use a different section of the room. Step away from the board and run your class from a different location. Use chart paper or even expo markers on windows to move the perceived “front” of the room. Just because our students are in high school doesn’t mean we need to remain traditional!
Typhani Harris is a dance educator and mentor teacher who has been on the boards of both the California Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance (CAHPERD) and California Dance Education Association (CDEA). Recently, she has made a cross-country move and is now an instructional coach in Brooklyn, New York. Having begun as a high school English teacher, it has been her mission to bring theory and research into the traditional dance class, and in 2009 she won the Music Center’s Bravo award for excellence in Arts Education. Typhani is currently on a mission to help teachers Stop Teaching and Start Reaching their students, check out the unTeacher Lab at stopteaching.org