There’s been a lot of talk about classroom design lately and more specifically, how classroom design ultimately affects student learning.

Rebecca Hare recently wrote a blog post for OnCUE about learning spaces and even showcased a redesigned classroom at CUE BOLD. Hare’s co-author, Bob Dillon, has written extensively about transformative learning spaces and argues that learning spaces are tools for learning and should be student-centered.

And then there’s the research.

Research has shown that intentional classroom design achieves some pretty great things. Creating a community of learners? Check. Helping students work at their optimal level of challenge? Check. Encourages holistic learning among students? Check.

With all of this discussion on classroom learning spaces on my mind, I decided to wage an experiment on flexible seating. As a Technology TOSA during the school year, I don’t have a classroom to call my own. But when I was given the chance to teach summer school (4th grade science, nonetheless!) I jumped at it – knowing that my three-week summer school stint would be the perfect opportunity to try out flexible seating, should I ever make it back into my own classroom.

Now, because it was summer school and because there was literally NO budget for my grandiose ideas of classroom design, I did flexible seating my way – on a budget.

GETTING STARTED

I turned to Teachers Pay Teachers for gathering some quick (and free!) resources for flexible seating in the classroom.

Here’s what I downloaded:

How to Manage Flexible Seating – Freebie: This was a good place to start, as this document shared one teacher’s experience with using flexible seating in her room. She also includes some handy “noise level indicators”, which I would use again for flexible seating purposes.

Flexible Seating FREEBIES: We used the flexible seating contracts from this resource when we discussed flexible seating the first week of school. Many of the students I worked with had never been in a classroom that used flexible seating – and as such, were REALLY excited to try it. Had this been my own classroom, I would have also shared the included letter home to parents (discussed the “why” of flexible seating).

Flexible Seating Lesson Plan FREEBIE: This freebie included two things I used in the classroom – a tree map graphic organizer (which – being a Thinking Maps district – my students were familiar with) and color pictures (for myself) to visualize, during the planning process, the type of seating options I would like to provide for students. Yes, I could have probably had students create their own tree maps in Google Drawings but with only 3 weeks of summer school, our time was precious.

EDITABLE Flexible Seating Expectations FREEBIE: This freebie was what I used for my flexible seating rules/expectations for seating – all I did was print and laminate these. After going over the expectations DAILY with students for the first week, we put them up on a bulletin board and referred to them throughout the duration of summer school.

SUPPLIES

Because I was starting from scratch, I started small. Here’s the breakdown of what I bought to start it all up:

– (2) Adirondack chairs from Lowes ($14.98 each)
5″ Bed Risers from Amazon ($11.99)
– (2) Yoga balls of varying size from Five Below ($5 each)
– (4) Outdoor Seat Cushions from Five Below (on sale for $3 each)
– (6) Metal Stools from Five Below (in-store only – $5 each)
– (3) Wobble cushions from my former SPED classroom (free!)
– (4) Lap desks from Michaels ($5 each)

Grand Total: $113.95

Lounge chairs were another popular choice for students.

SEATING OPTIONS

Students had several seating options available to them. Apart from the traditional seating I had left in place at certain tables, I also included the following:

– A lowered table close to the floor with cushions for seating
– A raised table on risers for students who preferred to stand
– Lounge chairs with small cushions and a swivel chair that was left in the classroom
– Lap desks for students who preferred to work on the floor
– Wobble disks for students who needed to move in traditional seats
– Metal stools

A raised table for students who preferred to stand

RESTRAINTS

As this was not my regular classroom, I couldn’t exactly get into total “Fixer Upper” mode and start throwing stuff out. I did, though, have some of the traditional tables moved out of the classroom to give us some room to work with. I ended up moving two of those larger tables out of the room, temporarily. I also had to leave certain pieces of furniture in the room (e.g. filing cabinets, extra chairs that weren’t being used, bookshelves, etc.).

Stools were a great alternative to traditional chairs. Note to self – invest in sturdier stools for upper elementary students!

I also planned some of the seating arrangements based on the top number of students I was set to have – 25. If I had more students, I would have had to plan on some more seating alternatives.

Finally, because I didn’t have unlimited funds and was trying to really limit what I did spend (within reason), I gave myself a budget of $120. Everything that was purchased was purchased with the intent of using it for several years before having to replace anything.

(From Left): Seating expectations that were reinforced and referred to daily; a lowered table with seat cushions for students who wanted to stay “grounded”

INITIAL THOUGHTS

I had three classes of about 25 kids each (so around a total of 75 fourth graders). I was surprised to find that not many knew what flexible seating was, let alone had been in a classroom where a teacher utilized it. This was exciting – and really a great opportunity to experiment with students across my district (from various schools and demographics). Here are some initial thoughts after running the experiment for three weeks.

Students loved the choice of sitting where they thought they would learn best – and moved accordingly.

NOT FOR EVERYONE: Flexible seating is not going to work for everyone – as a former special education teacher, I will be the first to admit that. There’s a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid in order for it work and work successfully. Three weeks was a great start but I would have loved to have longer to try it out. And some students are not going to know how to handle themselves when given the choice to sit where they work best – because, honestly…some of them don’t know how to “be a student” let alone a responsible one who can self-regulate.

SELF-REGULATION: Knowing how to self-regulate and be cognizant of one’s own learning environment is critical. Some students were aware of which seats they worked well in – and were able to verbalize to me if they needed to move if they weren’t in a place conducive to their learning. Others, did not and then were “blind-sided” when I exercised my right to move them after multiple warnings and side-talks.

This seating arrangement provided the opportunity for a more collaborative working environment.

LONGEVITY OF SEATING: If I were to use this in my own classroom, I would definitely invest (a little more!) in better stools. I loved the stools I got for summer school – but let’s face it, they were bargain store stools! Whether it was the sheer weight of fourth grader bodies or because several students couldn’t follow expectations and keep all four feet on the floor, two of the stools didn’t make it out alive. I would definitely recommend something more sturdy for larger (heavier) bodies. I would also consider getting a few more yoga balls; the ones I purchased were surprisingly durable and were a BIG hit with all of my classes.

GREAT FOR COLLABORATIVE WORK: The majority of my lessons during summer school required students to work in small, collaborative groups. The various seating options provided each group with ample work space to create and make with our STEM challenges and lended itself naturally to more collaborative working opportunities among students. Students felt they also had plenty of space to move and work if they needed to.

Another surprising favorite – standing tables!

STUDENT/TEACHER RECEPTION: Students were SO excited to have this type of seating arrangement! The stack of chairs in the corner of the classroom was a visual reminder of what they could have had, and so the majority of students took our flexible seating expectations quite seriously – they didn’t want to lose it! Other teachers were curious too. I had several stop by and pop their heads in and ask questions about the classroom learning space design. And when we had a surprise visit from our district assistant superintendents and program director, I know they looked closely at the seating arrangement and were curious too.

The experiment itself went surprisingly well – much better than I thought it would. I want to attribute that to the planning prior to starting the experiment and then the constant reflection (of students) during the process and the focus on expectations of our flexible seating arrangement. Given more time, I think this would have been a successful seating alternative to traditional seating.

Flexible seating lends itself nicely to the collaborative work environments that we, as teachers, want to see in the classroom, while also providing students with choice and ownership over their learning space.

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