Saturday, March 14, 2015

Musical Chairs

If you'd seen my classroom in the last many years, you saw that I have my students sitting in groups of three or four, with their desks turned inward, toward each other, or even sitting at tables rather than desks.  I set my classroom up like this a few times when I taught junior high back in the early 1990s, then went back to rows for the most part until I decided that having students talk, a lot, in class was the best way for them to learn math.  So I got tables and desks that could easily be arranged in pods, and that became my standard room arrangement.  I did not completely know what I would do to make the situation work, but I thought that if I did not force the issue, I would probably continue to put off really using the collaborative work that I knew would be good for my students.

So the first couple of years there were lots of bumps and scrapes, with plenty for me and the students to learn.  I realized that I needed to do more ice-breaker activities, because if I wanted students to work together, they had to know each others' names and get comfortable with each other.  I had to write lesson plans that included some pretty significant problems that would insure the students would not be able to complete them on their own.  I had to let go of some of my more controlling impulses, and allow for varieties of solutions. I also had to come to terms with some off-task behavior; after all, if the students were going to talk to each other, it was unreasonable to think they would talk about nothing but the math.  Logistically, I had to write different versions of quizzes, and move the desks apart when it came time for tests.  I also had to think about how to divide the students into groups: randomly? based on their current abilities?  their ability to get along with each other?  their comfort level with each other?  (In the end, I usually used random group assignments, and let the students know that I expected and believed that they could learn from and work with anyone.  But I also rearranged the home-groups from time to time, and regrouped students for individual lessons as needed.)

Fast-forward to this year, and visitors to my room now see that I have the students sitting in a kind of double-'U' shape, with the open end of the 'U' facing the screen at the front of the room.  I can still quickly group them as needed, with a pair from the inner 'U' matched with a pair from the outer 'U'.  Why the change?  I was not as happy with the students' interactions or their focus on the lessons while sitting in their pods.  Also, I was having trouble getting a discussion going across the room, as students tended to focus on their small groups, and ignore students in other groups.  I spent part of the semester break thinking about what was happening, and why this year was different.  Perhaps I was out of practice with orchestrating collaborative learning.  Perhaps the attached chairs and desks made it more difficult for the students to comfortably see what their group-mates were doing.  Perhaps the problems I was asking the students to work on were not as engaging as they needed to be.  I wasn't sure of the reason, but I knew that I needed to do something different; I thought all of us could benefit from shaking things up a bit.

The students were a little surprised by the change, but adapted quickly.  Their focus is more on the math and less on social topics, I think.  I do have to be very specific about when I want them to talk to each other, and prompt them to discuss their work with their group-mates.  Whole class discussions seem a bit more focused, and students are starting to respond to each other, even across the room.  I am worried that spontaneous collaboration will suffer, but I have noticed that some groups will start working together without prompting; I need to think about how to encourage that with other groups.  Some students have commented that they like the new arrangement.

I really have three take-aways from my game of musical chairs.  First, the seating chart is a powerful tool that can reinforce the big lessons I want to teach.  Second, just because one strategy has worked well for a long time, it doesn’t mean that it will work forever, or that there isn’t a more appropriate or effective strategy.  And finally, just like my mother used to move the furniture around in the living room when she felt like life was getting a little dull, creating a very visible change in the classroom can shake up an atmosphere that might be starting to feel old and tired.

I might go back to pods eventually, but I want to play with this arrangement a little more.  I also want to get one of the instructional coaches in so I can get another pair of eyes on what’s happening now.

By the way, thanks to Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones, The Skillful Teacher by Jon Saphier, and two colleagues who have been using the double-’U’ for their inspiration and guidance.