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Flexible seating in District 54 classrooms helps to ensure student success

Erin DeMars’ sixth-grade class at Muir Elementary School is hard at work on writing. The students have chosen workspaces around the room that best meet their needs. Some sit on a rug, some sit in low-to-the-ground bucket chairs, some on tall stools, and others in regular chairs. Some students have opted to find a space on their own, while others work alongside a classmate.

As they get ready to move on to reading, DeMars reminds them of the expectations.

“When I say go, you can find a partner and pick a spot where you can stay focused and get your work done,” she says.

Students work in higher chairs

Two students in Erin DeMars’ sixth-grade Muir class sit on tall stools to work on writing.

Students chat quietly while figuring out where to sit and with whom. Some move to the floor, some move to a different table, and some stay where they are. Once they are situated, they work with their partners to read the story and answer questions.

This is one of many flexible seating arrangements that can be found in classrooms throughout District 54 as we work on Strategic Focus Area 2 of our new strategic plan – cultivating innovation in learning spaces and instructional design – to ensure the success of the whole child.

The flexibility lies not only in the type of seats that are available, but also in the freedom for students to choose a situation that helps them do their best work.  

“It’s all really connected to the idea of student engagement — that the learning environment matters,” said Dr. Nicholas Myers, District 54’s associate superintendent and the leader of the new Innovate 54 team which will facilitate and support instructional innovation across the district.

Research has shown that achievement results increased for students when classroom design was adapted to create more engaging and welcoming learning environments. A bright, warm, quiet, safe, clean, comfortable and healthy environment is critical to successful teaching and learning (Barrett & Zhang 2009).

Schools are moving away from classrooms where students sit at desks facing the teacher at the front of the room toward environments that facilitate collaboration, problem-solving and communication and where technology is easily accessible.  

Last year students at Blackwell Elementary School and Addams Junior High were challenged to design their ideal classrooms. Results included a variety of seating options, tables of different heights and different types of learning spaces throughout the room, ideas which many teachers throughout District 54 are exploring with their classes.

“We believe kids should be involved in the design process,” Myers said.   

Student-centered environments
Alwyn and Lilli, two of DeMars’ students, said they used their creativity to design their classroom at Muir. The students began by talking about the best way to focus and be successful around their peers. They discussed what responsible table behavior looked like, and why a student might not want to sit next to a good friend while trying to learn and concentrate.

DeMars said her class talked about what they liked and didn’t like in a classroom, and looked at photos of other classrooms to get ideas. They discussed what they would do if they could buy anything, and what they could do with what they already had. They put all of the furniture in the middle of the classroom and went from there, engaging in thoughtful conversations about how to make sure their learning environment meets everyone’s needs. For instance, it was suggested that they keep a private nook available for someone who prefers to work alone.

“The students really like being part of the decision-making, and the focus I get from them has been amazing,” DeMars said, adding that her students switch seats every day – sometimes more often.

“I’m instilling in them that they need to advocate for themselves, and they know at any moment they can move seats if it’s not working,” she said.

Magali Williams’ fourth-grade class at Muir has been working together to create and refine their student-centered flexible-seating arrangement.

A recent discussion centered on lowering tables. Some students had made the suggestion, but others weren’t sure they liked the idea.

“Let’s think about how we learn. How will lowering tables help us with learning?” Williams asked her students, who shared their thoughts while seated on yoga balls, rockers, wobble stools, a couch and other types of seats.

Students sitting in different types of seats.

Magali Williams’ students discuss the flexible seating arrangements in their classroom.

Research has shown that students take more ownership of their classroom when they have the freedom to choose their seats and to move around if needed, said Williams, who presented a session on flexible seating at the District 54 Professional Development Symposium this summer.

Flexible seating is an ongoing process of teaching students to choose seating that best meets their learning styles, she said.

“It’s not just being comfortable, or that the room looks nice — it’s about them thinking about what helps them focus,” she said. “I told them, this is your classroom. What do you need to make it work for you? They became a focused, engaged, committed community, and they were really reflective about what works for them.”

The students started their flexible-seating journey by setting expectations for the classroom and discussing the importance of selecting a seat – and a location in the room – that will help them do their best work.

The class talked about when a particular type of seat would be best; some students might work best in a different seat for math than they use for reading, for example.

“We have to pick seats that will help us learn, not just be comfortable,” Daria said.

Jaden explained that they tried all of the seats so they could see which one works best for them.

“I didn’t like the spiky ball because it didn’t keep me on track,” he said. “I like the rocker, because I can move, and use a lap tray.”

Mikayla noted that the beanbag chair helps her focus, because she is comfortable but also holding still. Josyah likes the rocker too, saying “if you have trouble staying on task because you’re very active, it helps you focus.”

A learning journey
Nikki Alcock and Heather Davis are both incorporating flexible seating into their math classrooms at Frost Junior High School.

Flexible seating at Frost

A student in Heather Davis’s math class at Frost sits in a beanbag chair to work.

Choices in Davis’ room include standing desks, butterfly chairs, tall chairs, low stools and yoga balls. At the beginning of the year she reviewed expectations with her students and asked them how they wanted to approach the new seating arrangements.

“They wanted a sign-up, so right now students can sign up to start at a different table during their independent work time,” she said.

Alcock decided she wanted to try flexible seating in her classroom after hearing her principal, Scott Ross, present about it. To get ideas for her classroom she looked on the Internet and talked to other District 54 teachers who have been using flexible seating.

“Once you start, it’s really exciting to see all of the options that are out there,” Alcock said. “My 54 Promise is more group work and discussions, and it’s amazing to see how flexible seating fosters that.”

A poster on the wall of Alcock’s room reminds students of the flexible seating expectations, which include staying on task, respecting the materials and not distracting others. Currently she is figuring out what experience will be best for each of her classes, and allowing a small group to choose where they want to sit during independent work time.

“I wanted to include students in the procedure and the purpose of it – that they need to be somewhere they’re going to be most successful,” she said. “How can we be flexible but still be on point for what we need to get done? I was surprised by how comfortable the students were with it.”

One of Alcock’s students, seventh-grader Maddie, said she likes the idea of having alternate seating choices.

“Honestly, I like flexible seating – it makes the room look better, and the sound of yoga mats, stools, etc. is a good change,” Maddie said.

“I would say it is a cool thing to try out for classes,” added another student, Jimmy.

Students sit in flexible seating

Jennifer Sword’s class gets ready to work.

Jennifer Sword rolled out flexible seating this year with her Muir third-grade class as an incentive for quick, quiet transitions. It is now fully implemented with every student having tried all of the available options. She said she has seen her students take ownership of their learning experience.

“During partner math, I saw one student sitting in a scoop seat and one sitting on a yoga ball, and they were trying to figure out how they both could see the paper at once,” she said. “They ended up deciding to sit at a table to work together.”

Sword’s next step, she said, will be to work with her students to design their classroom environment.

“I don’t know if we will get rid of tables entirely, because they have so many opportunities to sit away from the tables now, but we’ll see what they come up with,” she said.  

Click here to check out some social media posts from around District 54 spotlighting flexible seating!