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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Classrooms Should Be Set Up for Learning, Not for Cleaning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 04, 2019 20 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best classroom seating arrangements?

In Part One, Jennifer Orr, Madeline Whitaker Good, Rich Czyz, Tan Huynh, and Mark J. Westpfahl contribute their ideas. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Madeline, Jennifer, and Rich on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Amber Chandler, Heather Stinson, Serena Pariser, Christine Hertz, Kristi Mraz, Ron Nash, Bradley Witzel, and Leila Ansari Ricci share their answers. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a national-board-certified 8th grade ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom and The Flexible SEL Classroom. She’s the president of her district teachers’ union, and she is a columnist for ShareMyLesson and American Middle Level Educator:

My grand experiment over the last few years has been to move from traditional to flexible seating, and shift my focus to individualized learning. The seating idea came from the needs of my students, in that as I moved away from the typical “school” experience, I needed more flexible workspaces to allow my students to spread out, create, and collaborate. Last year ,I received an “SEL in Action” grant from the NoVo Foundation to implement seating changes based on my hunch that the social, emotional, and academic needs of my students would best be served by creating a space that is more conducive to the type of learning that I wanted: experiential and social.

I bought beanbag chairs, standing desks, comfy throw pillows, rugs, shortened tables, and yoga balls. Students loved it, and my classroom was the talk of the 8th grade. I had made videos with my daughter of “what not to do,” to minimize the craziness that comes from giving students you’ve never met a seating arrangement that they would not have fathomed for the last year of their middle school experience. Students chose their seats about half the time, and I used numbers and “squads” for strategic grouping options. All in all, the grand experiment seemed to be going well. That is, until around the middle of our second quarter—once everyone was used to our setup, knew what they liked and didn’t, and was no longer impressed just to be there.

Around this time, I noticed that my squads (stations) were always messy. The picture-perfect organization systems I had were breaking down. I’d find myself irritated when a gaming chair from squad one was found in squad six. I actually got irritated. The yoga balls seemed to never be where they were supposed to be. How ungrateful could they be, I thought. Here I am trying my best to meet their needs, and yet they couldn’t follow the simple directions that seemed quite a bit like the “clean up” song from elementary school. I was really contemplating some sort of refresher course on the seating situation when it dawned on me what was happening.

The best classroom seating arrangements are the ones that work for students. When a gaming chair was moved from one part of the room to another, my students were actually making decisions about how they learned best—and I can’t argue with the results. My students did really well this year, and despite the fact that my orderly-teacher-nature prickles at the constant shifting of stations, the fluid arrangements that students make from day to day to meet their needs is EXACTLY what I’d hoped would happen. The thing is, when students are in charge of their own learning, when they have a say in how they learn, and when they are trusted to exercise good judgment, awesome things can happen. There is one guarantee though: The best classroom seating arrangements are not those designed by the teacher but rather the ones designed by the students.

This year, as I went into year two of the flexible-seating experiment, I kept this new lesson in mind. I started the year the same way, but there was a new step in my directions. At the end of each class, I announce that it is time to “reset” the room, putting the furniture back in the squads where it came from. The necessity to “reset” is one of safety in general, but more specifically, it helps preserve my sanity. Though the seating stretches my students in great ways, allowing them to own some of their decisions, it also stretches me. I’ve taught for almost 20 years, and in that time, I ended class by saying, “Have a good day. Push in your chairs” for most of them. Now, I put on an upbeat song, announce the “reset,” and mingle with my students.

Response From Heather Stinson

Heather Stinson (CAGS, MED, S/LP-A) received her master’s degree in education of the deaf from Smith College in 2006 and a graduate certificate in children, families, and schools (with a concentration in research methodology) from the University of Massachusetts in 2012. In addition to her many years of experience working with children with hearing loss who communicate using listening and spoken language, Heather has also worked as a preschool classroom teacher. She has presented both locally and nationally on issues related to mainstreaming students with hearing loss and is a contributing author to Odyssey magazine. Heather currently works as an itinerant teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech:

For students with hearing loss who use assistive technology such as cochlear implants or hearing aids to access spoken language, preferential seating is often an accommodation noted in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan. While front and center may seem like the most logical placement, this seat does not necessarily ensure optimal visual and auditory access. Often in early-childhood classrooms, students are seated at several small tables or in desk clusters with other children. The student with hearing loss should be seated on an end facing in toward the rest of the room to encourage visual attention to the teacher, classmates, and the lesson being presented.

Horseshoe arrangements in elementary school allow for the student with hearing loss to see the faces of classmates during whole-group discussions, especially when seated on one of the sides of the horseshoe. This visual access helps with speech reading and nonverbal-communication cues. The student with hearing loss should also be seated away from sources of noise (e.g., electric pencil sharpeners, HVAC systems) for improved auditory access.

When desks are arranged in rows, as in many junior high and high school classrooms, seating the student with hearing loss on a side in the second row gives them the opportunity to turn to face the person who is speaking without having to completely pivot and also provides the chance to confirm that they heard directions correctly by watching the peer seated in front of them. When students have a unilateral (one-sided) hearing loss, they should be seated so that the “good ear” is facing the desired sound source (e.g., classmates, the teacher) and away from sources of noise.

Additional factors that affect access and should be considered when designing seating arrangements include glare on white boards from projectors or windows, shadows which inhibit speech reading when lights are turned off, particularly noisy classmates, and uncontrollable noise such as that from lawnmowers outside. Some of the most successful seating arrangements are created when teachers collaborate with the student with hearing loss. While younger students may not know exactly what they need to access curriculum and discussions in the classroom, many older students can talk about what has worked (or not worked) in the past. With some careful planning around seating arrangements, we can maximize access for students with hearing loss in mainstream classrooms!

Response From Serena Pariser

Serena Pariser is the author of Real Talk About Classroom Management (Corwin, 2018). She teaches graduate classes on classroom management at the University of San Diego. She works as the assistant director of field placement for student-teachers at USD:

The tool of a purposeful seating chart can and will help your classroom management and improve the academic abilities of the class. With a purposeful seating chart, even with a challenging curriculum, students will always be in close proximity to those who can help them. Making a purposeful seating chart is much more than breaking up students who “shouldn’t sit together.” It requires looking at the students’ academic abilities, learning disabilities, language barriers, and then making a chart from there. A seating chart is most effective if made in the first week of school. Groups of 4-6 students work best for collaboration. I like to have the desks arranged in groups so there isn’t anybody who has to turn their chair around to face the teacher. There are many creative ways to do this.

I find that making every collaborative group of 4-6 students heterogeneous in skills level helps keep the momentum of learning going in our classroom. Students have to collaborate with each other. In addition to spreading out the students with IEP’s, English-language learners, GATE, and Gen. Ed. students, I add another layer to an effective seating chart. I usually wait two days before making the seating chart to pick out the happy students who raise their hands often in the classroom. Happy students will reveal themselves fast, so usually I can spot them by Day 2. I’ll stick one happy student dead center in the front and one dead center in the back. This keeps the class happy. You want the students who smile, respect and help others with their words and actions, and eagerly raise their hands to become the natural leaders in each class. You can make this happen.

Response From Christine Hertz & Kristi Mraz

Christine Hertz & Kristi Mraz are the authors of Kids First From Day One. You can find out more and reach out to them at christinehertz.com and kristimraz.com:

Think about the last time you needed to get some writing done or pay your bills or plan your lessons. Chances are, where you did these tasks had a direct impact on how efficiently and how enjoyably these tasks were completed. Christine loves to write on her couch in the morning, but in the afternoon, it leads to an accidental nap 9 times out of t0. The same is true for the children in your classroom. Where they read, write, solve math problems, collaborate with other students, and play relates directly to their engagement with the learning at hand. The best classroom seating arrangements are spaces and seats that best meet the needs of the students.

There’s quite a bit of buzz these days about the term “flexible seating.” But what exactly is flexible seating? Teaching and learning in an environment with flexible seating means that there are a variety of options of work spaces for students (think kneeling-height tables, standing-height countertops, cheap throw pillows on the ground, chairs at a table.) You might be thinking, whoa! No assigned seats for every student!? And, yes, that’s the case. At the beginning of the year, just as you thoughtfully introduce the routines that make up your reading block or your math workshop, you’ll teach your students about all of the different learning spaces in the classroom, and the advantages and limitations to each space. You’ll act as a guide or a coach to help your students determine which spaces work well for them at which point in the day.

Adding flexibility to your seating arrangements presents an opportunity for students to take agency over their learning and to choose where they want to work, based on why that space works for them. Because children, like all of us, are creatures of habit, you’ll find that they quickly settle into a favorite spot to read day after day, or gather with a particular group of writers, or seek out spaces where they can be on their own.

Incorporating a more flexible approach to seating can, at first, illicit some feelings of unease among teachers. We’ve been there! When we first tried flexible seating in our classrooms, we had visions of utter chaos running through our heads. But by letting go of some of that control, we were able to see how truly transformative this was for our classrooms and our students. A few weeks after introducing the new routines, we each looked around our classrooms and saw learners standing, kneeling, curled up on a pillow, stretched out on a rug, grouped together at a table—all engaged and working in seats that best met their needs.

Response From Ron Nash

Ron Nash, the author of The Power of We, is a former teacher, curriculum coordinator, and organizational-development specialist in the Virginia Beach City public schools. Over the past 24 years, Ron has presented at dozens of national, state, and regional conferences. These include ASCD, Learning Forward, and Eric Jensen’s Learning Brain Expo. His workshops are highly interactive, modeling practical engagement strategies K-12 teachers can use in classrooms immediately:

Classrooms should be set up for learning, not for cleaning. Classrooms around the country, especially at the secondary level, are still arranged in a 19th-century model, with straight rows facing the front. This kind of standard arrangement is great for the custodians, but it doesn’t lend itself to student interaction, including face-to-face conversations that improve skill sets related to communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. For teachers with typical student desks (single, welded units) or desks with detached chairs, I have found that opening a large area for movement in the middle of the room allows for standing pair shares and quartets without the furniture getting in the way. Desks can be arranged in quads around the perimeter of the classroom to create that open space.

One elementary teacher looked at her classroom and decided every bit of space would be dedicated to students, not to her. She got rid of file cabinets and her own teacher’s desk, adding every kind of furniture imaginable: beanbags, exercise balls, stools, tall tables, low tables, rugs, and chairs of every description. Today’s Gen Z students like and demand choice (consider the choices they have when contemplating screens of many sizes at home), and this teacher created an agile classroom where some students can work independently, others collaboratively, as they stand, sit, or arrange themselves on cushions or rugs. Hers is a classroom environment that is perfect for her 2nd and 3rd graders.

My first classroom had 30 student desks in six straight rows, five desks deep. I had a piece of duct tape marking the exact place where the front right desk leg should be at all times. Such regimentation (well, maybe not quite that regimented) was common in an industrial age that valued compliance and control above all else. Agility in a classroom setting was not as important as rigidity. Classrooms all over the world are being reimagined to serve a generation of students who expect and demand choice and who do not function well in classroom configurations passed down from antiquity—or at least from the last century.

Response From Bradley Witzel

Bradley Witzel, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and researcher who works as a full professor and program director of the MEd in Intervention at Winthrop University. Dr. Witzel has authored 10 books and delivered nearly 500 presentations on strategies for students with academic needs:

The best seating arrangement depends on the content of the lesson, the intention of the lesson, the students’ knowledge, and the students’ behavior.

Some content lends itself better to small groups, half class, small intervention groups, etc. Problem-solve a class seating arrangement based on the content, student needs, interaction needed for lesson completion, technology included, and the space provided.

For example, in a class that plans a teacher-directed lecture, then rows may be appropriate. In most cases, however, a lecture includes some amount of paired work and partner checks so pairing desks in partners or triads should be considered. If a lesson calls for many opportunities and demands for students to talk and share with the whole class, then a semicircle or horseshoe setup would be appropriate. If teamwork or group assignments are included, then small groups of the appropriate number would help with the group dynamic. Station teaching allows for a mixed seating arrangement where students may be separated in some groups for independent practice, grouped together for a team problem-solving activity, and in a semi-ircle for teacher modeling all within the room.

Likewise, if an administration sets an initiative for a type of instruction that is desired, then appropriate and targeted professional development would help with the initiative. For example, if an administration team is encouraging student interactions across a school, then modeling how to work with groups of students seated in groups of three or four would help prepare teachers to support the initiative.

Response From Leila Ansari Ricci

Leila Ansari Ricci, Ph.D., is an associate professor of special education at California State University, Los Angeles. As a 2 TEACH LLC Associate, she also consults with schools and provides professional development related to inclusion, co-teaching, collaborative practices, and differentiation. She can be reached at Lricci@calstatela.edu:

My advice is that there is no best classroom seating arrangement. It all depends on what students are learning and doing for a particular lesson. The best classroom seating arrangements are those that maximize learning for all students, which means seating should vary based on instructional objectives and tasks. Too often, I have walked into classrooms with students seated in individual rows facing forward toward the front of the room. While convenient for the teacher, this does not allow for much group work and student interaction. We want our students to be actively involved learners!

When designing your classroom environment, always consider which seating arrangement will make learning more accessible and engaging for all students. For most students, collaborative group work enlists active participation and deeper engagement in lessons. This can be more readily achieved in pods of three to five seats or tables that seat four students. This type of classroom seating also allows the teacher to scan and circulate around the room to check for student understanding and give individual feedback with greater proximity to students. Not surprisingly, this seating arrangement is best-suited for teachers who want to be guides of their students’ learning and meaning making, rather than the sage on the stage lecturing to rows of students. It also sets up students for considering themselves a community of learners rather than isolated individuals. Pods or tables of four or so ensure that there aren’t always a few students in the back, disengaged from teacher-led instruction at the front of the room. Also consider U-shaped seating with outer and inner rings to encourage student discussions, such as in the fishbowl technique. Make the most of your seating arrangement rather than letting convenience or logistics limit your design of your classroom. Enlist the support of administrators if necessary.

More considerations for classroom seating include:

  • Universally design your classroom arrangement, meaning arrange the seats in ways that will support multiple means of input, engagement, and demonstration of learning by students;
  • Regroup students often, so that the same students are not always seated in the same space. To make this more efficient, create posters of different seating arrangements to show students how to reconfigure the room (Murawski, 2010). Then set a timer and ask the students to rearrange the seats before time’s up;
  • Consider students with special needs when setting up your classroom seating arrangement. Who needs preferential seating? Who needs teacher proximity for positive behavior support? Who will benefit from a particular peer buddy during group work?;
  • Consider co-teaching! Often, both general educators and special educators have their own classroom space on campus. If you are co-teaching together, you can have double the space for creative seating. As long as it is not always one teacher or the same teacher who utilizes a room, and heterogeneous groups of students share both spaces, this additional classroom space can boost teacher creativity and maximize student learning.

Now, doesn’t that sound less boring than individual rows of students?

Responses From Readers

Neil Howie:

Seating - in my classrooms the students choose where they would like to sit.

BUT I make them aware that this is with my consent, AND it is a privilege I have given them NOT a right.
IF they misbehave/annoy me/stop others learning, then I will decide where they will sit - usually away from their friends and by themselves.

I want my students to choose, but to also realize that with this choice comes responsibilities and basic rules. Behave as a good student I have no issues with two known naughty students sitting together, for example, but I will not hesitate to split said students up if they can’t behave like good students. All are aware of my simple rules, very few break them.

Thanks to Amber, Heather, Serena, Christine, Kristi, Ron, Bradley, and Leila, and to readers, for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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