Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Rearranging the Chairs

Today I want to discuss something seemingly mundane, but that actually demonstrates the small things that can be done to improve the culture of learning in the classroom, while also improving classroom management and giving students a greater sense of empowerment and “ownership” of the classroom. I want to talk about rearranging the chairs.

In a typical classroom, the seats are arranged in rows and aisles. Each student has their “personal space,” and both teachers and students can negotiate the pathways to move around the room. Unfortunately, the problems it engenders far outweigh any supposed benefits to this arrangement.

First of all, this arrangement creates too much distance and separation between teacher and student. As a former teacher, I can tell you that being in front of such a room feels stifling, like I’m trapped behind a desk that in effect becomes a “wall” between teacher and student: “This is my space, that space is yours.” Second, when a teacher does decide to move amongst the students there is the real potential for taking a “pratfall,” there are a lot of pieces of furniture to have to maneuver around. This might not seem like a big deal, but such an incident can be disruptive and easily cause students to lose focus. And third, this arrangement is isolating for the students, creating too much distance between students and creating a sense of solitude that may actually discourage certain students from asking questions, making comment, and in general participating in the teacher’s plans for the day. From a management standpoint, at first glance it would seem like a positive thing, since isolating them presumably will keep them focused on the lesson and not making the effort to communicate with one another. Are people who think this really being serious? Lol

What I suggest, strongly suggest, is placing chairs in a semi-circle, forming an arc or two about 5 or 6 paces from the front of the room. From a management perspective, this is actually a much better arrangement, as teachers can more easily move into and around the students’ space. No more hiding in the back of the room! It gets the teacher out from the back of the desk and gives her a nice open space to work from. Rather than the farthest student being as much as 10 to 15 yards from the teacher’s desk, by using that open space there is no student more than just a few steps away. This also enhances discussion, as the close proximity gives a greater sense of collegiality among the kids, and it is clearly easier for students to hear the teacher and one another. Sitting in the back, I am no longer staring at row after row of students’ backs. During presentations, for example, a semicircular arrangement is more comforting by reducing the effective space that students in front of the class must deal with.

By placing desks in this arrangement, it is easier to distribute and disseminate materials, and it is easier for students to share resources. And by moving the desks closer together, you have opened up a lot of free space for students to utilize when group work is part of the lesson plan.

Now I can hear the objections of those who think I am facilitating the ability of students to pass notes, chat, and otherwise communicate with each other. Yes, I guess I am. But on the other hand, students will always find ways to communicate, and so I am at least minimizing the disruption they might cause through their efforts. And by being able to “invade” their space much quicker and easier, by literally being “on top” of them all period, I raise their risks of being caught. And by being in closer proximity, in general it is less likely that students will be able to get away with things “behind my back.” A teacher’s credibility can be negatively impacted when a class feels that they can “get away with stuff,” and that is much more likely in a traditional arrangement.

Hopefully any teachers reading this blog will, if they haven’t already, at least try this arrangement. I think you may also find that- knowing your kids are arranged this way- it will actually make you more creative as you plan your curriculum and design class activities. I don’t exactly know why that occurs, I just know that it will J The bottom line is that, if you want to improve the culture of learning in your classroom, rearrange the chairs. You’ll be glad you did!



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