These teachers say desks are bad for learning. What they're using instead

NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (INDYSTAR.com) — Walking into Peggy Wood's first-grade classroom in Noble Crossing Elementary is like walking into a pint-size Google office.

The company is known for creating fun, relaxing and collaborative areas for adult employees, offering bean bag chairs, sofas, large tables and even slides instead of the typical cubicles.

Wood doesn't have an indoor slide. But everything else in the Noblesville classroom is pretty spot on.

These modern classrooms are popping up in schools statewide, as more and more teachers ditch desks while getting their room ready for the quickly approaching first day of school.

While each room looks a bit different, depending on teacher and students' preferences, the basic goals are the same: to give students ownership and focus on engaging learning.

In Wood's room, there's a circular table with colorful stools underneath. Two repurposed bus seats create a booth feeling around a table. A bench is tucked in one corner, a child-size couch in another.

Yoga mats and wobble seats — the rubber circles commonly used for core work in gyms — are stacked and ready for students to grab, should they prefer to spread out on the floor.

Books and school supplies are stored in bookshelves on wheels. Wood added whiteboards in the back so students can use them in small groups.

Down the hallway, Jenay Burck's kindergarten classroom is set up with the same "flexible" seating. In addition to tables at varying heights, she has a few chairs set in pairs, tiny medicine balls and a large rug for students to gather on. There's one very low table so students can kneel or sit on the ground.

There are no desks in either classroom. No traditional chairs. No teacher desk and no obvious "front" of the room.

This physical space — which likely looks nothing like most adults would remember from  elementary school — follows a new concept in teaching: student-centered learning.

At the high school level, this idea translated into spaces that look more like a college campus. At the elementary level, the trend is about giving students choice and freedom within the carefully watched, single room in which they spend most of the day.

Creating this new space begins with how teachers teach. A room with no "front" only works if the teacher isn't expecting students to sit and face the front.

IndyStar talked to teachers from Noblesville, Carmel-Clay and Hamilton Southeastern schools who are instead using a workshop method. They may start with a brief instruction as a group, but then students are expected to work through the lesson on their own or with a partner. It allows students to drive the conversation, teachers say, and learn by not only finding new information, but figuring out how to apply it.

It's the difference between a student creating a paper tulip to learn about the flower versus going outside and measuring and observing an acutal tulip, said Stephanie Loane, director of elementary education for Hamilton Southeastern Schools, while standing in Erin Duros' kindergarten classroom in Fall Creek Elementary. 

Like Wood's classroom, there are no desks — not even a teacher's desk — but Duros' room is more neutral, pulling in nature. There are two tree stumps to sit on. She said she keeps it bare before school starts so students' work fills the room — another way to ensure it's the kids' space.

Agreeing with Loane, Jan Combs, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said previous methods of teaching have "driven the creativity out by third grade."

"When you sit with a worksheet, you put a ceiling on a student's learning," she said.

Walking into such a different classroom can be a shock to parents, teachers agreed. But they say just because the room looks fun doesn't mean it's chaotic. All three districts said teachers have fewer discipline issues because kids are engaged and doing what they want to be doing.

Teachers spend about a month at the beginning of the year establishing firm expectations for how the areas are used and move students if their choice of seat becomes a distraction.

For testing, Kristen Cannady, a fourth-grade teacher at Smoky Row Elementary in Carmel, said her students spread out and use privacy folders.

This setup makes students responsible for keeping themselves focused. They're also encouraged to solve their own problems by finding answers while learning the state-mandated skills.

Some teachers received grants to purchase more expensive items, such as the wobble stools. But most cobbled their flexible spaces together themselves, scouring garage sales and Pinterest for affordable options.

Wood was awarded a $2,000 grant through Wal-Mart, but also took a trip to the district's storage facility.

The space she came up with gives students the same options adults give themselves in their homes. They may switch from working at a table to a couch to a chair to laying on the floor. That comfort is important, she said.

"It should be fun," Wood said about her class. "We are a family, and this is our home."

Call IndyStar reporter Emma Kate Fittes at (317) 513-7854. Follow her on Twitter: @IndyEmmaKate.

INDYSTAR.com


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