December 2, 2021

Adding flexibility

Seating options become more common in classrooms

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Virgil Elementary School sixth-graders Kaden Hickson, left, and John Barber, right, sit across from each other Thursday in teacher Sylvia Amoreena Tellaeche’s class. The classroom is an example of the more flexible seating options being introduced to replace the traditional rows of desks.

Flexibility isn’t just for gym class, anymore.

Teachers across all areas of study are thinking about it in terms of their seating arrangements.

At Virgil Elementary School in the Cortland School District, sixth-grade teacher Sylvia Amoreena Tellaeche is using flexible seating this year.

“We literally emptied out the classroom within the first week of school and brought in standing desks, sitting desks, extra tables,” she said. “And kids participated in planning the areas they needed, so every day they choose where they want to sit.”

Some kids may stand at a whiteboard, others may sit in groups working on collaboration for a project.

The environment helps foster important qualities, she said. It encourages decision-making and risk-taking.

“Some of that decision-making and problem-solving — that is the risk taking instead of always sitting with friends,” she said.

It’s not just for elementary students, either.

At McGraw School District, Superintendent Melinda McCool said flexible seating is employed across all grades.

“We understand the needs of the human body and adolescent and young child, how they need movement during the day to keep their brains stimulated,” McCool said.

McCool relies on advice from the district’s occupational therapy specialist — who suggests everything from seating options for kids that allow them to tap their feet on a band attached to the seat in front of them without distracting anyone, to collaborative work environments.

New-look classrooms

What a traditional classroom could look like:
• Desks and chairs arranged in rows
• Teachers in front of classrooms
• Students only grouped together for certain projects

Some examples of flexible seating:
• Students choose their seating depending on the day
• Student collaboration is expected and students are encouraged to work with different peers
• Tables of different sizes and colors
• High tables and tall stools
• Tables and chairs on wheels
• A variety of seating options — cozy chairs for collaboration, yoga balls or scoop rockers or stackable stools that can have multi-directional rocking motion
• Stations where students can stand at a whiteboard

“We want it to feel more like college or we’re thinking more of the new work settings,” McCool said.

She’s hearing the need from local employers for kids to be able to collaborate.

“And if they model that in the classroom they will be able to more successfully do that in the real world,” McCool said.

The objective is threefold, McCool said:
• Students are better prepared for the real world.
• Students learn better by being more engaged.
• The teacher has increased flexibility to teach in a variety of ways and meet students’ needs.

And research suggests, it is helpful to have flexible seating.

In her book “Smart Moves, Why Learning is Not All in your Head,” education consultant Carla Hannaford said more than a dozen studies show that when students move around in a classroom, they are more engaged and can better “anchor new information and experience into neural networks.”

All this is why Jeff Craig, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, is seeking state aid to buy flexible seating to try out at Cortland High School.

The school district, which is closing two elementary schools next summer, is not in a strong enough financial position to purchase the equipment without state funds, he said.

But with state funds, Craig says he would buy equipment for one classroom, which would be used on a rotating basis by different classes, perhaps for two weeks at a time.

Then teachers and students could give feedback and the district could know what equipment to buy when it’s in a better financial situation, or as part of another capital improvement project.

The district is considering combinations of tables of different sizes and shapes that would accommodate different numbers of students, as well as comfortable seating arrangements to allow for student collaboration, as well as smaller whiteboards where students can work on their own.

The end goal is each student learning in the most suitable way.

“It’s not one size fits all, you always have to be responsive to different needs of instruction,” Craig said.