A new school year requires a new seating arrangement in my Secondary classroom – my “homeroom” so to speak. With 3 more students than last year, we needed to find a place for two more clunky double desks in an already crowded space. This might seem like a fairly straightforward problem, but when 15 kids between the ages of 12 and 14 have to be consulted before any solution can be found, it can get very complicated very fast.
When you walk into the class, you see a long room stretching out in front of you. The desks are in the front half and the couches and carpet area – where I do most of my teaching – are in the back. It would be a huge space, except for the fact that it is an attic room. That means the walls on your right and left are only vertical for about 3 or four feet before they start slanting inward. So a good three feet on either side of the room can’t be used for anything but small bookshelves. Get too close to either side wall and you are sure to bang your head on the ceiling. Put a desk too close to a wall and the poor kid has to twist and maneuver himself into his seat and then remember not to bang his head when he stands up again.
And there are yet more complicating factors. For the kids, there are important issues connected to seating: Who is my desk partner? Will I be able to sit near my friends? Especially true for the kids new to the group is: Will I have friends? Will the others want to sit next to me? A few of the fifteen have worries: Will the others get all the “good” seats? Will they care if I am happy with my spot? Or will they just steamroll over me? All of them question: Do I have a place in this group and what is it? Do I belong? Where do I fit in? . . . .
In other words, this whole process has a lot more to it than mere furniture arrangement.
Before the first week of school, I put a lot of thought into how I would handle all this. When the time came – I asked them a series of questions first (straight rows or groups? girls and boys mixed up? assigned desks or flexible seating?) all of which I already knew the answers to beforehand. I then pointed out what was possible and not possible based on the physical properties of the room. I showed them an idea I had for four groups of four and asked if they’d like to try it out. We moved the desks and arranged them sort of like this:
But we were not done. Which desks would the seven boys get and which would the eight girls get? How would they decide on their sub-groups. The boys all said it didn’t matter and placed themselves at desks without much discussion. With the girls, it was stickier. There were five returning students and three new ones among them. How would they get to four and four? I asked them if they needed my help, and they said they wanted to try on their own first. There was a lot of discussion and then they all got up and took their chosen seats. I was proud of them when I saw how they had split up the old guard and taken the newbies into the fold.
I had them all sit down at their new places and asked them how it felt. If they were comfortable. Happy. The arrangement was proclaimed to be “cool” and approved by a unanimous vote.
“That went well!” I thought to myself when the class was over. I mentally patted myself on the back.
Unfortunately, it turned out that there were a few bugs in the system.
Two weeks later, my colleague called me on my free day. He said that a big fight had broken out about the seating arrangement and that I would probably have to deal with it first thing the next morning.
I got to school and found the room like this:
As the students traipsed in one after another, each one gave me their version of the previous day’s events. As far as I can tell, it started when one of the girls decided she wanted to sit closer to friends in the neighboring group, so all the girls decided during the break that they would push their desks together to make a group of eight. Unfortunately, this required moving the boys’ desks. When the boys returned to the classroom, all hell broke loose. Moving desks without asking first was not okay, they said. We were just trying it out, the girls replied. It’s all too narrow now, some boys said – we can’t get around your desks without banging our heads. Pretty soon most of the girls were adamant about being all together and most of the boys countered that they wanted classic rows with all desks separate and facing the front. Everyone talked at once, the volume went up and no one listened.
I put a stop to the conversation and arranged a time to talk it through. “And in the meantime,” I added, “no one moves any desks!”
In the next session, passions were cooler, but each group had their own cemented-in idea of the perfect solution. I got them to agree to three steps. We would try out the two new arrangements for one week each. See how they feel. Then we will sit in a circle and talk it out with the help of Ann (my colleague who specializes in leading such discussions) because they clearly needed help to resolve the situation.
So the next Monday, I arrived and found the room like this:
And the following Monday, I found it like this:
In the meantime, we had planned an outing for the group to a climbing park so that they could have some fun together far away from any desks. It was a great success.
Yesterday, we had the circle discussion.
Ann was fantastic as usual and got the kids to open up about all the arguing, etc. They said in turn how they felt and what was important to them and the others listened. Unfortunately, it went on a little long and the desk situation had hardly been dealt with yet. I was sensing from the many increasingly fidgety kids that they had had enough of the talking. Some were saying they didn’t care anymore. Others started being deliberately provoking again. Some hinted that they wished a teacher would step in and simply say “This is the way it is going to be. End of discussion.”
At that point, I realized that Ann and I were not quite on the same wavelength. Her goal seemed to be to reach only some common social understanding – assuming, I guess, that the seating issue would then resolve itself. I, on the other hand, believe that the furnishings of a room and how they are placed can determine how people interact in that space.
I wanted a solution for the damn desks.
That was, after all, why we were there.
So after the first round of comments, I admit I interfered a bit and steered the discussion to the matter at hand. My training from 25 years of teaching business negotiation kicked in and I got five quick agreements among them in the last few minutes. 1) Girls’ desks could be in the front half of the area and the boys’ desks in the back half. 2) Each group could decide on desk placement within their area. 3) No desks would be moved in the future without asking the whole group first. 4) The next morning we would make the changes and try it out for a week. 5) It was okay with them if I did some rearranging in advanced – based on their expressed wishes. We were all in agreement and the kids went to catch their school buses.
The school was now quiet. I stood in the classroom and stared at those 8 desks. I started shifting them around. Destiny, desperation, or sheer dumb luck made me act on a whim to try something counter-intuitive. I stepped back and immediately felt “Hey! That works!” There would be no more head banging. No one would have to move their chairs so that another can get by. No one would have to weave through tight spaces, bumping into corners or tripping over school bags . . .
A colleague walked in and said “Wow! The room looks bigger!” Another one came in and exclaimed “Hey! That really makes a difference!” A third entered and said “It’s the Magic Eight!”
I went home hopeful that the kids would like it too.
I got to work earlier than usual this morning – before the first bus arrived. I made my Müsli and then went up to the room and sat on the couch in the back with a good view of each kid as they arrived. One after another, they came through the door and then stopped. They looked. They seemed first surprised and then pleased. The first word out of their 13 mouths was either “Cool!” or something to the same effect. (I say “13” because two of them were absent today.) They all joined me in the back and quickly agreed that the room did seem bigger. They were all willing to try this out for a while. Place shifting was allowed, but no desk moving. We would talk again next week. They said “Thank you” and actually clapped.
It was a peaceful and productive school day.
I don’t want to jinx it, but maybe, just maybe, I might be only two “Cools!” away from the Promised Land.