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Redesigning My Classroom Environment

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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Wide shot of a tidy, well-lit classroom with lots of open space with focus on the back of a chair

I moved my classroom at the end of the school year. I moved my posters, my bookshelves, and my computer cart. What I didn't move, however, were my traditional tables and chairs.

I get to design a different kind of space next year, one that encourages different learners to work both independently and collaboratively. I picture students moving about more freely, cozying up with a book in a corner or working on their laptops in the sun. I'm thinking about throwing away my seating chart altogether (after I learn their names, that is).

What Matters Most

I've done some research including talking to Laura Bradley, the "Classroom on Wheels" lady herself. She gave me some great advice:

1. Mix and match to start off.

This is so that kids can pilot different kinds of seating styles and arrangements. It's is great advice especially since we, as a Title I district, don't necessarily have the funds to pilot a whole classroom of anything without some feedback earned first.

2. Focus on seating first.

After seating, then figure out the tables. This acknowledges that the position of the student is really vital to the effectiveness of their brains. It also acknowledges that as long as you have laptops, your tables can be about the structure of your body. It's not ideal, but if you're looking for a place to begin, seating might be the starting point for greater investment down the line.

So I spent my late spring doing research and curating photos and ideas around classroom seating:

  • I pinned pictures on Pinterest.
  • I learned that there are health benefits to certain positions in which we work. Some studies have shown, for instance, that standing while working might help fight obesity and diabetes. Other studies show that movement while being seated may help with attention, keeping both the brain and the body engaged while in class.
  • I took photos of classrooms that I saw on other campuses.
  • I started playing with digital layout tools.
  • I thought back on the seating that I wanted at different stages of my own learning, from carpet squares to banquet tables, from attached desks to round tables.
  • I thought about my own seating habits in meetings and workshops. I tend to be a "back sitter," one that sits in the back so I can stand and stretch my legs or lean my chair back against the wall to rock a bit (I know, I tell my students not to do it, too). I thought about the length of time that I would sit before I needed to adjust my position in order to continue my attentiveness. Let me tell you it wasn't that long.

In the end, I tried to think creatively to put together a "Frankenclassroom" of sorts that offered both traditional and innovative positions for students.

Select a Seat!

I sent in requests for the following, each with its different rationale to make up my room for 36 incoming middle school students:

1. Video game chairs

For the past two years, I've had a single video game chair in my classroom, and it has been the most sought-after chair. By the end of its life, the game chair was held together by duct tape and prayers. The fidgety kids vied for it, they dragged it to their table group, and sat below the table line, happily rocking and working. In fact, I noticed that many of these students wrote more quantitatively when rocking in the chair than when in their static seat. I'm asking for four to eight of these.

2. Bean bag chairs

I can't fit many of these in the classroom, but if I could get four of them, I'd have a whole group's worth. They are easy to drag around and, save for the fact that they have a tendency to store, ahem, "odors," they should help to soften the tone in the room. I figure that my class rules may be highly structured, but my seating doesn't have to be.

3. Node chairs

I'm hoping to perhaps get enough node chairs to make up just two table groups in order to see what all the fuss is about. The storage underneath is key, but a pricey addition. Nevertheless, mobility is the future, and if I'm to encourage easier fluid grouping, I need the chairs that are more traditional in feel to be able to get around. After all, there are many students who like the feel of the harder chairs, and I have to provide comfortable seating for them, too.

4. Wobbly chairs or buoy chairs

The wobbly chairs are less expensive (by a lot), but the buoy chairs look more comfortable. The wobbly chairs have a smaller footprint, but the buoy chairs look more durable. Nevertheless, these kinds of chairs might give more active kids a little leeway in their positions while not making me seasick watching them. I am skeptical, however. When I'm on a stool, I don't sit up straight -- I tend to slouch more (if that's possible) -- but that's the reason I'm giving choices. What I might not like might end up being what every member of my clientele prefers.

5. Standing desks

OK, so I couldn't diss all thoughts of tables. However, I decided to focus on those students who like to work standing rather than in a seated position. I thought about all those students who asked to lean their laptops on my worn-out old podium, and I'm asking for four standing desks as a result. I figure that when students ask to stand, it's a sign that they want to pay attention and might just need more movement and oxygen to their brains.

Student Feedback

I'm hoping to start the year with a rotation of sorts so that students try it all out. This way, they can give me evidence-based feedback. Hey, that's an informal assessment waiting to happen!

I'm also hoping that if I can let go of my need for a beautiful classroom environment, I might just find a more engaging classroom environment. I'm looking for an environment that engages different learners and allows students to select different positions depending on exhaustion level, needs of an assignment, or their need for simply a new view.

I'm not sure what we will be able to afford once all is said and done, but it's bound to be better than it was, and in the very least, my classroom might end up being a room that kids can't wait to enter.

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Mark Sonnemann's picture
Mark Sonnemann
Principal of Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Ontario

A few thoughts in response to Tina's posts and the subsequent discussions:
First, I agree with Heather, that intelligent and flexible design is not about being cute, it is about meeting the needs of students and allowing them to engage with content in a way that makes sense to them. This can be done in a variety of ways, some of which have been discussed here, purchasing items, repurposing items, modifying existing furniture, to name a few. It can also be done by rethinking our use of space, sharing and combining spaces, and using traditional spaces (like libraries and computer labs, for example) in radically new ways. The bottom line is that this kind of reimagining of schools and classrooms is imperative as we attempt to meet the needs of students today. Current schools were built with a Victorian industrial mindset, and this no longer (and hasn't for a very long time) reflects our need for schools. The TED talks and writings of Sir Ken Robinson are a great watch/read if you'd like to know more about why education looks the way it does now and why it has to change.
Second, as a principal, I am sensitive to the costs incurred by teachers in order to enrich the learning environment for students. I provide my teachers with a classroom budget and also consider special requests and reimbursements. I know that I am not alone in this, and am sure (or at least hopeful) that most administrators would be open to those kinds of discussions with teachers over furniture and the like, especially when the research so strongly indicates it supports student learning.
Third, having spent the majority of my career in overcrowded and challenging inner-city schools, I feel the frustration over small spaces, small budgets, and big classes. However as someone I greatly respect once told me, we can either spend our time listing the reasons why we can't do something (and the list is always long, and the challenges daunting) or we can chose to do something. As an educator, I have taken this to heart. It applies to our approach to our students, to special needs, to challenging parents, to everything. This discussion is a great example of the almost Herculean efforts that most teachers make to realize the potential of each precious child in front of them.
I truly am thankful for and appreciate and am inspired by the creativity and collaborative work done by teachers. This article is just one example of a teacher who informs my practice and who gets me excited about the coming Fall.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Oh, and one more thing. Remember you also have another room at your disposal: outside. Don't be freaked out to create a classroom outside. That can mean asking parents at Back to School night for furniture donations of a plastic chair or bistro table for outside your room, or it can just mean taking the kids outside to sit under a tree (if you have one on campus.) No tree? No problem. Just bring 'em outside with their journals or laptops or whatever, and let them work with the sky as their ceiling.

I challenge teachers to simply think outside of the confines of their classroom walls and traditional set up. It will go a long way!

Thanks so all for the conversation!


Tina Andres's picture

I agree that outside can be a good place to be, especially for graphing lessons. We aren't allowed on the grass though and other teachers complain about the noise when we do go out. It has to be planned in advance but for many math activities, being outside is MUCH better.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Heather Wolpert - Gawron
Middle school teacher by day, educational author/blogger by night

Your 4th grade classroom is beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing. It is clearly the result of great professional development, a great teacher's imagination, a forward-thinking principal, and a generous community. All stakeholders working together. I wanna be reading in your classroom!

You have to lure them into learning, and we need to think more about how to trap 'em in loving it.

Thanks for sharing (it was perfectly appropriate as a spin off of the post and the discussion.) I hope more teachers can find inspiration in what you've accomplished.

Do you also redesign homes? My living room is in a massive need for some TLC! (just kidding)


Tina Dunn's picture

Thank you so much for the kind words. :) I have been truly blessed to have to be surrounded by such supportive stakeholders all the way around!

Haha.... I think my hubby would want me to work on our home is always in need of TLC. :)

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Hi Tina Andres - I agree with you completely that teachers should NOT spend their own money on classroom supplies. I work really hard to avoid that myself. Not sure about your situation, but our department budget is divided up among the teachers, so we are able to buy what we need and get reimbursed. So thrift stores come in handy if I want to get as much as I can from my tiny budget. If I can get donations from parents (like reams of paper or Staples gift cards), I can spend my budget on other items, like bean bag chairs. I also agree with you that classes of 40 make it incredibly difficult to have any kind of flexibility in classroom design. It isn't fair - for you or your students - to have that many bodies in a room. Hats off to you for whatever you do to make that situation work!

Shaz's picture

"Focus on seating first."
There's your first problem. Learning is not about seating, arrangement of the room, or cute furniture. This is such an absurd article, it is astounding that such a reputable website such as Edutopia would publish it.
"students to select different positions depending on exhaustion level" - I have been a teacher for over 25 years, and now I train teachers globally. I doubt American education will ever rise to the international level of critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation with nonsense such as this.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Heather, what I enjoy most about this post is your willingness to try new things and learn in public. It's clear to me that you have a genuine interest in the wellbeing of your students and in building a collaborative learning environment.

And looking at the recent case study on the Albermarle County Public School district, flexible seating arrangements can and do make a difference in improving student engagement and participation:

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