Why the Funky Furniture?

ISTE 2017 was in San Antonio, Texas this June. Underneath the conference's frantic energy to improve teaching through all-things-technology, is the reminder that learners and learning are rapidly evolving with the infusion of technology. I attend two national conventions each year; NAGC in the fall and ISTE in the summer. Because I am an ancient Baby Boomer, ISTE keeps my gifted pedagogy relevant for the Linkster generation. My gifted students express awe at my stories about programming by sending a stack of punch cards through a computer the size of a room, or family outings in the 70's to Underground Atlanta to buy dot-matrix portraits from a store designated for such whimsy. My goal in sharing these perspectives from “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is to create a “Yoda-like” rather than “has-been hero” credibility with my students in so far as it comes to technology. I believe, and many concur, that gifted students are most resilient when it comes to experimentation with instructional practice. Gifted kids often relish the opportunity to be guinea pigs and give feedback and suggestion to adults. It is perhaps my most favorite gifted child characteristic and the source of my most brilliant ideas.  The “ah ha” for designing flexible learning spaces for Linksters is: just changing from “desks in rows like cemeteries” to “tables” or “pods” doesn’t matter, if the culture of the classroom and the way students use space isn’t different too.

I like the term “Linksters” for this generation. I think it captures how much web-based technology my students use in a day of school. And if the information is web based, it can be accessed from anywhere, on any device. We no longer need table/chair combos for much of student learning. Flexible learning spaces offer traditional desks and chairs alongside less utilitarian seating options. Face it, most of us can’t get rid of the inventoried desks and chairs in our rooms anyway, why not embrace them? I presented as part of a panel at ISTE 2017 about “flexible learning space design.” This trend is impacting higher education as well as K-12. So, our panel presented simple, inexpensive ways to “hack your classroom” along with considerations for stakeholders at the administrative, district, building, parent, and student level when deciding to create a flexible learning space.

On their gifted meeting day, my students enter and self-select a space from the funky furniture arrayed around my room. We have had to learn how to share and think about common space. If they enter a Starbucks, and someone is at a table or chair they want, do they pitch a fit, whine, ask the barista to eject the patron? (I may have to invest in a Starbuck’s apron just to role play this scenario!) Once settled, students know opening routines and can look to the display screen for reminders to set their own learning goals for using coding sites, robots, drones, or perhaps the animation studio. My day is a balance between teacher presented information, student exploration, and reflection and assessment (theirs and mine!) All of these aspects involve some form of technology. This year, at ISTE, I learned more about using technology to help students reflect and share ideas, especially when writing is a hardship, using sites to create videos and tech-created expressions. Do I know what I’m doing? Nope. But my favorite expression is, “Let’s figure it out together.” My students may imagine this phrase is me being Yoda-like and leading them to an answer I’ve divined, and I never disabuse them of that notion.

Presently, I am three years into the journey to change the culture of my classroom from teacher-centered to independent-learner-centered. The furniture change came in year 2 when a kitchen table that didn’t sell in a garage sale went to school. Originally it was not for general seating but kids begged to sit there. So I added two saucer chairs from Walmart and cheap Ikea stools to sit around two round and one large kidney-shaped reading table, previously these tables were used for display purposes only. Now, along with opening up my "teacher-only" rocking chair, I let kids sit anywhere. I moved all my desks and chairs to face the walls. Basically, the center of the classroom is open space and kids can move stools, chairs, tables however they want to engage best in the learning. At the end of the class, they move them back. Students know to be sure all items have fire safety tags on them.

Long before this flexible furniture and “learning space design” stuff, I had to understand what my superintendent Dr. Joseph Barrow said so eloquently, “Just adding new furniture to a media center, multi-purpose room, or classroom, in itself, will probably not amount to much unless teachers also modify their instructional practice. However, when we get the intersection of utilizing flexible learning spaces and implementing personalized student learning we have designed a great "secret sauce."  He is putting in flexible learning spaces at several schools willing to experiment with their use and then using professional learning to help teachers change their practice. I recognized that I needed to change my practice first and the flexible seating came later.

So for me, year one of this journey was breaking the dependence (mine and students’) on Dr. D as the “Shell Answer Man” which was incredibly hard - for all of us. Students are well-trained from kindergarten to listen to and follow the teacher and know the formula for success is when in doubt, ask the teacher. And I was incredibly well trained to answer questions - even if sometimes I just made stuff up. The need to be perceived as knowledgeable was so important. I realize now, that need has been replaced with the need to seem wise. Being Yoda-like allows me to answer questions with questions. Sometimes I even sound like Master Po from Kung Fu. “Grasshopper, did you turn the Chromebook off and back on?” Seriously, the self-reflection that led me to change the culture in my own classroom was, “do I really want kids to only be as smart as I am; to know what I know, to be limited by my abilities?” I mean, secretly I hope the next Einstein is in my class, someone who will change the world with never before thought ideas. That freedom comes from creating an environment that is flexible enough to foster innovation, determination, and invention for me and for my students. So what was the first step in this culture change?  My gifted kiddos thought it was some joke that I just wrote notes on a clipboard while they solved Tangrams or other whole group puzzles. I called those activities “Seating Challenges” because your seat was determined by the order of the solution. Sometimes, it was just because I knew where you sat in a room impacted the dynamic - especially with gifted kids who are extroverted. Sometimes, it’s the introverts who hold the key to finding the solution and I purposefully set up puzzles such that the power dynamic status quo was disrupted. It was still incredibly teacher-directed activity; it moved us all along the continuum of a classroom culture that is no longer that way. We’re still tweaking things and changing the look and culture of our classroom. My recent inner struggle is how to reconcile the trend to assess everything and the suggestion that rubrics are the answer. If I’m giving my gifted students a lab for innovation, how do I create a rubric for innovation? If I’m able to devise a way to score it, isn’t it no longer innovative?

So, why the funky furniture? Because in education the pendulum swings widely. Now that we don’t have to have square desks and traditional chairs, why not have balls for seats, and buoys that rock, or sofas in a squiggle? I hope someday I get donated one of those shoe chairs. And why in a gifted classroom? Because in education gifted children seem to thrive “in spite of” their instructional diet, so administrators are often willing to let the gifted resource teacher try out flexible seating. At least that has been my experience. And about stakeholders...be sure you let the custodian in on the room change, maybe even ask them for advice, because the traditional classroom size was figured out by the width of the custodian’s dust mop as the distance between 4 rows of 6 or so desks. Really.

April Keck DeGennaro is a Gifted Enrichment Teacher in Fayetteville, GA.


The views expressed in a guest post are not necessarily those of NAGC.