Heading in to this school year, I whole-heartedly embraced flexible (or self-selected, whichever you choose to call it) seating. To me it sounded like such a great way to meet the needs of so many learners, provide a cozy, communal feel to the room and allow students to build their self-awareness. Win, win, win.
So, I diligently did my research, reading blog post after blog post. I learned about all the different options for seating and storage and flow. I set my classroom up with all of these things in mind.
And then the students came.
Aaaannnnd I learned a few things, which I share with you here. I still love flexible seating, I just know now that it is not all rainbows and unicorns, especially with 7 year olds (let's be honest, 7 year olds are rainbows and unicorns most of the time, which kind of makes life around them...not. Rainbows and unicorns make a lot of mess, people. Lovely, wonderful mess, but mess nonetheless).
5. Figure out your storage plan. And then add more.
My initial storage plan involved communal everything - pencils, erasers, scissors, duotangs - everything went into group boxes. The only non-communal storage items were personal book bins for reading times. It sounded great - I labeled every pencil bin and every table...easy peasy. I assigned students the job of handing out duotangs and papers. We were good to go. And then the questions started - "Where can I keep my pencil case?", "What about my glasses? I don't want to carry them all day!", "Who's this kid? (shows me a duotang)...and what about this one? And this one?" Oh my word.
I quickly realized 3 things - 1) they must have some personal space to store things, 2) an exciting part of Gr. 2 is having your own space. When you don't, you don't feel as grown up. And 3) constantly passing out an entire class's worth of duotangs means a lot of sitting around for 22 other kids.
Now, we got over #2 pretty quickly and are trucking along just fine feeling all grown up. After all, being allowed to work on couches with your friends* feels pretty grown up.
*we'll talk more about this later. For now, suffice it to say that this is huge management piece in and of itself.
#1 is still a pain in the butt. Our book bins are too large to be brought with us to the tables every time, not to mention the amount of time taking them out and putting them away 15 times a day would take us. I purchased a cardboard mailbox thingy but the slot isn't big enough for things like glasses cases. And it would appear that when messy rainbows and unicorns pull one thing out of their mailbox, everything else comes with it. Straight to the floor with a big plop. Which some of the rainbows and most of the unicorns forget to clean up. Sigh.
Since the purpose of this post is to allow you to learn from my, ahem, challenges, let me suggest that you a) make sure every child has a reasonably sized personal storage space that can contain glasses cases, a pencil box (if you choose not to use communal supplies) and several duotangs, notebooks, etc. I personally would have a separate book bin, as you will end up with notebooks and duotangs getting buried in books or strewn about the classroom during reading times. See point above about the neatness of rainbows and unicorns. Which leads me to my next point...
4. Really, seriously consider the flow of your room.
I am blessed with a decent size space, thank goodness, but unfortunately I have only 1 wall without a door, sink or board on it, which means that my storage options are limited. I also have a completely useless shelving unit that is about 4 inches deep taking up a good chunk of real estate on one of my walls. I say this not to complain but to point out that storage space is essential for a flexible seating classroom. You must be able to quickly and efficiently get supplies out and put them away; and when I say you, I really mean 24 little darlings. I am not the first person to realize this...see this blog post from Minds in Bloom and this one from Lives of Learning for more ideas.
Ideally, store about 5 students' supplies (book bin, pencil case, duotangs, etc) in one area. More than this and you spend a lot of your day managing the flow of people so that unicorns don't trample rainbows in their quest to get to work. Have separate areas of the class for each group of 5 so that they are not tripping over one another to get where they are going. Make sure that the storage areas are at a reasonable height (a few of my kiddos are pretty short and can't actually see in to their mailboxes) and are easy to keep tidy.
If you are in the same boat as I am and storage space is at a premium (maybe or maybe not due to a large and useless shelving unit), number your students. We are learning a lot about even and odd numbers just simply by virtue of having to manage flow. I allow the evens to go first to get their supplies while the odds pick their seats. I allow numbers 1-5 to put their book bins away, then 6-10 and so on and so forth. It is a bit more time consuming this way but we're learning to be more efficient as time goes on.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to consider flow. Do it. Have someone else look at your plan. Rethink. Rethink again. Try it. Drop it like it's hot. Change it. Try it again. Eventually you will have a well-oiled rainbow and unicorn machine.
3. Consider having home groups.
Sometimes you need kids to quickly form groups, or you need to be sure the classroom has been well-tidied at the end of the day. Home groups allow you to quickly and easily have kids go back to a certain spot in the room and ensure it is tidy. They allow you to have work groups that you know work well (mostly...there are always conflicts, even with rainbows and unicorns) without having to move people because they chose to sit with their friends instead of people they work well with. Home groups just make some days and some activities quicker and easier.
2. Model, Model, Model.
No matter what seating options you end up with in your classroom, do not, under any circumstances, assume that your students know how to sit, stand or otherwise use the tools they have been given. Sure, they've sat on a couch a million times before. At home. Do you know how they sit on their couch at home? That's right, they don't. They lie on it, they jump on it, they climb on it. I'm pretty sure they never actually sit on it, and certainly never with a piece of writing to work on.
So, model, model, model. About half of the seating in my room is hokki stools, which most of my students have used before. So, I skipped the step of modeling how to sit on a hokki stool. Because really, how hard can it be? They`re wobbly, so self-preservation would suggest that you keep at least a toe on the floor at all times for balance. But no. Rainbows and unicorns are built for exploring, that is how they learn. So now, daily, rainbows and unicorns fall off the hokki stools as they attempt to spin, balance and kneel when the boss is not looking. And now, daily, we have to review how to sit on a hokki stool.
Do yourself a favour and model the heck out of every possible seating option you have available to you. Praise the students that use them correctly and actively correct those that don`t. Short term pain for long term gain, trust me.
1. Have unwavering behaviour expectations.
-The beauty of self-selected seating is that students are not forced to sit in uncomfortable, ill-fitting chairs at uncomfortable, ill-fitting desks all day. The challenge is that you no longer have control over where they choose to sit. The rose-coloured glasses version of this fairy-tale suggests that students will choose the spot that they need to be successful, regardless of where there friends are sitting. But take off those rose-coloured glasses for a minute and consider what motivates kids - school work or friendship? Riiigggghhht.
So that means that you, dear teacher, need to help them learn to make good choices. In a traditional classroom set-up, you would simply move their desks so that they were on opposite sides of the room. That is no longer a possibility. It also isn't really much of a learning opportunity. The student has not had any form of agency in the move, so they haven't learned to consider what is best for their learning in that moment. In a flexible seating arrangement, you can allow students the freedom to choose within the confines of a very strict, do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200, I will move you if you show me you have not made a good choice for your learning situation.
What I have found is that reminding students of their purpose before they begin a task, advising them to make a good choice based on this purpose and maintaining an absolutely inflexible rule about when you will move them results in them beginning to make good choices. For me, no warnings at all has worked best. 1 warning generally resulted in about 5 minutes of better focus and then they fell off the rails again. The reality is, there are just some kids they are better off not working beside at certain times (I have 2 darling boys who love to read together and oh are they cute curled up on the sofa reading but let them write sitting side by side and it's a disaster. They are learning that as much as I am). It's tough constantly being the police but man, is it rewarding when they start making those good choices. And reward them you must! They need to know that they are making the right choices at the right times and that you are proud of them. Rainbows and unicorns love praise. Love it. Eat it up like candy.
And know that when you slip, because we all slip when we are tired or stressed or sick or they are just-so-bloody-cute-you-can't-resist-letting-them-just-this-one-time, you can go back. Warn the kids that you have all fallen off the rails a bit and that this week is get back on track week. Let them know that it might be tough but that you can all do it and you will all be better for it. And then praise the heck out of them again and again and again when they do get back on track.
In the end, flexible seating is all about making sure that students' learning is being enhanced, rather than hampered by their environment. It definitely takes some work but I love having the opportunity for students to a) learn what works best for them when it comes to their learning and b) have what works best for them help them learn.
Read my follow-up post, Why I'm Abandoning Flexible Seating, to learn more about my thoughts on flexible seating in Gr. 2 (hint: I'm not totally abandoning it).
I'm Bryn, teacher, mom, book lover, athlete. I am passionate about literacy, collaborative teaching and finding new and innovative ways to engage & motivate all kids. I hope you find something that speaks to you here on my blog and would love to hear from you too!