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,


  1. I came to the same conclusion myself while teaching third as well. I'm moving to first this year and will be implementing no assigned seats!!! My question is, where do students put things that would normally go in a desk of chair pocket such as books, journals, personal supplies, etc?

    1. Desk OR chair pocket. I still have summer brain, sorry!

    2. Hi!

      Thank you for your comment! We hope that you see this. Sorry for the delayed response. We have cubbies. They're the kind of cubbies that you might have for student backpacks - in fact, that was their original intention - but we repurposed them for student supplies and haven't looked back. In the past, one of us has used bookshelves with supply boxes from Really Good Stuff to the same end because cubby are pricey!! Hope this helps and you're having a fabulous school year so far!

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