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Teaching Secrets: Arranging Optimal Classroom Seating

By August 'Sandy' Merz III — July 31, 2012 5 min read

In a recent article, I shared some ideas about how seating challenges can reveal useful data about class chemistry and individual students during the first week of school. But what next? How can we use what we learn about our students to arrange optimal permanent seating?

Few would argue that the best seating arrangements balance individual student needs with classroom community needs. Most teachers are mindful that finding each student’s peak location depends on his or her personality, learning style, ability, needs, and behavior. We also consider class chemistry, friendships, and cliques in deciding seating.

But I haven’t heard many teachers talk systematically about how we use the physical characteristics of the room—combined with our communication patterns—to leverage learning and relationships.

Enter Power Seats and Safe Zones

In my own quest for optimal seating, I’ve discovered what I call Power Seats and Safe Zones. Power Seats, by merit of their location, magnify a student’s presence in the class. Safe Zones, on the other hand, downplay the effects of a student’s actions on the class dynamics—without compromising his or her access to content.

Figuring out how this works is like a game. The mission: 1) Find the Power Seats and Safe Zones in your room; and 2) discern where each student performs best and contributes most positively.

The physical setting of the room helps to determine the locations of Power Seats and Safe Zones. Who should sit near windows, if you have them? Who should sit near the door? How might your arrangement of tables or desks magnify learning and participation while mitigating disruption? Are there different answers to these questions, depending on the content you’re teaching?

There are certainly different answers based on your communication patterns as the class’s facilitator. How do you visually scan a classroom? How do you move in the class during different kinds of activities? When students ask questions, where do you stand?

The game is more art than science. But after you’ve identified your room’s Power Seats and Safe Zones and given priority to students with medical conditions, 504s, or special education accommodations, I recommend these guidelines:

• Assign model students to Power Seats and students who distract or are easily distracted to Safe Zones.

• Auditory learners need to see you more than they need to see the board.

• If a kinesthetic learner contributes great questions and comments: Power Seat. Otherwise: Safe Zone.

• Introverts work best with few, quiet neighbors (for example, auditory learners).

How It Looks in Practice

In my previous classroom, I taught algebra and engineering to 8th graders.

I arranged nine tables in a U shape with four tables on each arm and two on the base. I chose the U to promote discussion and provide sight lines for demonstrations. The room had no windows. Twenty students could sit around the outside of the U, but since there were up to 28 students per class, some had to sit on the inside.

One set of Power Seats was midway up the U’s right arm (as viewed from the back of class), opposite from where I tend to stand. The four seats on the base of the U gained power by having the best view of the entire room. The last set of Power Seats was near the end of the left arm of the U. These seats were on the sight line to the most frequently used whiteboard.

Safe Zones were on the arms near the base of the U. Students in these seats have a good view of instruction, but aren’t in the view of other students. Another smaller Safe Zone was at the front end of the right arm, near my personal area.

Maya, with her enviable self-management skills and gift for asking the right questions, sat in a Power Seat on the right arm of the U. To either side, I mixed abilities and gender, accounting for individual special needs and peer relations.

The outside Power Seats on the base of the U went to disciplined, high-ability, visual learners. Ideally, they were opposite gender from the students in the adjacent Safe Zones (discussed below). This set-up, I learned from experience, tended to promote positive interactions.

The two middle Power Seats in the base of the U were excellent for visual learners who benefited most from peer tutoring. For example, English-language learners placed there had strong neighbors they could turn to for help and a great view of instruction.

The Power Seats on the left arm of the U, near the front, went to students who consistently voiced insightful questions and comments. A kinesthetic learner, like Reyna, fit perfectly there. When students were confused with my instruction, she would stand up and declare, “What he’s trying to say is … " She perfectly illustrated her explanations with her hands—to the benefit of everyone in the class.

Brisa, an auditory learner who never took her eyes off mine, sat near the base of the right hand arm of the U next to the Safe Zone. From there, she had a comfortable orientation toward me wherever I stood.

Cesar, an introvert, sat in the Safe Zone near my desk. He had a neighbor to his left, but not his right. Cesar avoided the spotlight but would quietly voice his thoughts (which tended to be original and nuanced). I could then share them with the class.

Seating students inside the U required knowing which students would spontaneously turn and follow instruction. Auditory learners do this, but I found that students who preferred to interact with me (rather that primarily with their peers) were a better fit. I had to be cautious, though, that they didn’t dominate me.

Nick was larger than life: loud, smart, fun, and always engaged. From a Safe Zone in the back, he could be his happy, outgoing self while contributing to (but not overwhelming) the class.

Spotlight on classroom management

Students whose behavior often compromised the class or their own progress also sat in a Safe Zone in the back, for three reasons. The location lessened the impact of their disruptions. They were surrounded by strong students and good models from whom they could learn to channel their behaviors more positively. And most importantly, my relationship with them could be supportive and consultative rather than corrective and authoritarian (as it might have been if they were in Power Seats).

I constantly adjusted and corrected. After several weeks, students inside the U became tired of turning around so I’d switch them out. But moving one student meant moving someone else: The game never ended.

And it never does—but complex, dynamic problem-solving makes teaching fun.

I now teach in a different room with five large, immovable tables. I’m still learning this room’s Power Seats and Safe Zones, but I’m close. I’m looking forward to observing my students during the seating challenges at the start of the year, then combining those observations with what I know about my classroom to set my students up for success.

Have you observed Power Seats and Safe Zones in your classroom? What methods or observations do you have about classroom arrangements that meet all student and community needs?

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