Flexible Furniture Flops

So, we all know that “flexible seating” is a trend in classrooms these days.  The idea is to create an environment that allows more comfort and more choice for students.  Some people interpret “flexible” to mean different things.  It’s funny to me (though not mysterious), for example, to see a flexible seating classroom where all of the students have assigned seats.  The chairs vary from beanbags to armchairs, but the students and the chairs stay in the same place.  Then there are the flexible seating classrooms where everything is on wheels: tables, dry-erase boards, chairs, and book-shelves.  These allow for multiple configurations during the day so students can work in groups, be placed in rows for state assessments, or create their own small islands for independent study.

After seeing some examples of flexible classrooms at Harvard, Stanford, and Trinity Universities, I knew that I wanted to give it a try in my classroom.  I slowly started accumulating different furniture pieces, and placing them in my room.  I was trying to be frugal by looking at Goodwill, Craigslist, and various other secondhand sources.  But I realized that it would take me 20 years to find what I had envisioned and decided to start making my own purchases.

I knew I wanted the furniture to be easy-to-clean (preferably vinyl), within a certain color scheme, affordable, and safe for the students.  I also wanted most of it to be “movable.”  My biggest challenge is that I teach gifted students from K-5, and the classes vary in size from 4-19.  Trying to find a setup that would work for various ages of maturity as well as small and large groups slightly overwhelmed me.

I started with the black storage ottomans that you see in the picture below.  I purchased the cubes and the benches from Big Lots, and they have been one of my best investments.  I can keep headphones, robots, and all kinds of things inside them.  They are comfortable and easy to clean.  And, they fold almost flat when I need to put them away.

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Our librarian donated a tall table to me when she got new furniture.  This worked well with the barstools (on the back wall) I bought from Wayfair.  The table is also good for students who prefer not to sit while they work.

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The “rugs” are actually plastic outdoor rugs that I bought from Cost Plus (sorry, but I don’t see them on their website any longer).  The little black tables came from Walmart, coffee table and end table ($10!)

The awesome picnic chairs in the lower right corner of the picture above were on sale when I bought them from Amazon.  I also got the video rockers (left on the edge of the above picture) on sale ($20 each at the time) from Amazon.

The next picture shows some inflatable ottomans with their mandala covers (removable so I can wash them) that I got at 5 Below.

I really, really wanted a futon/sofa.  I spent a year looking for a used one that fit my mental picture.  I finally decided I was done with searching, and bought this one instead on Amazon.  It was a great deal, considering I didn’t have to move it and the only thing I had to do when it came out of the box was screw on the legs.  You can see it below, next to the foosball coffee table.

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Oh yeah, did I mention the foosball table?  So that was not planned.  We had the table at our old house, and had no place for it in our new one.  So, there you go.  Instant distraction/behavior management tool/physics lesson – depending on how you look at it.

Now, one thing I pride myself on when it comes to this blog is telling the truth.  So, I’m going to tell you right now, in case you didn’t already deduce this from the title of this post, that reality struck as soon as students started moving through this learning oasis I had created.  Oh yes, the students oohed and aahed when they walked in for the first time (after a 10 minute discussion about behavior expectations).  They love the room, and breathe relaxed sighs whenever they enter.  But they are kids.

Students rocked themselves out of the video chairs, the foosball table got mysteriously broken, a picnic chair zipper ripped, the pneumatic bar stools shot up so high that my students couldn’t put their legs under the table, and the inflatable ottomans almost became the weapons in a pillow fight.

Pretty much every post that I have read about flexible seating has said that behavior improved in the classrooms where it was implemented.  What was I doing wrong?!!!!

Feeling defeated after the students left one day, I picked up the ripped picnic chair.  It looked irreparable, but I started fumbling with the zipper.  Then I started paying attention and realized that I might be able to fix it.  Ten minutes later, the chair looked brand new.

Next I confronted the foosball table.  We had indoor recess the day before, so I had let the students play.  No one could understand how a rod got broken…  Emboldened by my picnic chair success, I set about working on getting the rod back in place.  Fifteen minutes later, done!

I sat down on an inflatable ottoman and pondered matters.  My students love the room, and they love the freedom of seating choice.  But, I needed to be more explicit about the responsibilities that comes with those freedoms.

And so, armed with a better plan, I welcomed the next class into the room and quickly moved students who made poor choices about using the furniture to traditional chairs and tables.  After two students got moved, things began to settle down.  As we transitioned to different activities and students changed places throughout the day, I noticed less attention being paid to the seating and more attention directed to the learning.  At the end of the day, when it was time for clean up, everything was returned to its original spot.

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As the novelty wears off, the students are making better choices.  They know they will all get a chance to sit in every spot, as long as they show they can handle the responsibility.  In future weeks, they will hopefully be helping to decorate this place that belongs to all of us.  We are going to work together to flip our furniture flops into forgotten footnotes of a fabulous year!

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