As a new teacher, are you nervous about potentially disorganized, cramped desks? Or students sitting in the back of the room and getting lost in the shuffle?
Sure, you can arrange desks in neat and orderly rows, but that’s old school, a holdover from the days when desks were actually bolted into the floorboards of the schoolhouse.
As Liz Hartigan, a recent Penn State graduate and new elementary school teacher, says her favorite desk setup is to put the students into groups. “There is a lot of value in student collaboration. Students learn to work together as a group and as a community with a common goal in mind,” she explains. “They can bounce ideas off of one another and share their thoughts for a more in-depth understanding of what they are learning each day.”
So, consider mixing things up, tapping into your interior design skills, and getting creative with your classroom setup. The right desk arrangement can maximize learning, minimize behavior problems, and accommodate a potentially increasing class size.
Veteran educators agree that the best arrangements will allow you to walk freely through the classroom so you can easily answer individual questions, stop to help students who need it, and motivate others to keep working when they see you approach. But classrooms—and students—come in all shapes and sizes, so we asked experienced educators from different grade levels to share their best tips.
Maria Boichin is a National Board Certified French and electives resources educator at Gaithersburg Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She discovered that adolescent learners like to move often because it helps them stay focused.
“Fortunately, my desks are of the one-piece variety and can be moved about easily,” she says.
She starts the class in traditional rows to kick off the lesson, but then arranges students in different groupings by the same level of ability, by different levels of ability, by gender, or sometimes randomly.
When she wants to group them randomly, she hands out index cards that have the name and a photo from a Francophone city (she teaches French, after all.) The cards also have a number in one corner and a letter in the other.
For the first activity, she asks students to sit with those who have the same photo. Then she asks them to regroup with the students who have the same number, and finally, to sit with the students with the same letter.
“It takes a little time in the beginning of the school year to get them used to moving to another location, but it is a very effective way to keep them focused,” she says. “It’s also a great routine for jigsaw readings,” in which students break out into groups and then reconvene.
Diane Postman teaches preschoolers and kindergartners with special needs in Yorktown, Virginia. She says there are two critical elements of classroom design when working with these students—first, the furniture needs to be low enough so that educators can have visual contact with all or most children from most locations in the room. Second, she says room dividers are needed to split the space into centers.
“Open spaces invite running and other inappropriate behaviors, while smaller spaces create centers for small groups of students to interact,” she says, adding that it’s important to have spaces where children can be alone. It also allows noisy centers to be kept separate from quiet centers.
“Centers can be labeled to show the maximum number of people allowed,” Postman says. “This helps to avoid overcrowding, which can lead to undesired behaviors. It also forces students to try different centers and interact with different classmates.”
In most high school classrooms, there’s usually a group of students who like to sit in the back. To address this problem, Dawn Guerra, a Spanish teacher at North Pulaski High School in Jacksonville, Arkansas, developed a classroom setup she calls the “aisled traffic light” so that all students have a green light to learning and aren’t stuck at a metaphorical red light in the back of the room.
She arranges each side of her classroom with rows of desks angled toward the front of the class, with only three or four desks per row and a wide center aisle that she can walk up and down during class.
“With the large center aisle and my ease of movement up and down the classroom, no student is at the back of the room,” Guerra says. “Even the kids in the last rows are still ‘green-lighted’ by their location.”
She says the setup also helps all students have a good view of the whiteboard and videos.
For Bobee-Kay Clark, an elementary school teacher in Sparks, Nevada, the challenge is accommodating supersized classes—a growing problem for educators all over the country.
“The largest class roster I had was 54 students when I taught sixth-grade music,” says Clark. “I currently teach second grade at a multi-track school built for 850 kids; our enrollment topped out at almost 1,200 a few years back. My creative colleagues are always inventing to turn even closets into learning spaces.”
Some practical advice for making your crowded classroom feel bigger:
- Use tables instead of desks.
- Use chair pockets for storage.
- Make cheap cubbies using removable stick-em hooks and plastic milk crates.
- Leave one wall completely blank. Yes, blank. Your students are as overwhelmed by all the bodies in the room as you are.
- Outline the borders of chalkboards and whiteboards with twinkle lights. When the class gets too noisy, turn off the main lights, and turn on the twinkly lights; the students will quiet down.
- Use area rugs; they cut down noise and define tight spaces.
- Think of your room in levels—use the space above the students as well as under their desks.
- Declutter and simplify.