In my third year of teaching, I returned from winter break to find that each of my four sections of English 12 had significantly swelled in numbers. Supposedly, there had been an oversight on the part of our school counselors regarding our students with special needs population and that issue – coupled with an abnormally high rate of students dropping down at semester from AP English 12 to our course – left me with class numbers of 29, 30, 31, and 32 students in the smallest classroom in the building, a room with only 28 desks.
Over that winter break, I had spent considerable time on a total redesign of our third quarter unit. The redesign had come about as a result of what I’ll simply diagnose as a senioritis outbreak that seemed to set in annually around week two of our Brit-Lit unit on the topic of poverty. The unit redesign I would later come to acknowledge as my first iteration with a personalized learning model as I focused on offering students significant control over the pace at which they progressed through the novel and assignments. I had started the semester with the fiery-excitement any educator experiences when trying something new for the very first time, but the news of my new class sizes had stamped out that optimism. Our learning space just couldn’t facilitate flexible grouping of students across a variety of stations without me assigning students a place to be.
So, discouraged and frustrated, I did what most teachers do in moments like these… I looked for a place to vent. I paid our media center specialist, Robin Schrack, a visit in the library, and she and I had what I feel today was a very fortuitous conversation in retrospect.
Me: “Robin, I’ve got this idea for a new approach to how we do things in English 12 for the third quarter, but there’s no way I’ve got the space for it. I’ve got students sitting on the floor in every section, it’s the smallest room in the building and –”
Robin: “Well why don’t you just hold your class in here?”
So later that day, after looking over my schedule for the quarter, I returned to our library and… checked-out… the library.
That was the spring semester of 2010.
Flash Forward Eight Years Later: For four years, I held class in that media center for 1-2 quarters per year, even when I switched to teaching English 10. Then, when I moved to Omaha and began working at Westside, I had acquired a sensibility about space that aided me in finding new ways to facilitate this model of instruction in an ordinary classroom using your average, standard-issue desks. Over the past four years, you could say that my desk configurations have served as a visible representation of my eccentricity lol. I have zero doubt that the teachers with whom I share that classroom space would attest to that – I’m looking at you Sarah Schoenrock (@sesrock1979). But today, I struggle to imagine lesson planning without giving thought to how the manipulation of the furniture and learning spaces could be shifted to optimally facilitate the task(s) at hand.
In my current role as a personalized learning coordinator in our district, I’m lucky to routinely have the opportunity to completely nerd-out about flexible spaces in a 90-minute session focused on the thought process behind pairing personalized practices with the ideal room configuration to make it all happen. That session is one of my favorite parts of our day-long training on personalized learning, and while there is a great deal of content we cover together, here are a few of the central tenents we discuss as Flex Space 2.0: The Next Conversation in building your learning space…
- You don’t need a grant to create a flexible learning space. Nice furniture would be nice. No question. Does a classroom with high-tops, low-tops, beanbag chairs, etc. help create a positive classroom climate and also promote student engagement by empowering the learner with choice? Most educators would answer with an adamant, Yes. Could you take on a design-on-a-dime venture to add a few new pieces? Absolutely. But for those without a budget, for those without the DIY skills to create your own furniture (me), or for those… with… some other hang up, know that flexible learning spaces can still be created using the traditional desks or tables in your classroom. How? Just approach it with the mindset of trying to provide students with choice in where they sit and be deliberate in teaching them how to use their freedom of choice to make sound academic decisions. Where you sit, who you sit with, and understanding that you can and likely should move to different areas of the room depending upon what type of assignment you are working on should all play into each individual student’s thought process as they use the space flexibly.
- Flexible seating should lead to each student discovering their own set of optimal conditions for being productive. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a video reflection from my former student, Josh, who – after four weeks in a flexible seating model – refined his understanding of his optimal work environment. Initially, he chose to sit with a group of his friends, then one friend, then he found it productive to sit in isolation when completing individual work.
Now let me be clear, I am not promoting that students completely isolate themselves and talk to absolutely no one in class. No unit I design is ever without face-to-face student collaboration. However, for some learners, there are tasks that are best completed on their own in an environment free of distractions. And while this concept is hardly a revelation to adults/educators, it was to Josh. You see, Josh did not perceive his relocation to that isolated space as some sort of academic banishment to a deserted island where he was sentenced to work, facing a wall, until he complied. Instead, Josh chose his seat and learning space – and chose poorly. When I asked him how his productivity had been, the answer was obvious to both of us, and he was given the option to choose where to relocate. Over a long enough timeline, Josh arrived at the understanding that he articulated in the video. Since that time, Josh has informally admitted to me that he now asks to reposition his seat in other classes to make this space available when he wants to be productive on an individual task. Therein lies one of the great opportunities flexible seating provides our learners.
- Your room redesign will require scaffolding to acclimate students to their new seating/learning space options. Be transparent with your students about the philosophy behind this shift. Explain to them what options are available and come up with a process by which to introduce them to each space. For example, the flexible seating guru Kayla Delzer has recommended giving students the opportunity to sit in every seat or space for an adequate amount of time to give them an experience to justify the eventual choice they make as their ideal seating option (Kayla’s blog). In my own classroom, students like Josh chose between working in a group, as a pair, as an individual, or in a floor spot. For a third example, check out this Westside Personalized podcast with Prairie Lane Elementary teacher Richard Christie as he shares how he numbered off areas in his 6th-grade classroom, assigned action verbs to accompany the desirable actions to occur in those spaces (an idea from learning space guru Dr. Bob Dillon), and Mr. Christie then posted those verbs on signs in each area to clearly define station expectations and ease his ability to manage behaviors in those expectations.
Having developed this facet of my own instructional mindset and classroom practices, I can’t imagine conducting a lesson without addressing this design step. It’s become essential for me. So whether this blog post finds you casually in search of new ideas or desperate and in need of a class redesign, making your learning space flexible is unquestionably a matter of necessity – so please, be excited at the opportunity to be inventive.