Someday, not any time soon, I’ll be ready to process what it was like to teach behind a six-foot plastic partition, with a mask, to students who were six feet apart, also in masks. The fact is, just like always, teachers did what we had to do, and we made the best of it. However, I am so thrilled that now I am returning to flexible seating after several years! I cannot wait for my students to be greeted with options that meet their needs.
My flexible seating journey began many years ago with a grant from the NoVo Foundation. You can read about it here. I had already adopted a flexible classroom style—rolling due dates; retakes and revisions of student work; differentiated instruction and assessments; as well as student-centered, culturally responsive approaches to our classroom culture. It was only natural that the ways my students were physically experiencing the room should be differentiated as well. As I embark again on this adventure of flexible seating—and it is very different from traditional seating—I’ll share three things I’ve learned and how I have changed things for this iteration!
Organization Prevents Chaos
When students walk into my room with flexible seating, they react in a variety of ways. Some are excited, some are apprehensive, and there are a few who get a mischievous look in their eye as they size up the place. Yoga balls, floor seating, rolling desk chairs, and a papasan chair all provide plenty of opportunity for chaos. However, a carefully organized methodology has made the seating workable and promotes students being on time for class.
My first days of school will set the tone for the entire year. I’ll explain how the seating works, and discuss the “do’s and don’ts” of each area. Each section of furniture is labeled with a letter. There’s no need to label each piece of furniture; I’m simply interested in the area where students will sit, not which specific seat. Each student is assigned a number. When they enter the room, they take a magnet with their number on it and place it on an X that marks the number of spaces a section has. For example, Section A has four rolling chairs, so there will be 4 X’s underneath the letter A. As sections fill, the next students will have to choose a different area. Students know they cannot save seats; they cannot put their magnet down and then leave, and they cannot complain about who is in their group. These are simply non-negotiable, and I’ve never had an issue with this process.
I greet students at the door, so I can monitor them grabbing their number and placing it in the correct spot. I always forget to return the magnets to their starting spot for the next class, but I quickly learned the last time that there’s always a student who really loves to take on this task. The system takes a week or so to become routine, and once established, none of us really thinks about it.
Furniture That Works for Your Classroom
This time, as I implement flexible seating, I have made some adjustments that will help our classroom run more smoothly. First, I bought stabilizers for the yoga balls. Students don’t need them particularly, but I was always fearful that they did. The yoga balls I purchased before and the new ones were already weighted, so they wouldn’t roll away. However, the addition of the stabilizers at the bottom makes me feel better!
The last time I had flexible seating, there was a great deal of floor seating with bean bags and rocking gaming chairs. The students liked these options, but before long, I had teenagers sprawled together in a messy pile that seemed perfectly natural for them; but this year, I am refraining from that type of seating because students still need to be cognizant of personal space given the state of the world and germs. I have “poufs” that students can sit on or use to lean against, but the arrangement is more distanced than before.
One change in flexible seating 2.0 is that I’ve included a table that has regular desk chairs—not rolling ones that most kiddos love! I made this change for any student who may have mobility issues and simply doesn’t want to risk any of the other options. However, I do have those chairs at a table that allows the kiddos to use dry erase markers on the table top, which they will love.
Even during the pandemic, I allowed one student at a time to sit on the couches, and everyone loves them. I’ve grouped them together as shown above to create a resource group of four kiddos now.
Above All, A Flexible Attitude and Authority of Care
Students know immediately when they enter my room that it is made for them. They understand that I’ve made an effort to understand what they like, respect how they learn, and attempt to make them comfortable. This is a part of the “authority of care” that I approach them with, letting them know that they are worthy of my attention and care without ever having to prove anything to me. (For more about “An Authority of Care,” you can watch this webinar on demand.) All students are valued, and they will be a part of our learning community. As I begin to explain how our community will be flexible, meeting the needs of all types of kiddos while working together, there is a noticeable shift in “vibe.”
As I explain to them that they can always retake a test or quiz that they didn’t do well on (after learning what to do better, of course), they begin to feel the pressure to perform at the same pace dissipate. When I talk to them about the need to be 100 percent on task when they are in our classroom, they respect the fact that I won’t be giving them homework outside class, and commit to work hard while here. When I share with them that I value their time outside of school to pursue their clubs, sports and passions, they recognize that the time in class is our time, and it is valuable. This year, that will include parking their cellphones at our charging station—a move designed to help them regulate themselves and to provide something they need, a full battery!
I’m clearly thrilled to offer students flexible seating options as a part of my flexible class. Sometimes teachers will tell me they can’t do flexible seating, or they would never be able to handle it. I make sure to point out that flexible seating is the window dressing for what is far more important: flexible approaches for our students who need a differentiated learning experience. (This webinar explores what it means to create a flexible class.)