ballew classroom

Thoughts on a Flexible Classroom

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Last night, I posted a few pictures of my chair-less classroom and had lots of questions about my setup. In response, this is a post about flexible classrooms, particularly flexible seating. I say that up front because I want to back up a bit so that you know where I’m coming from, but I promise I’ll get there. Bear with me, will you?

I distinctly remember preparing for job interviews ten (really? TEN?) years ago and thinking about what I would say when asked about my strengths and weaknesses. They always ask about your strengths and weaknesses, don’t they? I wanted to be prepared so as not to fumble for things. The word I kept coming back to was flexible. It was very important to me that I communicated my flexibility, because I lean quite a bit towards a Type A personality. I like things to be neat and organized and to look beautiful. I didn’t want this aspect of my personality to make me come off as too rigid, because I knew even then that no teacher can survive without being flexible.

Fast forward to 2016, and I find myself continuing to deepen my understanding of what it means to be flexible. I believe that for flexibility to be transformative, we must make plans but not marry them. We must come to terms with the fact that the idea we have – no matter how perfect it may seem – is only one of many possibilities. It is so easy to fall into the trap of “This worked last year, so it’s the best plan for this year,” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or even “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

These are commonly used phrases, but what if everyone relied on this mentality? What if, for example, Steve Jobs had looked at a cell phone and said, “It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.” He wouldn’t have been wrong. There was nothing broken about my Nokia brick phone in 2002 or even my bag phone in 1997. But it certainly wasn’t much compared to what innovators like Steve Jobs believed it could be. It was he, after all, who said, “The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”

I’m in the business of changing the world. We all are, aren’t we? My classroom is such a tiny part of the world, but it matters. So, I am changing my classroom because I can’t change the whole world in a day. I’m fully embracing flexible seating in a way that I never have before.

Last year, as I began experimenting with different seating options, I was amazed at how much more productive students were when they were in charge of choosing a spot that let them do their best work. I have always allowed freedom when reading or writing independently. Why did I think they needed to be sitting in desks and chairs for everything else? Why can’t students choose their seat for the entire day? What might happen if their seat wasn’t a seat at all, but a pillow, or a yoga ball, or a space with room to stand and move? At the end of the day, I couldn’t come up with enough reasons NOT to try this out, so here we are!

My classroom currently has five different seating styles plus unlimited spots on the floor or counters (a student favorite!). Students may choose from a yoga/stability ball, a one-legged stool, a standing table, a pillow seat at a desk with no legs, or a camping style chair with a lap desk. Here is a view of my classroom from the door that shows all of the furniture-based seating options. (I have added two more yoga balls at the pair of desks in the back since taking this picture.)


I only have a few ideas in my head about how we will manage the seating. The rest will be decided as a class. Here is what I know for sure:

  1. All students will choose a new type of seat each day until everyone has an idea of which one suits them best. I am asking students to try each kind before choosing a favorite because I imagine that many of them will be surprised by how much they do/do not like a certain choice.
  2. All students have choice, but I reserve the right to help you make a better one. If someone chooses a seat that causes them to do anything but their best work, I will move them. This is not to punish them, but to emphasize that the whole point of flexible seating is to increase your comfort and productivity, not to bounce all over the room. This right to move you extends to any adult, especially substitute teachers.
  3. Students will make their choice at the start of class, and stay put for the day. The novelty factor is huge here, but I want to keep learning at the focus of my classroom, not swapping seats.

I have high expectations for my students’ performance. Flexible seating doesn’t change that. It enhances it. Engagement is increased when we are comfortable. Focus improves when the seat meets our needs. How many times have you been forced to sit through a training on an uncomfortable chair? It’s all I can think about after a while!

As a bonus, here are a few other things that are an integral part of my classroom setup.

Community Supplies: I am a zealot for community supplies. I love how sharing behaviors are reinforced, I love that I can easily and quickly get supplies like scissors or glue sticks passed out AFTER giving directions so that students are digging in their supply bags for too many minutes, and okay fine, I LOVE HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY ARE, OKAY??


Scissors and Glue Sticks, plus crayons, thin and bold markers, and colored pencils sorted by color


Blank Bulletin Boards: For all of the ways I love to decorate my classroom, my favorite kinds of bulletin boards will always be blank slate bulletin boards. We will fill these together with anchor charts, student work, or any other evidence of the learning that happens in our room.



Strong Organizational Systems: Whether it’s a system for make up work (as seen above on the left side of the white board), for students leaving the room, for assigning jobs, or even for making sense of the chaos that is teacher cabinets, organization matters. The particular system being used is irrelevant – no one system is going to work for everyone – but having strong organizational systems in place makes every minute of the day run more smoothly.


Classroom Jobs


One of my cabinets


Students move their number over when they leave the room for any reason.


Drawers to organize weekly lessons and ideas by day and by subject

 Finally, here is the video I shared that led to this post. If you see something else in my room and have a question, just comment below! Most importantly, know that I am sending only the most positive vibes your way as you begin a new year!



Strategy Rings

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When I confer with students (in reading or in writing), I really like to leave them with some tangible reminder of the strategy I taught them. That way, I have a record of what I taught them, and so do they.

I used to rely on Post-it notes, which was fine in the moment, but it was often difficult for the kids to find them when I came around to confer with them the next time, so I ended up referring to my notes most of the time. This left me wondering if they were really using the reminder at all.

As I thought about this, I wondered if a more lasting reminder system would lead to more transfer of the teaching done in conferences. That’s when I thought of strategy rings. I love the ring system – the rings are relatively cheap (and even cheaper if you use half of a pipe cleaner instead), and they are easy to add to but definitely durable. This system isn’t groundbreaking – it’s exactly what I was doing with Post-it notes, but it lasts longer and is easier for the kids to use.

Every time you have a conference, just hot whatever you teach on a (pre-hole-punched) notecard, and let the student at it to their ring of strategies. This makes it easy to hold them accountable, and they can trade with their partners when revising.



Mail Call

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I have been getting lots of emails from fellow educators who’ve stumbled across my site.  I love getting these, and I try to answer them as soon as I can.  It’s common for me to get several e-mails with the same question, so it occurred to me that there may be more people with the same wonderings who just haven’t clicked the email button.  So, here are a few questions I’ve received, followed by my responses.




 I love your readers notebook. I really want to try using them next year.  Can you help me explain how they organize it? Do they skip pages to make the different parts? I really love love love it!!!  Do you tab it?


I use a four-section reader’s notebook, and I do have the kids count the pages and tab it before we ever start using it.  The sections are as follows (page numbers are based on a 100-page composition notebook):

  • My Reading Life (~15 pages): Identity-building work is done here. (reading timelines, home-run books, identity ladders, last ten books I’ve read, etc.)
  • What I’m Learning (~20 pages): Notes or copies of key anchor charts (as they are retired from the wall) go here.
  • Read-Aloud (~30 pages): Post-its or writing long based on read-aloud with accountable talk go here.  This work is guided heavily.
  • Independent Reading (~35 pages): This section looks much like the read-aloud section, but it is not so guided, as the work is done during independent reading.
I am curious how you would suggest organizing books for students in class.  I am a 3rd grade teacher and I have lots of picture books and chapter books in my classroom library.  Right now I have them separated (picture, chapter, non-fiction) in book buckets.  However, as I get more titles, the book buckets are filling up and I’m running out of space.  I just wondered if you had any other suggestions for organizing. Thanks for your input.

— Karen
This is a great question, and one I get often! I had my books in tubs, divided in a number of different ways. I had some bins by genre (poetry, biographies, historical fiction, space science, etc.) and some bins by level to help students who really struggled with choosing just-right books. (Note: almost all of my books were leveled, but they weren’t all sorted by level.) I also had bins for read-alouds and mentor texts.  These were empty when the year began, and we filled them throughout the year, as I read a book aloud or we used it as a mentor in writing.  Finally, I let my kids have some ownership over organization – this will change your life in terms of keeping the library organized – so I started every year with several empty, unlabeled bins as well. As we launched reader’s workshop, we talked a lot about how readers choose books. These discussions revealed some general preferences in my class, and by the end of that first unit, we had newly labeled buckets for ease of finding those preferred books.  Some of these bins earned labels like “If you like Mo Willems, you’ll love these books!” or “Books about Best Friends” or even “Books with Bullies”.  I will try to dig up my book bin labels and post them as a printable soon!
Hey, Julie!  Thank you so much for sharing your charts.  I love them!  I just discovered your site on Pinterest.  I have a question…how do you store your charts?  I’m sure it’s very clever and would love to know!

Thanks so much for all you do!

I use the same storage bags that we use to store big books, and I made (well, I asked my very handy father to make) a small hanging rod for them that I mounted to the wall. I sort them by unit and label the bags accordingly.

Now that I’m using charts as models for other teachers, this preserves them better.  It’s also less time-consuming than the mount-to-a-coat-hanger method I used to use, although that method was definitely better for the time since my kids needed easy access to them.

Below is a picture of my stored charts. Hope this helps! 🙂

I absolutely love reading your emails! Keep them coming! 🙂

Happy Easter weekend!