HS Flexible Seating: A Dirt Bike Ride Up The EDU Mountain

Over the mountain, Take Me Across The Sky

Over winter break last year, I decided to take a dirt bike ride up the educational mountain of flexible seating, so I brought in a few pieces of my mom’s furniture and removed 18 desks from my classroom. My mom had recently downsized from a 2400 square foot house to a 910 square foot apartment. She had some furniture that I could use, so I did. Pushing those desks out into the hall was more difficult than I imagined. It wasn’t the physical exertion that was difficult. It was the letting go of tradition and status quo. Letting go and venturing into the unknown. Change, that scary threat of catastrophe that follows or precedes us at every stop on our journey in life. What is it about that word that really can wreak havoc in this wonderful world of education? I realize that this phenomena isn’t unique to education. It’s everywhere. Consider this though, since all of us do struggle with change now and then, those traditional teaching practices were new and innovative when first introduced as well. Every great invention was new once. It bothered people. It changed things. The old saying that only constant thing we can rely on is change remains true, so why do we still fight it? In the field of education, It is more imperative now than ever to hone in that very hot commodity that all of us must seek out & cultivate: flexibility. We need to see the world, our community, our district, and our students, not through rigid and inflexible glasses, but through flexible thinking (FT) glasses. Whenever my family and I dirt bike and ride 4 wheelers in the mountains of Colorado, we always have goggles. The same holds true for making changes in education, though these FT glasses are different. I found and dusted off my pair last year. Once I picked them up and put them on, I was and still am amazed with the results. Though I still wonder how I  couldn’t see things clearly before, I do now know that I won’t ever take off these new glasses. Flexible thinking. It’s my new mantra, my forever goal, and the one thing that has benefited my students the most last year and hopefully this year and the rest to come. It’s been quite the journey up this educational mountain, but that gift shop at the top is definitely worth a visit. Let’s ride.

Something In My Vision, Something Deep Inside

I just finished year two as a  connected educator. What do I consider a connected educator? A connected educator is one who has chosen to reject isolation by using social media platforms and available technology to connect with educators from all over the world. Through this connection, I learn from, alongside, and share my own ideas with thousands of educators instead of just the few I see on a daily basis. It gives me a wealth of resources at my fingertips. So as a connected educator, I feel that I have my finger on the pulse of education. I see the trends float by on my social media feeds, read the books, follow the blogs, and enter the fun fray of Twitter chats and Voxer book studies. It is in this social arena that my thinking began to expand, flex, stretch, and take shape into a different animal altogether. I saw pictures of students sitting in rooms with no desks or few desks, couches, chairs, benches, laundry baskets, and crates. You name it, students are sitting in, at, around, under, and on top of just about anything we teachers and students can think up in the flexible seating classrooms. The more I saw, the more I pondered. I stared change in the eye and picked up my FT glasses. My first thought was, why? Does it matter where or in what or how students sit? I followed the movement, paying close attention. In the beginning of education and schools, desks were created to provide seats and also an easy way for students to use books and write things down on paper with pens and pencils. My students each have their own Chromebook to use during class, and while we still write and do things with pencils and paper, are we married to desks just for that? Don’t I have a bookcase full of old or sample textbooks that can double as lap desks. Hmmm. Desks are a one size fits all. Students come in a variety of shapes and sizes. In fact, my juniors and seniors were often less than happy. There are a lot of demands on students now that previous generations have not experienced, such as year round sports, taking multiple online college classes during high school, social media, college pressures, lack of sleep, more broken homes than in decades past, and the list continues to grow. More comfortable seating could help with our class culture. That, in turn, could help with our productivity and achievement. Starbucks realized early on the value of offering a variety of seating, and even McDonald’s is moving in that direction. Having already done away with seating charts, I considered all of this. Fear and uncertainty fluttered briefly around me, but my thinking began to deepen and expand. I shifted the dirt bike and my thinking, climbing farther up the mountain. The conversations and images I had seen of non traditional seating  choices in classrooms swirled around me. I grabbed my FT glasses. I needed to see beyond what I was used to so that I could get a good look at what could be.

Where Did I Wander, Where Do You Think I Wandered To

I began rethinking the furniture in my room and how it functioned over last year’s winter break. It isn’t about raising test scores. It is about the students, relationships, atmosphere, and providing that space where students could thrive. I picked up my FT glasses and pondered. These very special glasses did not just work while I wore them in my classroom. They work each and every time I put them on, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. The professional books I managed to read during the summer break and every spare moment I could find during the fall semester, coupled with all of the educators I connected with on Twitter and Voxer had me thinking.  I adjusted my helmet and goggles and enjoyed the ride while I thought about my FT glasses. They show me how I can break with traditions by adding something new, ditching old practices or ideas, or creating something new out of the old that would help students either with their learning or with our relationships. I work hard to build those with students because they matter. What they think matters. It’s important, this thing called student voice. In fact, it’s one of the largest things you can tap into that can change your classroom. It can change your school too, if you let it. I could see that clearly while wearing my FT glasses. , a few pieces at a time made their way into my classroom over Christmas break last year. It was scary, but I did it.

I’ve Seen Life’s Magic Astral Plane I Travel Through

With bated breath, I watched my first class enter the room last January. For the first few seconds, they stood in stunned silence, looking around. As if I snapped my fingers, the mad scramble for the new seating broke the stillness. Excited chatter broke the silence. It took a week or so for students to get used to the new seating. My room came alive with the energy of the students. Some were very attached to the desks, and I could see them struggling with the desire to be comfortable and the pull of the traditional. I had the same struggles. I felt the same pull. Before we ever faced this struggle with seating, other traditions needed to be re-examined. The biggest concept that students have helped me with on this particular mountain journey is that of control. My flexible comfortable (as one student refers to it) seating is all about the student and not about me, the teacher, at all. I had to loosen my grip.  I let them know that it was hard to loosen my grip on this, that the arrangement should suit them, and that they could move things around as needed. This might be the toughest part of the process. It is definitely a rough bit of terrain that I had to ride over. It can be a difficult down shift of mental gears, sometimes into first gear, but it is definitely a necessary one. I allow students to be in control. As long as they are obeying our established norms and rules, then they can sit, stand, lie down, or sprawl to do their work. This arrangement requires more effort in mentally loosening the grip of control for teachers than actually putting together the seating changes. It’s tough, but definitely worth doing. I carefully guide my bike over the bumps, rocks, grooves, and up the steep incline.

I Heard Them Tell Me That This Land of Dreams Was Now

After a couple of months with my flexible seating, my principal asked how it was going. He was interested in whether I noticed an increase in classroom management issues. We both had expected that, but the results surprised us. In my junior and senior classes, my most disagreeable students became, well, almost happy. They still were teenagers with teen issues (parents, friends, boyfriends/girlfriends) and senioritis (yes, that is a thing), but the overall atmosphere was definitely one of contentment. Grumblings quieted. I was zeroing in on the elusive animal of happy teenagers. Wow. Students have an easier time with collaboration, have better attitudes while in class, and I have discovered the ease of connecting with each student during class periods. Conferencing with students one on one is very easy in this new physical space. The total impact, I’m sure, has not been fully felt yet, but the view is amazing here. The power of student voice is amplified as I connected with them and gathered their feedback regarding the new seating, and here are what a few students had to say:.

Lindsey Studzinski explained how she felt about my room changes:

Flexible seating created a relaxing environment that allowed me to be more productive because I was able to be comfortable.

Clay Atterberry, also a junior last year, had a similar reaction:

Flexible seating allowed me to be comfortable while working and also be able to sit back and relax once the day’s tasks were completed.

Cassie Hunter, then a sophomore in my English II class, gave me more detailed feedback:

Flexible seating is much more comfortable. It felt less confining, and I think it makes students feel more confident to share ideas and practice creativity. It is a relaxed environment that teenagers thrive in. At our own homes, we work in a comfortable environment, and it just makes sense that, since the better part of our day is spent at school, we should be able to feel at ease.

I must continually stretch my thinking now, since students have a voice and choice in their seating,

I Told Them I Had Ridden Shooting Stars

After a few months, we began to be so used to the new room arrangement that I frequently forgot that my seating was different than every other high school classroom in my district. Students on top of furniture. A crazy notion, and one that does require precise tire placement as we navigate the steep rocky glade. Word of the comfortable seating sighting began to circulate among the students in my building. While a classroom here and there in our elementary and middle school have flexible seating, my room was the top of the mountain gift shop of high school flexible seating for my district. The attraction grew, and other students began to journey to my room to check out the shop we had here. Students glanced in as they passed by during transition times and did double takes. They can’t believe what they are seeing. Some will shout at me in the hallway that they CAN’T WAIT to take one of my classes just to be able to be in my room. One junior, Marshall Pittman, stopped dead in his tracks in the hallway outside my room and exclaimed,

Mrs, Steinbrink! If your classroom looks like this next year, I’m DEFINITELY  taking one of your classes!

I assured him it would. It does. He is.

And Said I’d Show Them How

For now, we remain the only mountain top gift shop as many teachers still hold on to tradition and control. You can park your bike, take off your helmet, and enjoy the view here. Desks or tables with chairs are still the usual rest stops for students on their way up the mountain in my high school and in others across the country. My classroom is unique. Students get to rearrange the furniture and generally make themselves comfortable to do the work I’ve assigned that will push them out of their comfort zone of worksheets and answering chapter or section questions.  By connecting with educators everywhere through multiple platforms, I will continue to push my own boundaries, to see what they’ve discovered and paths they’ve taken on their own trail rides up the mountain of education while wearing their own flexible thinking glasses.There are lots of these FT glasses, enough to go around. My students are learning how to wear them too. They can be just as mired in the potholes of traditional thinking as we adults. When I challenge them with a new activity that deepens their thinking and learning, they may grumble and ask for a worksheet at first, but then they begin to enjoy the ride, even the steep climbs. Students are ready for the adventure. With my new FT glasses, now I am too. You ready? Let’s ride.

Partial lyrics used as section titles are from Ozzy Osbourne’s Over The Mountain.

4 thoughts on “HS Flexible Seating: A Dirt Bike Ride Up The EDU Mountain

  1. Lots of cool analogies can be drawn from your descriptive journey. For example, not only do you need goggles in order to be flexible in your thinking but you the rider (learner) need to be flexible in the ride over the terrain. You have a dirt bike with shocks that have lots of travel in order to absorb rapid changes, but the rider (learner) sometimes needs to have only 4 points of contact with the bike at times… such as standing with legs bent in order to get over rocky terrain.

    Flexibility… or mental plasticity is a huge factor (YUGE!) to adapting and being successful. (Also in keeping your mind “young.”)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love it and so do the students. The rotary teachers are not sold yet but they will grow to like it. I am the only class in our school with flex seating and expect more to follow once they see how well it works! Thanks to my wonderful Twitter friends for ideas and support! @tchrdonna

    Liked by 1 person

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