Rethinking Physical Space, Part 1: Seating

After years of transforming my pedagogy, strengthening my relationships with students, and retuning content, this year I’m placing emphasis on the furniture, walls, lighting, and the many other physical elements that make up my classroom. Each post in the series details a different element and how I’m rethinking it. This is the first post in the series.

Practically every classroom I’ve been in (including mine) has approached seating the same way: hard, sturdy chairs.

Of course, these babies do their job really well. They’re compact, tough, and easy to clean. They basically last forever. Last year, when one of them broke during class, my students and I were shocked. It was like seeing a shooting star. We stared at it in disbelief, amazed that something like that could happen. Given the daily trauma that’s dished out to them at the hands of unassuming students, classroom chairs are marvels of engineering.

But their exceptional durability comes at a cost. Despite all the good they do, these chairs sacrifice something important: comfort. For multiple hours a day, five days a week, they serve as a rigid and unforgiving landing space for students’ bodies. Have you ever tried sitting in them for 30 minutes? They offer no mercy.

And this is coming from someone who buys into the vertical whiteboarding movement of the last 10 years. My kids are frequently standing while doing math. I love how my boards steal my students away from their seats for extended periods of time. Still, the rockhard chairs loom in the shadows, waiting to reclaim students’ bottoms when the dry erase markers are put down. These chairs exert their discomfort at will.

In their defense, students do everything they can to make these chairs more enjoyable. They lean back (risking a head injury), slouch, put their feet up, or maneuver sideways in them. Some students, I suspect, even leave to use the bathroom just to catch a break from being forced to sit in them for as long as they do.

This year I made it a goal to bring a little bit of relief to their backs and bottoms. It took some effort, but I somehow organized my cramped New York City classroom to make space for two lounge chairs. They’re positioned in the corner of the room along with an end table, rug, and plant.

Interestingly, on the first few days of school, no one sat in them. I think my students were unsure whether they could. We’re the chairs simply for looks? Were they reserved for special occasions, like one-to-one conferencing? After reassuring my kids that the chairs really were for their sitting pleasure, the students have gotten over their hesitancy. There’s at least one student lounging in them each class period.

A couple of students have tried to politely and nonchalantly co-opt the chairs and sit in them every day. When that happens, I respectfully push back to make space for others — especially those who aren’t bold enough to sit in them without some advocacy on my part. So far, there haven’t been any qualms. The students get it.

Some kids sit in them for obvious reasons, but many others take refuge in them because they’re not feeling well or unusually tired. Having a space where these students can find a little solace has been, without a doubt, the best part of having these lounge chairs in the room.

I know it’s only two chairs, but it’s a start. If they aren’t a total meltdown, in the next couple of months I hope to expand upon the chairs to include another seating upgrade in my room. I’m not going to count my chickens before they hatch, but I have a few ideas.

It’s worth noting that, when I say “my” room, I use that term lightly. Being the NYC teacher, I share it with two other teachers. Luckily for me, they were gracious enough to lend their support for (or at least not complain about) the chairs. Without them, the chairs don’t happen. The same is true for all the other upgrades I’m making to my classroom this year, which will be detailed in future posts of this series. I’m indebted to these folks for going along with my antics.



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