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Flexible Seating: Not a Trend, a Classroom Lifestyle Change

My teammates were so inspired with my journey last year that they all decided to transform their classrooms into flex seating environments this year.

Traci Browder | @tracibrowder
March 12,  2020
Perspectives

This is a story that must begin with the ending…because the ending will blow you away!

I transformed my classroom throughout the last school year…with kindergartners! Crazy, right? It evolved from traditional seating to flexible seating without spending a single penny – no Donors Choose and no Go Fund Me. There were so many transformational moments, that students began to wonder each morning would their classroom look the same as the day before.

The videos you’re about to click on below show what the post was waiting on to be complete!

This summer, I participated in the best of professional development (PD) sessions. It started as a math session and ended as an impromptu field trip. During introductions we were asked to share something others may not know about us. I shared briefly about my classroom transformation. Every kindergarten teacher on the east side of our school district headed to my campus to check out my flex seating transformation.

Quick back story: My teammates were so inspired with my journey last year that they all decided to transform their classrooms into flex seating environments this year. Most of them also transformed their rooms for free (some have spent a minimal amount on specific items). Unbeknownst to the field trip participants, they would be visiting all our classrooms (Note: videos were recorded in the summer. Rooms were still under construction since school had not yet started).

Impromptu teachers only field trip checking out teachers blazing the flex seating trail!

THIS is collaboration at its finest! Teachers sharing their classroom transformations to inspire other teachers!

Back to the field trip. Every teacher left our building with plans to process what flex seating could look like in their own classrooms!

See why I had to begin with the end?

You will be inspired by this article and I’m cheering for you to read to the end and enjoy the videos as they take you inside my classroom and the classrooms of other awesome teachers.

Whew, I took you on a roller coaster!  Now, back to the beginning!

You’re reading this because like me, you’ve always wanted to have that classroom, right?

It’s much easier than you think!

When you finish reading this article, you will have everything you need to start acquiring flexible seating for your classroom.

But first, let’s talk pedagogy.

In 2018, Stephen Merrill, Edutopia’s Chief Content Editor, published an article titled Flexible Classroom: Research is Scarce, But Promising. The research referenced in Merrill’s article was conducted by researchers at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom and included 27 classrooms.  What Merrill stated at the end of his article perfectly sums up the concept of flexible seating:  “If used properly, flexible classrooms produce better academic outcomes among primary school children than more traditional, static classroom designs.”

Opinions live on both sides of the fence when it comes to flexible seating. Some educators believe there is no impact on academics or that their administrators would not be supportive of flexible seating, while others emphatically support and speak of the benefits of flexible seating.

My journey with flexible seating is exceptionally unique. What makes it so unique? That’s the exciting part!

My flexible seating transformation took place throughout the entire school year. Yes, as in my classroom would look one way when the kids left for lunch, enrichment, or home. They were completely surprised when they came in to find it different from when they left. This happened multiple times throughout the year. “Wow!” became a normal part of their vocabulary. Join the discussion by visiting my brand new Flex Seating Collab Lounge Facebook group.

You are about to learn:

  • Why I did it
  • Benefits
  • Academics
  • Classroom Management and the Flexible Seating Environment
  • How I Did It

Why I Did It

Every year I make a commitment for that year to be the best year yet. I keep trying to top it year after year.  Students are having amazing experiences because I make certain I have the same energy and passion I did when I was in my first five years of teaching. Every day, students are  eager to come to school. They are passionate about being recipients of the commitment they didn’t know existed.

Each year, I commit to taking off in my expansive vessel that others call a classroom with twenty-two passengers to give them an amazing year. One full of excitement, anticipation, surprises, collaboration, team building, and teamwork. Teaching never gets old with this perspective and I’m in year 17!

Think about your home for a moment. Each room has its own style, its own personality if you will. When you are at home, you have choices. You can choose the couch, a chair, a barstool, a pillow, or the floor. When you are at home, you are comfortable and relaxed. Why can’t we give students this same environment in our classrooms?

Parents and students have always said my room screams fun. I’ve always had lots of stuffed animals, I dress in costumes, and teach with an electrifying energy that keeps students on the edges of their seats and bursting in laughter. The environment and the energy did not match. I set out to change that.

I began changing the decor in my classroom by adding lamps with splashes of color. The thin, aluminum blinds needed some spice. I searched Pinterest for ideas on decorating classroom windows and decided to make ribbon valances with lots of bright colors. My students were loving these small changes.

Something was missing.  I stood in the middle of my classroom trying to figure it out. It felt like two worlds were colliding. This fun, colorful, lively environment was coexisting with standard issue classroom furniture. Then it came to me! The furniture needed to change. I wanted students to feel like they were at home or in a learning lounge.  This was the beginning of my exciting flexible seating transformation. Before you go any further, pause and reflect on your why. Why do you teach? What is your commitment each year? Why are you reading this article? What will you commit to do differently, to do better than ever before?

Benefits of Flexible Seating

That depends.

All flexible seating is not created equally, but before I elaborate, let’s look at what flexible seating is and what it isn’t.

What it Isn’t…A Word of Caution

Flexible seating is not a tool, solution, or replacement of classroom management.

Complete explanation about flex seating and classroom management

Flex seating is not the answer for a teacher who is growing in the area of classroom management. Students need consistency and clear expectations in order to thrive and learn. Think of flex seating as an external enhancement to a classroom with students who do what they’re supposed to whether the teacher is present or not. That is the evidence of sound classroom management.

Expectations must be clear, concise, and consistent in a flex seating environment.

Alternatively, for teachers with sound classroom management that still think, “Flex seating is not for me, that’s letting go of too much control.” Listen to Mrs. Hawkins explain how her thoughts changed after a year of living across the hall with my flex seating environment.

What it Is

Simply put, flexible seating is a thing of beauty. Students feel a sense of ownership and empowerment in their school day experience because they have been the gift of freedom to choose by their teacher.  The trust bond is strengthened between students and the teacher when:

  • The teacher guides students through understanding the uniqueness of the experience they have been given.
  • Students appreciate their innovative environment.
  • Students feel special.

The flexible seating environment meets the needs of every student.

  • It’s perfect for the student who thrives by having the freedom to move around
  • Students who love to be engaged in conversation finally have an environment that welcomes the collaborative combination of learning and voice.
  • Comfortably quiet spaces exist for students who want to work with minimal distractions.
  • Students who can be  overstimulated have places of retreat without being singled out.

Stimulates Creative Thinking

When students own their space and are able to choose the place that fits their mood and learning style they are poised to not only think, but they are poised to think openly, freely, and with a new perspective. They have the space to do things they could not do in a classroom crowded with tables or desks and chairs.

Student engagement increases in the flex seating environment.

Enhances Critical Thinking

It is not uncommon for the flex seating teacher to be the innovative, outside-the-lines teacher. It’s not so much that flex seating fosters critical thinking (although I think it does to a certain degree), it’s the learning environment that the teacher creates. It’s the assignments that students are given.

Are assignments products of a grade level planning in advance? Are the lessons designed by the classroom teacher who has an intimate knowledge of what the students need? Is the learning driven by student inquiry, exploratory or problem based learning? Do students explore real world problems, connect learning to the real world, technology or subject matter experts?

The best of both worlds exists in my classroom!

I’m highly analytical. I read the state standards (TEKS). I research best practices, I plan with my team, I dissect the TEKS vertically and talk to first grade teachers regularly. I’m one of the founding teachers of vertical planning sessions at our school. I am a staunch supporter of teachers planning together and sharing best practices.

There is something to be said and respected about getting teachers of varied backgrounds and experiences together to develop robust, rigorous lessons and activities for students. However, something magical happens when empowering students with the freedom to sit in the driver seat of their learning. Student realization of ownership of their own learning ignites and unlocks the imagination and sets forth a flood of creativity.

Collaborative

Ever felt like it can be difficult to work in a cluttered environment? You realize you’re spending more time looking for what you need rather than actually working. Then, in a moment of sheer frustration, you clean, declutter, reorganize, and are able to get to work. Not only do you get to work, you thrive, you excel, and your ideas are overflowing.

Collaboration in a flex seating environment works the same way. When students have a more comfortable, free thinking, creativity-inspiring space within which to think and work, collaboration occurs naturally. The spirit of collaboration is as natural a presence as is the students and teacher in the classroom.

Without big, clunky tables or desks spreading kids far apart from each other, students find themselves talking about what they’re learning, asking questions, helping each other, and brainstorming to solve something they don’t understand. My classroom transformed into an environment of joyfully expressive independence through flex seating and collaboration.  Students work together more because they are closer to one another, and they feel empowered to be collaborative. This environment yields substantially less of me and dramatically more of them.

See for yourself!

The room screams collaboration as these kindergarten students find solutions in problem based learning. Students were tasked with deciding what they think next year’s incoming students should know about kindergarten.  Just listen to the collaboration.

Inviting/Fosters Community

This classroom doesn’t just belong to the students in my classroom, this classroom was built by community and belongs to the community

Attendance/Tardy Improvement

Pleasant surprise alert! The videos speak for themselves in this segment. The first video captures the element of surprise. Remember I said the flexible seating transformation took place during the school year right before the kids’ eyes? You’ll see the surprise when the kids walk in and see the additions and changes. This is only one example of this happening multiple times throughout the year.

You’ll learn more about how my flex seating works later, but for now, I have to tell you it is a first come, first choice environment. When you watch the videos, notice how fast little feet are moving to get completely unpacked and choose their seats.

Surprise when more flex seating is added. Students rush to choose their seats for the day. Improved attendance, academics, and reduced tardiness.

Unexpected, unanticipated, but absolutely welcome pluses to my flex seating classroom:

Students wanted to be at school.

Students were eager to get to school.

Students began asking their parents to hurry up in the mornings.

Parent Testimonials

As a parent, the flex seating was extremely important. It made me realize why my son was so excited to get into class every day and eventually I was able to connect the dots. Flex seating also helped push me to help my son learn in a more creative way at home. My son was extremely excited about getting to class early every day so that he could pick where he wanted to sit. This also transferred into respect for the classroom. Flex seating made the students and parents feel special as they passed the classroom.

-Selena Ware, Parent

I particularly like the flex seating and the freedom it gives children. I felt that it made my soon feel comfortable, and when children are comfortable they can focus on the lesson. It also gave them a sense of independence at their age, and decision making opportunities. The different tables, and the relaxed environment made the class very welcoming when I visited. My son always told me how excited he was to be able to pick and choose his seat. It was a privilege he really enjoyed.

-Audra V., Parent

Release of Control

By nature, teachers are masters of control. It’s quite logical, given that we are responsible for upward of 20 students. Upper grade teachers are responsible for more than 100 students depending on class rotation structure. Historically, teachers have always owned the larger part of the control of the classroom. Something magical begins to happen, however, when teachers realize that the learning environment flourishes, excels, and even changes, when the teacher releases control.

Students who are normally quiet begin to take risks, while students who are leaders begin to freely help others and boost their confidence. New learning opportunities such as inquiry, problem based, and explorative learning develop from conversations and collaboration. All of this is purely student-driven versus teacher-led.

The level of student ownership grew exponentially as I joyfully and freely placed students in the driver seat. I posed questions and they voted or came to a consensus on how things would run in our classroom. Students thrive the most when they own their learning, are able to pose questions, discuss, learn to listen to each other, and come to a consensus.

2nd Graders & Kinders working together to retell and create illustrations based on stories they read while getting #LostInLit together! Three students working one creating!

You will not believe this is kindergarten writing! Let students go as far as they can, don’t limit them. You’ll be surprised where they take you.

Pride

Another pleasant surprise? The sense of pride! Students tidied up regularly throughout the day without prompts from me. They cleaned with wet paper towels at the end of the day, scrubbing everything they possibly could and placing everything in appropriate places. Let me be clear…I gave no instructions or requests – this is all on the students in my class!

Students developed a sense of pride and ownership of their flex seating classroom and developed a cleaning routine without teacher request or guidance.

Fun

By now you should be realizing that flexible seating is only a piece of the puzzle in terms of placing students in the driver’s seat.

Students caring, cleaning, loving, playing, happy!

Does the Novelty Wear Off?

You may be wondering, “Does it get old? Do students become bored with flexible seating?  What about the freedom to choose their own seats…does that get old?”

There is one answer to all these intriguing questions, and it’s a simple one…no!

Every day is a new adventure and experience. I can see the anticipation as students arrive in the class. It’s as if the gleam in their little eyes is saying, “I wonder who I get to sit next to today.”  Once students arrive in class, one can feel the energy in the room as they stand at their lockers gathering and strategizing where they are going to sit.

There’s another reason the energy is always fresh.  While students choose their seats upon arrival in the morning, during the day, they are given yet more opportunities to choose where they work.  If a student chooses to sit on our futon for the day, he may still elect to stretch out on the floor for writing. He may opt to sit in one of my rocking chairs, on bean bag, on the table, or lean on the counter to read or complete assignments.  The variety is endless for students in this environment.

I mentioned early on that a solid foundation of expectations through classroom management is critical. I’m certain by now you have a better understanding why this is so important. While these words are ironic in nature – there is a great deal of freedom that comes with a great deal of structure. Students thoroughly understand, respect, and are willing to follow agreed upon classroom expectations. The flexible seating culture then becomes ready to thrive and sets students free as owners of their own choices in learning and collaboration.

Performance and Behavior Dynamic

Giftedness, below grade level performance, oppositional defiance disorder, ADD, ADHD, selective mutism disorder, and autism have all been part of the dynamic of my flexible seating classroom.  Upon first glance, one would think, “There is way too much going on, this has to be stimulation overload for the students.”

It’s quite the opposite.  When students want to work alone, there is a place to do so.  If they want to hang out in the book nook, in the kitchen, in front of our screen, on the floor with friends, sitting in rocking chairs, the tent, futon, or in the loft – they can.

Students begin to self-regulate and therefore become very in-tune with their emotions and preferences. Gaining this level of awareness and social emotional development in kindergarten gives students a robustly successful foundation of confidence and empowerment.

I’ve noticed a more cohesive environment of community. Students problem solve better and communicate better which directly decreases challenges with behavior.

How I Did It

If you’re still with me, you are truly ready to begin the journey of creating a flexible seating environment for your students. You should now have a clear understanding that flexible seating is not something done in isolation or as a “fix” for classroom management.

Flex seating is an experience for students that comes from the heart of the teacher.

It is imperative that you know that I did not pay for ANY of my flex seating…not one penny!

I live in a tight-knit community and I love my school. My son was in the first kindergarten class when the school opened. I started working at the school the following year. That was more than twelve years ago.

When I started thinking about how I was going to fund a complete classroom transformation through flexible seating, I realized there was NO WAY I could afford to do it on my own.

I didn’t want to host Donors Choose or Go Fund Me. I wanted my community to embrace my classroom! I had to think, “How am I to make this happen?”

Then it came to me!

I decided to use the Nextdoor app and Facebook to share my vision with my community.

I first had to think about my vision. One phrase came to me. I wanted my classroom to look and feel like home. I started by looking on Pinterest to find a flex seating class that was similar to my vision.

PD session turned impromptu teachers only field trip to check out my flex seating!

My next step was to craft a post to send out along with the pictures.

The responsiveness and outpouring of support were mind blowing!

People were so happy and willing to help. I had to consistently monitor my Nextdoor private inbox because there was a constant flood of support and offerings of new and very gently used gorgeous items.I’m talking about a Pottery Barn kitchen set (and we all know Pottery Barn’s price point), brand new futon, rocker chairs, custom wreath, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

It became second nature for me to leave immediately after having dinner to pick up donations. It became a family affair – sometimes I’d grab one of my boys, other times, my husband. My husband and sons were also my moving company and received multiple five star ratings for superb delivery of goods to my campus.

I gathered small collections, we’d add that small collection and remove a table or two in the classroom like ninjas while the kids were gone. The surprise videos above happened several times throughout the year as donations continued to come in.

It still amazes me how my room came together so perfectly.

I did not stress about color scheme because my goal was to create a fun environment. I do consider myself quite the fortunate one that everything blended so well.

It was very important to me to share my final results with the community. I wanted them to see how their generosity impacted my classroom.

From an Administrator’s Perspective

It’s important to capture the perspective of administrators who have seen these transformations occur in real time.  Mrs. Roberson is the principal of the school that hosted the district’s summer math professional development session I mentioned earlier.  When the teachers packed up and headed to my school, Mrs. Roberson and assistant principal, Katie Cameron, came along not only to observe, but to field questions their teachers may have and begin making plans for possible transformations at their campus.

Dr. Swizie, principal at my campus, has embraced my creativity and realizes that my classroom is way outside the box!  She, too, was on hand, to participate in the walk through our halls welcoming teachers and celebrating our flexible seating transformations.

I have taken you on quite the journey! If you made it through the entire article, I WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU! Where were you before you began reading the article? What made you read the article? How have your thoughts changed now that you reached the article’s finish line? Are you already doing flex seating in your classroom? If not, what will be your first steps?  You can join the conversation in multiple ways:

Author

Howdy, Edufriends! I am a lover of people and relationships. I’ve been teaching for more than 16 years. My happy places have been reading specialist, instructional coach, mentor, and a 3rd grade and Kindergarten teacher. My classroom is a live learning lab hosting student teachers, teachers who want to learn how to have more engagement in their classrooms, and administrators for other schools often pop in. I am most passionate about igniting the spark in adults and helping children believe in themselves. Perhaps oddly interesting, I have a unique love for animals that includes previously having owned a boa constrictor and having shown pure-bred wolves at wolf shows. I should have said unique love for exotic animals!

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