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,


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you so much! We love your website KindergartenWorks.com and we are a little bit star struck that you read our post. We hope you keep reading :)