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Flexing to Learn

Study on floor

If you walked into Tai Rodney’s 5th grade classroom, you might think you entered the student lounge by accident. 

There are no rows of desks. Or even a desk, for that matter. Rodney’s classroom in Falcon Elementary School of Technology is filled with dining room tables, tall chairs, yoga matts, carpets and soft comfy seats. This is known as flexible seating.   

“We have a variety of classrooms set up for flexible learning, but this class is unique,” Principal Ed Kulbacki said. 

Rodney began teaching in 2005. “I started bringing a little bit of comfort into the classroom. I noticed that it helped students think a little more,” she said. “It helps them feel comfortable, like an at-home setting. Ready and able to learn, and rock and roll, instead of sitting in the same seat for eight hours.”

Student on bench

As a military spouse, she moved to Georgia to teach, and flexible seating was a norm in her district. She began teaching in District 49 in 2019 and immediately brought in flexible seating. 

“The number one thing for this to be successful is classroom management,” Rodney said. “You have to build your relationship with the students to respect you, to respect each other, to respect the furniture, and respect the situation that we are in because if not, it can be all taken away. You don’t have that structure of rows and desks, everyone facing the same direction, so you have to have rules in place.”

Classroom expectations are posted on the wall. These were crafted by her students and agreed upon by the parents. 

“When the students take on ownership, they are more willing to follow the rules, because they created that rule,” she said.

rodney and student

Rodney walks around the classroom more than most teachers for two reasons. One, she doesn’t have a desk. And she is able to check on the students and listen to conversations at the tables.

“I have to trust the students,” she said. “It puts a lot of ownership on the students, that they are going to do the right thing. That’s important for them to learn in fifth grade as they are about to transition into middle school. Make the right choice, or if they make the wrong choices, they’ll learn from that.”

The students influence each other to make those choices. “Their peers keep each other in check if they are goofing around, because they know everyone at the table will have to move. I don’t have to intervene. That’s their ownership,” Rodney said. 

two students at back table

Some students work better alone. Some like to pair up, while others like groups. With the flexible seating arrangement, they can pick and choose what they want. Because of the seating, someone might think the classroom looks chaotic. 

But Kulbacki sees it differently. “If you sit in there for a little while you’ll see that it is highly structured and organized and the students know what to do. You’re going to see each individual kid working, probably on different things.”

“When flexible seating is modeled well, it’s powerful because students can find places in the classroom where they can operate best,” Kulbacki said.

Two students at low table

“We get a ton of choices to move throughout the day,” student Clark Robinson said. “Not all the seats are the same, you can choose a different seat or move around the room. It’s still a comfortable spot, even if it’s not our first choice.”

Bradley Locke said, “I like how we can move around to a better space, we can sit where we want. Normally for math and reading, I like to go to the library area. For the rest of the subjects, I like to go into the corner seating.”

“If you have assigned seating, and you are sitting next to someone that is annoying, you’re not allowed to move,” Tricia Wolf said. “When you have flexible seating like we do, you can move and you get a better chance to work. If your favorite spot is taken, you can grab a yoga mat. If you need help from a friend you can get it. You can be like, ‘Can you help me?’”

Three students at table

And it’s that ask for help, that student collaboration, that is integral to the success of this flexible seating set up.    

“I see a student sitting over there, listening and then come and sit next to the student looking, asking for help, grab a white board and just start explaining,” Rodney said. “That is awesome.” 

“Take math for instance, they are all working on math, but not all are at the same level,” she said. Her class has students everywhere from the second grade to the eighth grade level of math.  

“The math program looks the same when you are sitting next to someone,” she said. “Same concepts, different levels. They still interact with each other and have no idea what the other students' level is. I’m hearing these conversations of a higher level student helping a lower level student. When I hear a higher level student teaching, I know he or she understands the concept. This collaboration doesn’t happen in rows.” 

two different work stations

Her class could look very busy at times as interventionists, paraeducators and specialists come and go. But they slide right in, almost unnoticed. 

“With rows, if someone walks into the room, all heads turn to see who it is,” she said.

“With this seating arrangement, the students are focused on what they are doing,” Kulbacki said. “When you have rows and it is silent, any crack of a door is going to generate looks. People coming in and out of this classroom really doesn’t change the environment.” 

Library area of classroom

The support staff quietly come in and find who they need to work with and pull up a chair without any disruption. 

“I have Interventionists and support come in for specific students with learning disabilities, but the students are so mixed it doesn’t draw attention,” Rodney said. “It makes the culture and environment safe for everyone, it doesn’t put a stigma or stereotype on any specific student.”

As Rodney walks around the classroom and checks in with the students, the different groups, and support staff, she listens to the conversations. She makes a judgment of who needs her help or direction and who is moving along smoothly. 

“The conversations that happen are so impressive to hear them helping each other,” she said. “Getting help from a teacher is great, but getting help and hearing from a peer, they tend to believe a peer a little bit more. They value their peers so much.” 

Four students at round table

Kulbacki said, “Students have different ideas of how to express what they know or understand, sometimes that is easier for another student to understand. And peers have a better chance of asking each other questions like “how did you get that answer?” Because if you have to ask in front of a whole class, that’s a different pressure.”

“I’ve seen the growth,” Rodney said. “I think a lot of that is because of the comradery with their peers. Being able to see ‘if that person can do it, I can do it.’ 

“Yes we see increases in student achievement,’ Kulbacki said. “The bottom line to me is you embrace things that improve student achievement. If students are growing outside of what you would expect in a year’s time in an environment, then the environment is useful for student learning.”

“They help each other tremendously in this environment. And that’s what this room setup provides for them,” Rodney said. “It’s these conversations that excite me. That’s why I do what I do.”

Rodney's classroom

Joel Quevillon