Quick Tip Tuesday: Room arrangement

May 25th, 2010

This week’s Quick Tip comes from A Sense of Belonging: Sustaining and Retaining New Teachers, a book by literacy specialist Jennifer Allen. Jennifer shares how she works with a first-year teacher to arrange her classroom in a way that supports instruction and shows how room arrangement can help or hinder behavior management.

Behavior management and room arrangement tend to go hand in hand. I find that the room arrangement of a new teacher often reflects the challenges that they face with classroom management.

One of the first things that I noticed when I started working in Christine’s room was that her desks were arranged in rows. I personally love student desks arranged in groups and like to be able to move freely around the room and easily reach students. I tend to gravitate toward learning environments where students are physically grouped together and have opportunities for ongoing conversations during writing workshop.

But, with that said, I am respectful of whatever room arrangement a teacher has implemented. I also understand the physical restraints of working in an old building with small classrooms and twenty-five growing bodies. In buildings like ours, it is sometimes hard to create that Debbie Miller learning environment that you dream of creating! I usually hold back from sharing how I would set up the room.

I gained insight into Christine’s row arrangement the first day that I spent in her classroom. Her students were talkers. I don’t mean talkers in a good way. They talked constantly—talking to each other, shouting out to Christine, and just plain yelling out for attention. I felt like I was at a basketball game, trying to follow the ball around the court. Except in this case I was trying to figure out all this talking. I had not seen anything quite like it in a while. Debbie Miller points out that “classroom environments are most effective when they are literate and purposeful, organized and accessible, and, most of all, authentic” (2008, 23). That may be true, but one of the things I notice is that many new teachers start off the year with a sense of purpose in their room arrangement, such as having their desks in groups to foster collaboration, but quickly abandon their idea and put the desks in rows as a coping strategy for behavior management. And as in Christine’s case, even though her desks were in rows, it didn’t solve the issues surrounding behavior management.

Management isn’t just about relationships with kids—it’s about arrangements that inspire and calm them, helping them produce their best work. And as a coach, I have learned you have to be gentle in getting teachers to think about and change room arrangements. I too want new teachers to be purposeful in the design of their classroom environment but have learned that it takes time and much tweaking before they find the arrangement that works for them. Implementing effective room arrangement can be a process.

After a few weeks of school, I asked Christine to reflect on her room arrangement. I asked if the layout of her room was working out as she had hoped and, even more specifically, if the arrangement reflected her beliefs about student learning. Christine shared that her students talked out all the time and she didn’t know what to do. She would love to have her students in groups but didn’t think they—or she—could handle it. After spending time in her room and observing the talk pattern, I understood her issue. We discussed the placement of a few of her key students, including Trez. She had placed Trez in the front row so that he would pay attention, but she noticed that it wasn’t working because he wouldn’t stop turning around. He spent the whole class turned toward the back of the room interrupting classmates. I shared my wondering of what would happen if he was placed in the back of the room so he could watch everyone.

The thinking was that if he turned around in the back row, he would be facing all of the coats and backpacks. The next day when I went in, Christine had moved Trez. She shared that turning around was no longer an issue for him. He now sat facing forward, able to see all of his peers in action.

Christine kept the rows but continued focusing in on individual student needs and moving students around to achieve different combinations. She did want a learning environment where students worked together in groups but wasn’t quite ready to put them into groups yet. Time went on. After several classroom observations Christine was inspired to rearrange her room again. She spent hours after school staying well into the evening with a colleague making the transformation. When I went into her room on the next day, she was proud to show me the changes. She had created a whole new classroom library, class meeting area, and desk setup—instead of all rows, only a few of the desks were left in rows; the rest were in groups.

Well, the story of room arrangement doesn’t end there. The arrangement didn’t exactly solve all of the talking issues that were directly interfering with instruction. As the weeks went on and Christine continued to work on classroom management, I slowly watched as the groups disappeared and the rows returned.

Did Christine’s desk arrangement reflect her beliefs about teaching? No. But, for the time being, the arrangement helped her with behavior management. The students had responded to the arrangement. My prediction is that Christine will not have her students in rows next year. But for now, this is the least of her obstacles.

I see room arrangement as a process that evolves as new teachers begin “living” in their classrooms with students. It is important not to judge the effectiveness of new teachers based on their classroom arrangement—room design is all part of the learning process. I find that asking clarifying questions is an effective strategy to get them to reflect on their room arrangement.

Questions That Prompt Reflection on Room Arrangement

  • Are you feeling comfortable with your room arrangement?
  • Do you feel that the room arrangement lends itself to group work and collaboration?
  • Is the setup of the classroom working for the students?
  • Are you and the students able to get around the room and work freely?
  • What are you thinking about the placement of materials for students? Are they accessible? Are you having any issues in this area?
  • How is your class meeting area working? Is there enough room for all the bodies? Where else might you make space for a meeting area?

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

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