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.)

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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??

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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.

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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.

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Classroom Jobs

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One of my cabinets

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

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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!

Julie

 


16 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Flexible Classroom

    • This year, I have 20 students in my homeroom and 20 in my switch class. I currently have 22 seating options, not counting counters and floor spots. More choices than kids is important!

  1. Just received a grant to purchase alternative seating! I’m type A as well so your post is what I needed to hear. One question…what are those seats on a stick??

    • Congrats on the grant! Those are (homemade) t-stools. They are sometimes used by occupational therapists for similar reasons to a stability ball. Feet have to stay on the floor with the core muscles engaged in order to balance on the stool. The stools I could find online were very expensive, so I made my own with a bike seat and a piece of plumbing pipe that I wrapped in washi tape.

        • The balls and balance stools work with a standard-height desk or table. The camping-style chairs were too low, which is why they have lap desks. The tall tables are for standing, and the desks without legs are perfect if they just sit on the floor or on a pillow. I teach 4th grade. 🙂

  2. Hi Julie,

    I love your article about flexible seating! I recently learned about it, and really want to try it in my room. I was wondering if it would be okay if I posted a link to your article on my donorschoose.org page so that potential donors can learn more about flexible seating. Thank you!

  3. I’ve also done flexible seating in reading and writing for the last 15 years. I started seeing all these posts from OT/PT therapists discussing what is happening to children’s brains and the use of technology. Then blogs started about flexible seating for the whole day. Eureka! Why haven’t I thought of that before. I’ve watched my nugget’s attention spans shrinking as they become more squirmy. So this year I’m diving in head first! Thanks for sharing your experience. Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but I moved up to teaching gifted third and thought about all those autistic traits they have as well as ADD/ADHD traits. I have one of my former students helping me set up my room and she is over the moon with what I’m doing. I still have more desks than I want but I have to get buy in from my principal before I ditch them and she’ll get me tables. My husband thinks I’ve lost it. Lol, had him driving to all of our 5 Belows to find matching yoga balls. The yelled, Family a dollar, stop! I needed 2 more green stools. I’m loving the change and can’t wait to see my nugget’s faces at Open House!

  4. Great idea. Choosing one option for the whole day may be less than ideal if you want the students to be comfortable. I like to work from various positions such as Indian style on the floor, sitting at a desk, or standing at a counter top, but if I stay in one position for more than one or two hours, it can become very uncomfortable.

    • I agree Tracie. We are up and down a lot in the three hours I have them, so claiming one spot for the day seemed to work well. We’ll see, though. Flexibility is the name of the game!

  5. Hi Julie! I am so glad I ran across this post. Out of any group of kids I have taught in the past, I feel this group of kids can definitely benefit the most!! Two questions for now, and I am sure I will get more as I dive into this idea. Did you slowly ease into this by adding a few options at a time, or did you dive all in? Also, where do your students keep their supplies that aren’t shared (ei. folders, writers notebooks, etc.?)

    • Hi Maegan! I dabbled in flexible seating last year, but dove all in this year, and I am so glad I did! My students all have a book box (shaped like a magazine file) that they keep their folders and notebooks in. They store these on a bookshelf in the afternoon, but they get them in the morning and keep them next to their spot all day. Hope this helps!

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