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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Flexible Seating in the Middle School Classroom



I'm hoping that this post will serve two purposes. One, I answer a lot of questions about alternative, or flexible, seating in my classroom. I hope this will be a resource for teachers looking to jump into this type of arrangement. Two, this year I received a grant for several types of alternative seating arrangements. I want to report back on what worked, what didn't, to help to pay it forward and let others learn from this year. Apologies in advance for the length of the post.

To start out, some background. One, I'm blessed with a district that has administrators who have embraced any different types of seating in our classrooms and fire codes that allow fabric. Wanted to acknowledge that up front. So, why change up student seating? I'm coming to middle school from the elementary world where I've spent the last twenty years. Over those years my room became less and less traditional in furniture. I've never been a decorator, and didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what looks cute - no issue what that, just not my focus. What I thought about constantly was if I was a kid, would I feel comfortable in this classroom. Did kids feel an ownership in this room? Was it my room, or ours? As a result, my desk left the room, as did several cabinets. I tried to think of what was really necessary. 

In my years in fifth grade I moved from desks to tables. It began as a practical move - I never had desks by themselves or in rows, so tables were a natural fit. They took up less space. Once I did that, old furniture from my house began trickling its way in. A few floor pillows were added. Eventually a group of stools that allowed students to move. I kept tweaking the arrangements, trying to find a way to fit the needs of all students.

When I decided to move to middle school last year, I knew that not all of the furniture would move with me, some belonged to the elementary school. My concern was if this type of classroom would fit at the middle school level. I turned to an expert, my thirteen year old son. I asked him about the desk/chair combination in his middle school classroom. He informed me that he hated them. At almost six feet, he didn't fit well in them. He also told me they hurt his butt. At first, I laughed. But as I took my endorsement classes for middle school, I realized why he said this. Our middle school students, as we all know, are dealing with puberty in our years with them. Part of that development is that their bones begin to ossify, or harden, through these years. One of the last bones to undergo this transformation is the tailbone. That alone made me resolved to give my students somewhere to sit beyond a hard surface when they were in our room.

Below I'm going to share all of the options my students have for seating in our classroom. (Click on the name of the seating to be taken to where I purchased it, if available). I'll let you know the pros/cons of each. I will tell you, after surveying my students extensively throughout the year, there is not one magic seating out there. Some kids love the bungee chairs, for example, while others hate them. I think the key is offering up options and letting the kids sit where it works for them. We do have days each kid gets certain "spots" in our room. (A chart with the spots listed and clothespins with their numbers on them, rotated daily.) They can always turn them down and sit somewhere else, but this allows everyone to have a fair shot at each spot.

Old Living Room Furniture - free or cheap



One of my couches was from our house, had just outlived the purpose here. The black couch I purchased for $50 off of a retiring teacher in our district. Another teacher gave me a blue armchair a year or so ago. And just this week I put out the call on Facebook for TV trays, which we are decoupaging an old book to the top. The couches are, by far, the favorite spots in the classroom. 

Pros: Cheep when you find donors, very comfortable, kids love it
Cons: Some fire codes would be issues, lice (yuck!), take up a lot of room

Hokki Stools - around $100 (we have the 18 inch)


I wrote a Donor's Choose grant for six of these almost four years ago. 

Pros: Help kids that like to move, well made
Cons: Some kids like them, some really don't like them. The soft gray part on top is easily marred by pencils. (Still useable, just lots of impressions.) 

Video Game rockers - around $50



I purchased these specifically for this year. At first I was worried that seventh graders would be too big for them. Wrong. These are loved by the majority of the class and used daily.
Pros: have held up well, portable, loved by lots of kids
Cons: kind-of expensive

Bean Bags: Big Joe - Around $45

Ugh. I have a love/hate relationship with these. I originally purchased two of the Big Joe bags and brought in an old one from home (blue in the picture below, when the other two were almost flat halfway through the year.) 

Pros: The kids LOVE them, they are portable
Cons: the two I purchased were almost completely flat by Christmas (less than six months). Now they stack all three together to use. Refills are expensive and I wonder how long they'd last. 

Bungee Chairs (around $40)/ Butterfly Chairs (around $30)


The kids love these too. The bungee chairs have held up better than the butterfly, which you can kind-of tell in the photo right above. While not as portable as a video game rocker, the kids do move them around at will.

Pros: Comfortable, portable, meets the needs of a variety of kids. Bungee chairs allow you to bounce.
Cons: Butterfly chair's pocket to keep it secure has broken in one year. Bungee allows kids to push through so they are hanging down. Not sure if this will last well over time.

Rug (around $200 each) and Floor Pillows (around $20 each)

I'm not sure my students would consider the carpets "spots", or maybe even the floor pillows, but they use them a lot. They lay down on the carpets when working more than the floor. The pillows are often added to the hard chairs to make them more comfortable. 

Pros: Carpets have held up extremely well. 
Cons: The pillows had buttons originally, but they've all popped off. Fine other than that. 

Standing Desks - $250 each, local builder


The standing desks were built by a relative of my administrator. He made them adjustable so that they could be desk height, but we just leave them up. I did bring in stools because some kids wanted to sit, but like the extra height. And the standing desk allows one of my students, who wears a brace, the comfort of standing and stretching where desks cause her pain.

Pros: Extremely well made, allow students to move.
Cons: Expensive

My desk - free, brought in from home

As I mentioned before, I don't have your typical desk. Mine is a side table from my house. In the picture with students, it is covered with books on the right side, in front of the window. In the picture above, March is resting on it. Point being, I couldn't give up a desk completely - I wanted a space in the classroom to meet with kids, to confer out of the way, to write during our quick writes, it just didn't need to be big. Kids sit at it all the time, it can be one of their "spots" too, but it is perfect for me. I love it.

And there you have it. I think I hit all of the seating options we currently have. When looking ahead to next year, I'd love to get some more armchair like chairs - along with some coffee tables or side tables - and get rid of the traditional student desks completely. The kids that like the "desks" told me they like that it is their own space, not a table. They don't want to be crowded, but actually hate the hardness of the desks. I'm hoping this will help. 

I'm also looking to get rid of the mindset (my mindset) that they need a spot at a table, that the couch (or what have you) is "extra". I'd like them just to be able to work at the couch. That's why I grabbed some TV trays. We might add more of those before the end of the year. In one week they have become very popular already.

Finally, I'm looking to add more lamps to our classroom and avoid the overhead lights if at all possible. The kids love it when I use the one lamp I currently have.

I'm beyond grateful to my district, our education foundation, and local bank, for sponsoring grants that have helped me get some of this seating in the classroom. I'm also grateful to my husband Chris, who has help to supply the rest. It takes a village, folks!

If you have any thoughts or tips on alternative seating, share below. Can't wait to hear from you!