Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The humanely arranged classroom

When I entered my daughter's classroom at back-to-school night the other week, I almost wept with joy. The desks were arranged.... in rows facing the teacher. No wonder my daughter, for the first time ever, was retaining her teacher's words and reporting to me what she'd learned from her. Finally she had a teacher up in front, easy to see and hear. Why did she, along with various other highly distractible classmates, have to wait until 4th grade for this?

When I saw those desks in rows, what moved me was a sense of humaneness. This was a classroom that takes education seriously; one in which the teacher views teaching as her top priority, and herself, not her students, as the one ultimately responsible for ensuring that everyone learns--in spite of all those education fads that dictate otherwise.

Here's what Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov's marvelous survey of highly effective teachers, has to say about classroom seating:
Teachers in many classrooms seat their students in pods of desks that face each other because they believe that students should be socialized to interact in school. This is a general (in fact overgeneralized) belief about the nature and philosophy of schooling. With the exception of the fact that some teachers realign desks for tests, this classroom layout often doesn't change even if critical parts of the class period involve, say, taking notes on what the teacher writes on the board. This often erodes outcomes. Though students should interact in school, the time when they are supposed to be constructing a record of key information in writing may not really be the time for that. And with desks in pods, some percentage of the students must now look over their shoulders to see the information they are accountable for and then swivel to write it down in front of them. Furthermore, students must ignore the student directly across from them to attend to the teacher behind their desk. If the teacher's goal is to be attended to for much of the lesson, she has created a strong disincentive for that. The classroom layout has made the primary lesson objective harder to accomplish in deference to philosophy.
All the more so when distractible, pod-seated students receive low grades on tests (or "authentic assessments") based on material covered only in class, a common occurrence in our textbook-eschewing primary schools.


Barry Garelick said...

Don't tell Sherry Fraser.

Mrs. H said...

I often get marked down on my yearly evaluation because my students are seated in rows for the entire year unless we are doing an activity that requires partners or groups.

I could care less about my evaluations. I know I am a good teacher, my students tell me they learn in my class, and every year parents request me.

I value the opinion of my students and their parents much more than that of my administration. No offense intended. The have all been brainwashed by the current educational trends.

Anonymous said...

My son (not on the spectrum, but shy and protective of his privacy/space), always preferred to be on the edge of the classroom, not surrounded by other students. Even if the desks were in rows, he wanted to be in the last row, on the side. He was perfectly able to pay attention from that vantage point. This is almnost a physical need for some kids. We are, after all, requiring them to stay in a room with 25-30 other kids all day long; that alone is a challenge for some perfectly normal children.

Katharine Beals said...

Very compelling comments. Mrs. H, how lucky for your students and your parents that you put their concerns ahead of your administration's evaluations! You might appreciate this post by a fellow "subversive" teacher:

1crosbycat said...

We pulled our 4 kids out of public school in August for a very small and underfunded private school. The first grade class was in a "U" shape, with most desks facing the board, but our 4th and 6th were in rows. In 4th the desks are touching, but in 6th there is a space between the desks. I never thought about it before, but I do remember being in pods and having to turn all the way around to see the board. Now it seems like a no-brainer - and although it looks messy (wider than long) our 6th grade setup is best - who wants to be sandwiched between two kids like that? High school was always columns, if you will, classroom always longer than wide, so it looked ok with aisles between desks. I did wonder what the logic was with these room arrangements, especially when my IEP kid was placed in a weird hard-to-see spot next to a distracting goofball (sorry, it was actually the other IEP kids - the aide was probably triple charging for helping all of them at once).

FMA said...

When I was in college, I always tried to sit in the first couple of rows. Even as an adult, I found it distracting to have too many people in front of me. Considering that kids have short attention spans and are easily distracted it makes absolutely no sense to have them facing anyone but the teacher.

ChemProf said...

I was involved in designing a new science building a few years ago. We spent so much time talking about sight-lines and making sure that all students could see the boards as well as possible. It is interesting to me how little teachers seem to consider these issues with younger kids, where they choose how to arrange the room.