Musical Chairs

First things first: Go Buckeyes! That’s right, the Ohio State Buckeyes showed those Turtles (Maryland) who is the boss of the Big Ten! Tomorrow you’ll get your football freebie, so be sure to check back! And if you’re not a huge Ohio State fan (although, why wouldn’t you be, really?), you can tell yourself this is a reward for 1) University of Kentucky beating SCAR (yes, I know, UK won a football game…how bizarre…put that together with Duke having another good season and it sets up a hopeful UK vs. Duke bowl game…crazy…) or 2) University of M*ch*gan losing yet another game. Your call.

Anyway, on to this week’s entry.

I remember my very first year of teaching during pre-planning, spending time in my classroom deciding how to arrange my desks. Being the super, awesome, idealistic teacher that I was, I was determined to make group work and collaborative learning king of my castle. Students in rows? I scoffed. Not in this classroom! Wellllll, fast forward a few weeks into the school year and I was kicking myself. My students would NOT stop talking. They didn’t do any work. They were off task. It was a nightmare. Of course, this was due to a variety of factors, but one of them was my seating arrangement. It took some time, trial, and error, but after a few years, I had made adjustments and my middle school classrooms were running smoothly. The two biggest changes I made were 1) No group seating without group work and 2) Assigned seats.

1) No group seating without group work: Anyone who reads educational research can tell you the benefits of group work and collaborative learning at all levels of education. However, there is no way that any teacher can make every single activity or lesson a collaborative learning opportunity. The whole point of differentiated instruction is to vary all aspects of learning. You wouldn’t want to just teach through the collaborative process. So why arrange your desks in a way that doesn’t support the type of learning going on? If you’re going to be doing direct instruction (or a test, etc.), sitting students in groups doesn’t make sense. Arranging desks in groups indicates collaborative work. Putting students in a physical environment that suggests collaboration and then expecting them not to collaborate is unfair. And it’s a recipe for disaster. Here’s how I changed my environment to maximize instruction: The desks in my classroom were arranged in rows. Every class period, if you walked into my classroom before the bell rang, you would see desks arranged in rows. 5 x 5, 6 x 5, 5 x 4…it doesn’t matter. Rows. My students were trained at the beginning of the year to come into the classroom, get their needed supplies out of their backpacks, put their bags at the front of the room, go to their seats, and begin work on the bell work (bell ringer, morning work, whatever you call it in your classroom). In the event that the lesson planned for the day incorporated collaborative learning, I spent time at the start of the year training my students to quickly, quietly, and efficiently move themselves and the desks into groups (and back, of course, into rows). By the time the year was in full swing, my students could go from rows to desks in less than about 10 seconds. Most of the time, it was closer to 5. Then, when the collaborative portion of the lesson is over, back into rows they went. Again, 5-10 seconds, and…done! So, if you have your desks in groups and you are having trouble getting your students to focus when they are not doing group work, I’d suggest giving this method a try.

2) Assigned seats: It doesn’t take much to figure out that students are chatty. They talk to their friends. They talk to the new kid. They talk to the person they don’t even like – although not nicely. They’ll talk to themselves, if they have to. They like to talk. If you let them, they’ll sit with the people who will talk the most with them. This is bad news for your classroom learning environment. Can you let your students pick their own seats and still have a successful class? Of course. And if that’s how you roll, then high five to you. But that’s not the way we did it in my room. I found that the majority of middle school teachers regularly assigned seats. What I also found, however, was that they did not change those seats frequently. If you assign seats but don’t change them often, your students will befriend each other. Sit next to someone long enough, and you’ll find something to whisper about. So I changed my students’ seats every two weeks. That’s right: Every two weeks. If there was a short week or some other event, I might let it ride to three, but that was definitely the max. The first few months, I’d brace for the groan when students came in and saw a new chart up on the ELMO, but by the middle of 2nd quarter, there was no more fight in them. They came, they sat, they learned. When I moved up to teach at the high school level, it never occurred to me to let my students pick their own seats. I assigned seats from day one. I taught 9th and 10th grade my first year. My students could not BELIEVE that I assigned them seats. From the way they told it, I was, apparently, the only high school teacher in the entire building that assigned seats. I told them, “Tough. Life sucks, then you die. There are assigned seats in room 212.” I will say that my 3rd year teaching high school I ended up with a class of seniors. I did give them the benefit of the doubt and refrained from assigning seats. They never abused the privilege, so I never saw reason to change the status quo. So, two questions: a) why assign seats and b) how does one effectively assign seats?

a. Why assign seats? Assigned seats are a classroom management tool. The first benefit to assigned seats is attendance. I never had to call roll. I never took more than about 15 seconds to take attendance. I looked at the seating chart; I looked at the students in their seats; I marked the blank chairs. Done. The second benefit to assigned seats is structure. Students like structure. Heck, we all like structure. Especially for my challenging students, the consistency of sitting in the same spot every day took at least one choice off their plate and kept them from making a bad decision day after day. And for those students who really struggled with change, I’d keep their seat in roughly the same spot (or the exact same chair) even when it was time to change. Half the time they didn’t even notice, because their neighbors changed. Assigned seats not only eliminated the opportunity to make bad seating choices, but it also eliminated the need to choose any seat at all. This is a huge time saver for those students who continually ping pong around the classroom before the bell rings (or even once it does). They (purposefully) waste time deciding where to sit. Assign them a seat and you’ll eliminate that. A third benefit to assigned seats is instructional intervention. As you’ll see below, one way you can assign seats is according to grade or ability level. If you have a struggling student and you continually seat him/her next to high performing peers, you have that in your arsenal when your administration or the parent asks what you’ve done to support that child.

b. How does one effectively assign seats? Most teachers use a district-adopted electronic grade book, and most of these programs support an option for seating charts. Let me tell you, though, that I cannot ever remember simply pressing the “assign” or “random” button when assigning seats. To make seat assignments work for you, you have to put some effort in. First, ask yourself what your goal is for the seating arrangement. Do you have a class of talkers? Do you have a handful of students who are royally obnoxious? Do you have one or two students who are just really struggling academically? Do you have students who are unmotivated? Do you have students who like to sleep? Do you have students who are belligerent? Do you have students who over-involve? For nearly every issue you can think of, assigned seats can help eliminate the problem.

The chatters and the PITAs. [Oh, and if you don’t know what a PITA is…google it.] If you have just had it with those students in your class who will.not.shut.up or who seem to irritate everyone around them and cause a ton of drama, a seating chart can help. For this situation, it is vital to identify the catalysts (or, epicenters, if you will) in the class. You might be tempted to say, “But my whole class talks!” If you really watch, however, you’ll see that it begins with just a few students – maybe 2-3, and then when they are not curbed, others jump in. If you’re having trouble identifying these students, ask a fellow teacher to come in and watch specifically for this. Once you have identified the 2-3 students who instigate the talking or the drama, seat them in the corners of the room. Not like, wearing a dunce cap, but in the desks at the four corners of the rows. Then, build your chart inward, with the least talkative students surrounding your instigators and finally finish with the students in the center. See the diagram below.

seating chart

So, you can see that I have done quite a bit of damage to keep my instigators isolated and prevent them from disrupting the class. Also notice that I’ve worked hard to keep any of my “yellow light” students from being directly next to an instigator. You might feel like you have a class of all reds, or that you just don’t have enough greens, but play around with your seating chart and you will find something that at least makes things better, if not solves the problem completely. The key here is to switch these seats regularly – again, I suggest every 2 weeks. It keeps the reds from 1) annoying the greens they’re seated next to and b) befriending the greens and turning them into yellows or reds.

Here are other suggestions for seating arrangements:

Seat by grade (%). I do not suggest doing a simple high-low or low-high. Then you end up with all the unmotivated, failing kids in the same place, which is no bueno. Instead, seat your students alternating high-low-high-low-etc. This ensures that the struggling students always have someone next to them that is 1) likely on task, 2) available for partner work, 3) modeling positive academic behavior (participating, etc.). “But the ‘F’ kids will just cheat off of the ‘A’ kids!” you might argue. I have never had that issue. I provided alternate forms of the test so no one sat next to someone with the same version. Too much work? Then have a “test day” seating chart where you sit in a generic alpha-order or some other arbitrary mode. For a single day, that won’t cause any disruptions.

Seat by gender. You can either do boy-girl-boy-girl alternating (which can have the side benefit of curbing chatter, depending on your mix) or all boys on one side and all girls on the other. My students LOVED it when I sat them this way. Be careful not to seat front vs. back, though, or it will look like favoritism. Assign left vs. right to avoid any problems.

CAUTION: Pay attention to the racial makeup of your class. You want to make sure you disperse all races equally over the layout of the classroom. Not that you would so something on purpose, but…sometimes I didn’t realize it until they all sat down, but I’d end up with the 3 black boys in the class in the back row. Or the 5 white girls all in the front. Oops…

Ideas for seating single problem students:

The sleeper. Obviously all teachers have their own methods of dealing with sleepers (if you read my “sleeper” post, you’ll be familiar with mine). I’ve found it works best if you seat the sleepers in the very back on the edge. Or at least along the edges of the desks. This makes for easy and inconspicuous access, should you decide to intervene.

The belligerent arguer. One of the corners on the row closest to the door. This way, if I had to either 1) ask the student to leave or 2) chat with the student in the hall, they were less disruptive to the class because they had a shorter distance to cover to get to the door.

The one you know hates your guts. Seat this beauty front and center. Send the message that you even though you know they can’t stand you, it doesn’t affect your desire for them to learn.

The one who always seems to be turned around talking. Sit this in the last seat of either the first or the last row. There’s nowhere to turn.

Ideas for small classes:

Sit students every other seat. I was lucky enough to have some classes where I could get away with this arrangement. Let me tell you how much work they got done! Holy cow!

Sit students all in the first 3 rows. Forbid students from sitting in the back.

In-classroom seating interventions:

“Islands of Shame.” I may have covered this in a previous post, but I’m not sure, so I’ll go over it again. In my classroom, I had 5 rows of 6 desks. I also had 3 desks strategically placed in isolated locations around the room. Two up underneath the white board (opposite sides of the classroom) and one facing the 2nd whiteboard on the side wall, behind the upright cabinet. Students who would not stop talking, regardless of where I sat them (I’m talking about just shouting across the room, turning around and disrupting class constantly), I would direct them to an island of shame. And yes, I called it the island of shame. Sarcasm (sort of gently) was part of my classroom culture, though – I’m not advocating you use the term “island of shame” if it doesn’t fit with your personality – so the kids knew it wasn’t personal, just that I really had had it with their disruptions. It got so popular that some of my problem kids would move themselves there when they knew things were getting out of control. And of course, any time a student moved him/herself away from a problem I NEVER stopped them.

Standing. I’ve got a pretty clear set of rules I follow for dealing with sleepers, but occasionally I’d have a kid who was just having a rough day and wanted to sleep. This was usually the case when we would watch a film clip (not “movie day” four days in a row, but a legit film clip for a lesson) and the lights would be off for more than 45 seconds. Or, I’d have the kid who just kept putting his feet on the desk in front of him and pissing off the kid there. I’d warn these students one time to stop their behavior and tell them if it happened again, they’d have to stand. Sure enough, if it happened again, I’d tell them to go stand in the back of the classroom against the wall. Not yelling at them, not making them feel like crap, just, “Please stand up.” I rarely had anyone argue with me over it. In fact, kids who were repeat offenders (especially during the ‘lights off’ film time or when there was a Power Point or something) would ask as soon as I turned the lights off if they could stand in the back of the room. I’d say “sure!” and thank them for being so proactive.

So that’s my post for the week. I know it’s getting close to the end of the first quarter, and some of you may be struggling with some behavior issues. I hope that the ideas I’ve presented in this entry about seating charts will help you gain a little more control in your classroom so your students can learn as much as possible! Of course, comments are welcome!

And of course, if you’re looking for classroom management ideas, I have a great bundle you can buy: here.

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Check it out!

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