I used to hate assigned seats in elementary school. “Why can’t I sit next to my friend? It’s not like we’re going to talk to each other or anything, we just want to be next to each other,” I used to say to my teachers. Unfortunately, they didn’t bite at this and knew the truth, that we would just distract each other all day long. I just didn’t understand that. Then came high school and middle school. No assigned seats. I could sit wherever I wanted each and every day for each and every class. I could sit in the front of the room one day and in the back the next day. I loved the options and choice. While I usually sat next to my friends, we were mature enough to know not to talk to each other during the entire class. My teachers trusted me and my classmates to make good choices once we hit seventh grade. The teachers wanted to teach us ownership. If you made poor choices because of where you sat, it impacted your grade in the class. The teacher didn’t tell you where to sit because you were negatively impacting your experience in the classroom, they wanted you to learn from your mistakes and own them. This approach worked for most every student. But what about those few students who struggled to make good choices regardless of the impact and outcome? Should the teachers have chosen a spot in the classroom for those students? Would that approach have better supported those struggling students?
As teachers, we are bombarded with a barrage of questions and issues on a daily basis: How can we better support that student? Have you written your lesson plans for next week? Did you read the email from Johnny’s mom about the homework issue? We need to then react to all of those situations. How do we respond? What’s the best approach? Is one solution better than another? This same philosophy applies to seating options in the classroom. Should students be allowed to choose their seat in the classroom or should it be assigned? Does it matter? Does the grade of the students make a difference? If students can handle making effective choices, do we let them choose? What about those few students who have difficulty making the best choice for themselves? Do we create an assigned spot for those students? While we’d like to think that we have all of the right answers as teachers, we don’t. We go with what we think is best for our students and us. While it may not always prove to be the best solution in hindsight, we make the best choice for the place and time.
In the sixth grade, we scaffold the students in regards to seating. We begin the year with every student having a name tag with their name on it. We assign the students a seat on a daily basis based on several criteria. We generally try to separate the students whose native language is not English during the first few months so that they have the chance to practice speaking and understanding English. We also try to separate students who are good friends or worst enemies. Sometimes, we have students sit next to a particular person based on an activity or project we are working on in the classroom. On other occasions, we just randomly mix the students up. However, the students do not get to choose where in the classroom they sit during the first five months of the academic year. Once February rolls around and we feel as though a strong community is forming within the class, we allow them to choose their own seats for the final four months of the school year. We want the students to begin to try out what seventh grade will be like. Most seventh grade teachers at my school do not have assigned seating and so the boys need to be able to understand the thought process that should go into choosing the best seat for them. We want the students to begin to own their choices and their learning.
While this freedom works for almost every student, every year it seems as though one or two students tend to struggle with how to make the most effective choice for themselves. One of our international students tries to sit next to a peer from his home country so that he can ask him questions about class in their native language. This choice is not only distracting to his peers, but it doesn’t allow the struggling ESL student to develop as an English language learner. We have another student who likes to sit next to his best friend in the class. While they get along very well, they also tend to be very distracting to each other during class. Although we want them to own their choices and learning, if their behavior prevents others from learning, is it right? While these issues have popped up every year, they never become more than minor problems after we discuss them with the students. Once the students know they can lose the power to choose their seat if they can’t make the best choice for themselves, we usually see change come about.
Is this scaffolded approach to seating arrangement in the classroom the best method? Should we continue assigning seats for the entire year? Does it make a difference? Is one approach better than another? If our students have freedom and choice, will they feel more engaged in the classroom? Will this option prove to be too challenging for some students? After several years of using this model for seating in the classroom, I feel confident in saying that it works for me and my students. Will it work for every teacher in every classroom or for every student or class? No, but it works for us in the sixth grade. Teaching isn’t a fine science; it’s more of an art that is always changing based on the materials available, time, and frame of reference. Teachers make the best decisions they can in the moment for them and their students.