Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Something Happened This Summer ... and It's Kinda a Big Deal

Oh, what? How's our summer going? Is that what you asked? Well, gee ... thanks for asking! Actually, something pretty exciting happened this summer for one of us and since you asked so nicely, we're going to tell you in comic form. You're welcome!

Kristie got married this summer!!!

Pretty exciting news, eh? So henceforth from this point forward, KB will cease to exist and KM or Mrs. M will be the moniker for Kristie on this blog. Now, KH just has to get used to calling her by her new last name, which is not going to be easy ... just sayin'!

From the limb,

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

You Don't Have Assigned Seats for Students, Say What? Part II

We recently posted about how we do not have assigned seating for our students in our classroom (You Don't Have Assigned Seats for Students, Say What?). In this post, we waxed poetic about how much we loved not having assigned seats in order to give the children the freedom to make choices about how and where they wanted to complete their work. Then it occurred to us that perhaps there are a few logistical consideration that people might be wondering about. And since inquiring minds want to know (or pushy bloggers want to share), we created this little FAQ to explain some of the logistics behind our classroom seating arrangements.

1. Where do the students keep all their crap learning materials?

This is a very important question, particularly if you're used to children having their own desk where they store all of their stuff. In our classroom, we solved this problem by re-purposing our backpack cubbies into essentially student lockers.
The student cubbies for the red and yellow birds.
Each student has their own cubby with their number (Not their name, mind you! Number stickers are reusable; name stickers decidedly not so.) where they store the majority of their learning materials. This picture is actually from the beginning of the year so it doesn't show any materials but, believe us, they were full of materials by the middle of the year. We are also big on containers - you can see the containers we used to house their writing materials sitting above their cubbies, and color-coded of course! So basically, the answer to the question is that we use other furniture or organization systems to house the student materials. When they need something, they have to go and get it from their cubby. You can use other furniture as well. For example, KH used bookshelves and these boxes from Really Good Stuff to organize her third graders materials.

Get creative and patrol the internet! It's amazing how many storage ideas are floating out there. We teachers sure are a creative bunch!

2. What about other supplies like pencils, crayons, etc.?

Another excellent question! One of us, not to name any names ... ahem ...
Mrs. M.
... insists on tightly controlling the flow of supplies, including sharpening all of the children's pencils, but this insanity lead us to a solution. Supply caddies (we realize we did not invent this idea, but we are excited at our ingenuity nonetheless :)!! In each supply caddy, we stocked pencils, crayons, erasers, and scissors. That's it! The best thing about supply caddies is that they're mobile; students were able to bring them wherever they were working, whether it was at a table or not. We love anything in our classroom that's flexible and mobile.

3. What if two children want the same spot?

Let them work it out! Children need the space and the practice to negotiate social interactions that are similar to those they will have to negotiate in the adult world. Now we're not saying that you should just set them free and let them duke it out Lord of the Flies style ... you need to teach them how to negotiate conflicts like this, have them role play to practice how they would handle themselves, and then afterwards reflect on how they handled the situation. Does this take extra time? Yes. Does this feel uncomfortable because we naturally want to jump in and handle conflicts for children? Yes. But is letting children work things out the right thing to do in order to help the children blossom into functioning adults? In our humble opinion, unequivocally yes!

4. What if a child can't decide where to sit?

Ah yes, our wafflers; the kiddos that just cannot decide what they want to do and agonize over the simplest decisions. This cannot be solved with a simple, "Let them work it out!" because that's exactly what they're having trouble with. So instead we turn to helping them identify the struggle they're having and the effect it's having on their purpose. Then we help them make a plan to address the problem and check in with them about how the plan is going. For example, we had one student who was taking a very long time to get started during each rotation of Reader's Workshop because she just could not decide where to sit. She was overwhelmed by her choices and did not have the confidence to just plop down next to any ol' classmate and start working. We sat down with her and discussed the problem. The solution: she wanted a designated spot where she could go to work. So we gave it to her. You're probably thinking this sounds a bit like an assigned seat ... but hey, if that's what she needed then that's what she got. It's all about being flexible to meet the needs of your students and the most important thing here is that she, not us, identified the need and was instrumental in developing a way to meet her need. Ownership. Self-efficacy. Engagement. That's what we're trying to teach.

5. What if children aren't inclusive about having other children sit near them?

Well, this is really about community building; it's about setting a norm in the classroom that every child includes and accepts every other child. It's also about calling them out when they're not following that norm, be it individually or through a classroom discussion about the expectations of how we treat each other. Again, this takes more time, but this kind of stuff is worthy of the time it takes and can pay dividends in the later years.

6. What if there are too many children at one table or in one space?

This one is an easy solve. Each table has a space limit. Our super short circle table is very popular, both for being low and for being kind of isolated in the library making a more private workspace. It really only comfortably fits 4 students, so that's capacity. We're pretty much like the fire marshalls on this one. Too many butts at one table and somebody is moving out or we clear the whole table. No ifs, ands, or butts buts about it. It's still important to have clear expectations for children even when you're purposely creating ambiguity in order to give them choice. We believe in limited and controlled choice; we just don't tell the kids that (wink, wink!).

7. What if the children are not getting their work done/talking too much/being distracting/being distracted/etc.?

THIS. This is a great question (and yes we realize we asked it of ourselves, there is no need for you to point that out, ok-ay!). Like we said in our initial post, not having assigned seats is no panacea for perfect classroom management. We are not saying that! All year long we had children who struggled to complete their work, who were chatty, who stared out the window, who bothered their neighbors; this list could go on and on. ALL YEAR LONG!! But you know what, we would have had those students anyway even if we had assigned seats. Unless we are willing to put our students into isolated bubbles, there are always going to be times when children are not making the best choices with their time. This is just human nature. Even adults fall victim to it. Ever been to a staff meeting? Enough said. The point is that we had a starting off point to begin a dialog with those students. We talked to them about how little work they accomplished and helped them identify why that occured. Then we helped them reflect on how their choice of seat, not ours, not their parents, but their choice of seat lead to their lack of productivity. This is not a lesson learned in one day. There are always going to be children who will talk to a wall if they are seated all by themselves; that is solved with maturity and self-control. All we are trying to do is start them down the path.

8. What if their parents want them to have an assigned space?

Whenever parents have a problem with something we're doing or ask something of us that's outside the way we're organizing our classroom, we always have a face to face meeting about it. That's just how we roll. And putting the time in to explain ourselves and gain the parents trust in the beginning, invaribly leads to a smoother year in the long run. We find that the majority of the time when we are able to explain our decisions directly to parents and they can understand both the rationale and the thought process that brought us to our decision, it transforms their perspective. In their perception, it is no longer an arbitary flexing of our power as teaching tyrants, but instead a purposeful and worthy goal settled upon by two knowledgable professional educators. See what we did there, how we reframed that? Usually that's enough to win them over to our side. 

But another benefit of the face to face meeting is that we have a chance to learn something from the parents as well: why they had the problem to begin with. Not only do we get the professional development of having to reflect on and define our choices, but we get to learn and grow from the information we receive from the parents. We believe that if our ideas can't survive a little scrutiny and criticism then they are probably not very worthwhile ideas. We also believe in reexamining and improving our ideas based on legitimate concerns and criticism. So if a parent has a problem with their kiddo not having an assigned seat, we meet with them and hear why. If it's a concern that's rooted mainly from not understanding the motivation behind the idea or the support that goes into teaching the children how to handle the responsibility then that's solved through meeting and explaining. If it's a concern about the way their child is specifically handling the freedom then problem solved, optimally involving the child in the process, so everyone's happy. Again, we're advocating a world where assigned seating is abolished. We're looking for ways in our everyday practice to empower and engage children, and losing assigned seating is just one of the ways we've found.

From the limb,

Friday, July 12, 2013

You Don't Have Assigned Seats for Students, Say What?

So ... we have something to share ... and you may want to sit down because it just might blow your mind.

Check this out:

Ok, that's not really our share, but how cool is that?!? No more frosting on your nose ... ever!

Anyway, back to what we're really about: blowing your mind. Here it is for real this time:

We don't have assigned seats for our students.

Yep, you heard that correctly. It's so exciting that sometimes we just want to holler it:


Ok, that last part got a little shrill; sorry about that. We just get excited sometimes!

Now, we know what you're thinking. That's just plumb crazy. Children can't choose their own seats. That's madness. That's sheer lunacy. That's chaos and insanity and a recipe for disaster all wrapped up in one neat little statement. But stick with us and let us explain.

So here's the backstory. Ms. H was teaching third grade two years ago and she had an epiphany. She looked around her classroom during Math Workshop one day and she noticed that only about a fifth of her students were actually sitting in their desks. The rest were tucked in nooks and crannies all around the room - some were working on the rug, some were working at ancillary tables, some at other students' desks, or even tucked underneath the desks. And so many of those desks - so many of those boxy, clunky, real-estate chewin' up desks - were just sitting empty. In fact, the class was actually squeezing themselves into nooks and crannies in order to work how they wanted to despite the desks. These unused desks were taking up way too much dang space! So Ms. H called a meeting and she told her class the story of Google; the story of how workers at Google don't have assigned desks or cubicles. They don't have assigned workspace at all. Instead they have yurts - YURTS!!! - where they can gather in groups to work on projects and then easily disband; they have flexible working spaces. 

"Isn't that cool?" Ms. H asked her students. "Don't you want to be like Google?"

"Uh, sure, I guess," was the reluctant reply. They didn't quite share her vision at this point and were sadly less enamored by the idea of yurts. There's no accounting for taste, really. Youth these days ... anyway ...

Fearlessly, Ms. H forged ahead. Unfortunately, she could not get her hands on any yurts (there is a limit, even in Marin County), but she did get rid of half of her desks, much to her students' horror ("I mean I don't mind if we get rid of some desks, but where am I going to sit?"). And guess what? It took about two weeks to get over the initial discomfort of not having an assigned desk and then it was awesome! The class had so much more space to work. The students pushed the desks together in whatever configuration suited them for their current task and after a few weeks, nobody even missed having their own desk. The students made choices about where they sat based on their learning objectives in the moment: Did they need a partner or to work alone? Did they need a quiet, isolated space or the buzz of a small group? Did they need to sit near someone who could help them out or did they want to sit near someone who needed their help? We talked about it constantly: What makes a good work space? What do we need to do our best work? How do we learn most efficiently? How can we utilize each other to meet our learning needs? What kind of person helps us learn and what kind of person distracts us?

Now, don't get us wrong. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't a recipe for perfect student behavior and autonomy. Students still messed up and made poor choices. Ms. H still had to tell children where to sit or move children who were abusing the priviledge. But here's the thing: every day the children had a new chance. To pick a better spot, to reflect on their choices, to learn about what they needed as a learner, to realize that they are the most important player in their education, that they hold the reins and their choices decide their path. And what other purpose is there really than this?

So with that lesson learned, we decided to apply it to first grade. That's right! That's just the kind of crazy risk taking we like to engage in. HEY-OO! And guess what? First graders responded just as positively as third graders. They really truly did! We're not just saying this; we wouldn't lie to you, we promise! We had 6 tables that could seat 4 kids each. We also had 3 kidney bean tables that could seat 6 kids a piece. And we had one circle table that was so low the kids could sit on their bottoms on the rug. That's it! When pressed, we could find a chair and a seat at a table for all of them, but for the most part they could sit wherever they wanted. And they did!

Because here's a little secret: Children don't want to sit at a table all the time. They want to read on their bellies on the rug. They want to tuck themselves into a little corner of the classroom and scribble away on their creative writing masterpiece. They want to squeeze underneath a table with a partner and read a hilarious book of poems. But most of all, in a day where they are told what to do constantly, they want the choice and the freedom to decide how they want to work.

So give it to them. Teach them how to wield that choice responsibly. Teach them to reflect on their choices and the impact they had on their productivity and their learning. Teach them that they are in control of themselves. Learning how to handle a little freedom, learning how to be reflective, learning to be in control of yourself and your learning ... well that's really the end game of this whole education business anyway so why not get them started early. That's what we think at least.

So get rid of some of your desks and chuck your nametags and when you come back to us, you'll say:

From the limb,