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Classroom Q&A

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: ‘The Best Classroom Seating Puts Students in Charge of Their Space’

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 03, 2019 14 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the best classroom seating arrangements?

Figuring out seating arrangements is one of the most important decisions we teachers have to make—not only about which student sits where but also to help create the kind of learning environment we want for our students.

This series will explore different ideas for this important aspect of our teaching.

Today, 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.

I’ve written about my classroom seating arrangements—and responded to criticism of them—at Leading With Inquiry, Not Judgment.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources On Classroom Seating Strategies.

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr has been an elementary school classroom teacher for 20 years in Title I schools in northern Virginia:

Think about the places in which you feel most comfortable working. What are you looking for? Is it always the same or does it depend on what you are doing? I know I prefer to work sitting in ways that are close to lounging, stretching my legs out. I’m perfectly content to have my notepad or laptop on my lap rather than on a table or desk. At least that’s all true if I’m working on my own. When I’m collaborating with others, I tend to prefer to sit around a table so that we’re all at a similar height and in close proximity.

Students are no different. They do not all want to sit in the same chairs at the same tables all the time. The best classroom seating arrangements are the ones that put students in charge of their space. Students, even very young ones, are able to make decisions about where and how to work in order to do their very best.

Allowing students to be in charge of their space requires a very flexible classroom. It requires lots of options from which students can choose. This might include tables of varying sizes and heights. In my 3rd grade classroom, I have one table that is tall enough for my students to stand while they work there. Several different tables have stools or chairs of different types. A couple of tables are low to the ground so students can sit on the floor as they work there. The tables are also different sizes. One table is large enough for eight or more students to fit. Others will only hold one or two. Depending on task and mood, students can decide which option is best for them at that moment.

Other types of seating are also good options. We have several beanbags, as well as a couch in our classroom. We have a box full of clipboards in case students want to work somewhere away from a table and need that surface. One of my students last year did his best writing on a clipboard, stretched out under one of our tables. It looked terribly uncomfortable to me but was definitely his go to spot.

In order to do our best work, to be focused and thinking hard, we need to be comfortable. If the only options students have are all the exact same chairs at the exact same tables, only a handful are likely to be truly comfortable. Even just offering them the option of the floor will be empowering and mean that a few more are ready to do their best work. This may sound challenging, but engage your students around the question. They’ll come up with some fabulous solutions!

Response From Madeline Whitaker Good

Madeline Whitaker Good has taught elementary and middle school, and is currently a middle school teacher in Springfield, Mo. She is a co-author of Your First Year:

This is such a hot topic with many educators today. With so many options, from collaborative tables to beanbag chairs, many people have found themselves in “tribes” that swear by their own classroom’s seating arrangement. Although there is some research that shows certain arrangements are more effective than others, I argue that the main driver of a classroom’s seating situation should be what the teacher needs to be most effective instructionally. When I think back to my favorite teacher I ever had, it was my high school AP English teacher. She pushed us to think critically, significantly increased my writing ability, and supported students sharing their thoughts about a variety of texts. This was all done while we were sitting in .... traditional desks that were placed in .... rows. *Gasp!* I know. Desks in rows?! How could she?

The thing is, she was a phenomenal teacher, and placing desks in rows for most of the school year helped her be the rock star teacher that she was. She would sometimes move them around for important class discussions, but most of the time they were in plain old traditional rows. And that was OK. Her class was the one I learned the most in high school. By far.

I am not sharing this to defend the placement of desks in rows. If you walked into my math classroom today, I have tables placed in groupings of four students each, but I don’t have it this way because someone forced me to or because I felt like it was the latest trend. I have it this way because it works best for how I run my classroom.

If you take anything away from this response, I hope that it is that you should arrange your seats in a way that best supports student learning in your classroom. Don’t fret over the latest trends you see on Twitter or what the “cool” teacher is doing down the hallway. Focus on what helps students learn with your style of teaching, and as long as you have evidence to show it is working, you have a good seating arrangement in my book.

Response From Rich Czyz

Rich Czyz is the author of The Four O’Clock Faculty: A ROGUE Guide to Revolutionizing Professional Development and the co-founder of the Four O’Clock Faculty Blog. He is currently an elementary principal in New Jersey and was a former 5th grade and basic-skills math teacher, as well as a curriculum supervisor and director of curriculum & instruction. Rich is passionate about engaging all stakeholders in meaningful and relevant learning opportunities:

The best seating arrangements are those that place students at the forefront of the decisionmaking process in terms of getting the most out of learning experiences. Learners (both students and teachers) should have the flexibility to make sure that the environment matches the learning experience. There also need to be seating options in meeting the needs of all students.

These principles are most important when thinking about classroom design:

  • Start with tables.

    Beg, borrow, or trade to (almost) get rid of student desks and use tables. They open up the classroo, and create a more collaborative setting for learners. Keep in mind that not all learners prefer to sit at a table, and that one or two students may still want that desk. Save just one or two desks for this reason.

  • Open, flexible seating works best.

    Let learners choose where to sit depending on the task. Give them lots of options: big chairs, small chairs, no chairs, standing tables or desks, low tables... Any option is a good option. With modeling of flexible-seating expectations, students will become much more productive in the way they work in the classroom.

  • Go beyond the classroom.

    Don’t confine students using your four walls or your expectations for what a learning space looks like. Use hallways, nooks, crannies, outcoves, outside learning space... Anywhere that students learn best provide the best learning spaces. There should be no limits placed on how or where students learn.

  • Leave plenty of open space.

    Many classrooms are full of motivational posters, information, and other “decorations” that actually hinder the learning process rather than help it. Keep in mind that learners need open space. Open space in terms of the floor plan will allow students to move furniture to match the learning activity. Open wall space (preferably writing space!) allows students to do their best work. Make the space as learner-centered and learner-friendly as possible.

  • Simple fixes go a long way. Any changes you make to your learning environment don’t have to be drastic or cost a great deal of money. One of the easiest improvements you can make in your classroom involves raising or lowering table legs to create standing tables or floor tables (Students sit on cushions or mats on the floor). Consider simple fixes like moving furniture or getting rid of a teacher desk to create more space. Not every fix needs to involve spending money or putting forth a great deal of effort.

Keep in mind that the best seating arrangements in classrooms honor the learner! Always consider the purpose of your design. Ask yourself, what am I trying to accomplish and how can the classroom design and organization help me reach that goal?

Response From Tan Huynh

Tan Huynh is a Teach For America alumnus and the head of the English Language Acquisition Department at Vientiane International School, an International Baccalaureate World School. He shares his classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog:

I’m less concerned with how seats are arranged in a class than with how students are interacting with each other. Just as students don’t interact in only one way, no single seating arrangement will work for every lesson. Instead, there’s dynamic seating.

Dynamic seating means moving the furniture to align with a learning activity and setting up the kind of student interaction we want. Sometimes, we require rows for testing while other times we need small groups for interacting.

Dynamic seating allows for the class to change shape so that students can collaborate with each other or work individually. It allows for whole-group or small-group instruction. In primary classrooms that follow the dynamic-seating principle, we often see different zones—each zone used for a particular learning activity. Zones are often marked by clusters of tables or rugs and partitioned by bookshelves or easels. In secondary classrooms with dynamic seating, seats are moved from rows into small groups.

Students can easily arrange even awkward dairs (desks attached to chairs) so that they can both easily interact with each other and quickly turn to face the board during direct instruction. The layout of the dairs is extremely adaptable: It can facilitate either direct instruction or student collaboration, whatever you need.

The opposite of a dynamic arrangement is a static arrangement, which means that regardless of the activity, the seating stays the same. In static classes, students spend most of their time in rows facing the board and listening to the teacher. Only a fraction of the time is spent interacting with other students—if any. Also, there are no zones for different types of activities. This is not ideal.

Our room is like a lesson plan. If we differentiate lessons for students, then we should also differentiate where students sit. If we design student-centered lessons, then we should also design seating arrangements that maximize learning.

Image by Tan Huynh

Response From Mark J. Westpfahl

Mark J. Westpfahl is a two-time Minnesota teacher of the year semifinalist and serves on the board of directors for the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies. He is a former member of the Inver Grove Heights board of education and is in his 10th year of teaching in the Saint Paul public schools:

In the early stages of my teaching career, my room looked like your average classroom with traditional desks. But I rarely kept the desks aligned in perfectly spaced rows, as it always felt like I was taking the easy way out. Instead, I would arrange the desks into different configurations. Sometimes, I did this just because I didn’t want my room to be a stagnant place that didn’t draw inspiration and other times, I strategically redesigned the room to correlate with a lesson or activity that we were doing.

While I did appreciate that the desks and chairs could be arranged in numerous configurations, I started to run into a larger problem. The desks and chairs were starting to fall into disrepair. When I would bring this up to my administration and custodial team, I was repeatedly told that there was nothing that could be done, as the district did not have replacement desks/chairs and there was no budget for new ones.

I had students that were sitting on the countertops and on our floor (which desperately needed a carpet replacement) because I had several classes with more than 40 students and only 33 functioning desks.

I had researched the flex-seating trend for several months and decided that I needed to take matters into my own hands. After spending numerous hours online looking for potential furniture pieces that would provide style and comfort for my students, I realized that my vision to transform my room may be unrealistic. I started to ask students what they wanted in how a classroom should be designed. Overwhelmingly, they said they wanted seats that were not hard as a rock. Many suggested a loungelike area that had soft and comfortable eating like a Starbucks, Caribou Coffee, a doctor’s office, or a library on a college campus.

Toward the end of the 2016-17 school year, the Minnesota state Capitol was undergoing a renovation, and hundreds of pieces of furniture from the building were being auctioned off. I thought it would be cool to have comfortable AND historic seats! So, I created a Go Fund Me campaign to raise approximately $250 so I could purchase some of the historic furniture I could put in my classroom. I was stoked! With nine days left in the school year, I brought in the new furniture. My students were excited, and that was all the motivation I needed to go bigger! I created another fundraiser and received nearly $3,500 to completely transform the room.

I purchased desks and end tables that had power outlets and USB ports so students could always be plugged in while in the classroom, another thing that students had requested. I knew I wanted window seating overlooking our beautiful atrium, so I decided that I needed to custom build that. The end result has been something my students have enjoyed. The #CHCougars #flexseating #learninglounge is a place where my students can learn about history in comfort, while actually sitting on historic furniture!

Here are some video tours of what the classroom looks like at the beginning of each new quarter:

Thanks to Madeline, Jennifer, Rich, Tan, and Mark 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.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

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Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

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The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

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Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.