It’s one of the very first things you consider as a new teacher. How do I want my room arranged? How do I decide which students should sit next to one another? You do some research and you ask other teachers what works for them, and eventually you reluctantly settle on an arrangement.
After an uncertain amount of time passes, you reflect on your choice. If it was a bad choice, this happens right away. It may become obvious that a group of students are not vibing well, or it may be evident that the arrangement you’ve chosen is not a good match for your methodology. In any case, sometimes we are forced to think about how are seating choices guide our instruction.
If your current set-up is working, however, it may take longer before you begin to give this choice the amount of reflection and thought it deserves. I’ll be the first to admit— that’s where I was at with the horseshoe arrangement in my room. I liked the horseshoe; it was great for whole-class discussions, and it never felt like any student was “lost in the back of the room” because I could walk around the room so easily. I got comfortable with it, which meant when I spent time reflecting on my practice over the last few years, seating wasn’t something that crossed my mind.
But this summer, I read Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven, and it really made me think about ways to make the most out of the instruction that happens before a writing unit. That’s when I thought about how the horseshoe was holding me back. When we were mining mentor texts and discussing techniques, I was having a hard time getting students to volunteer what they noticed. When I called on students, they would offer a “safe” answer, usually something I had pointed out already in a previous unit. So one of two things would happen: either our list of noticings would be short and surface-level, or I would have to point out more techniques in the writing myself.
I was working harder than the students, and they weren’t digging in and discussing the mentor texts the way I wanted. And when I sat down to really think about it, I couldn’t blame them. Sure, the horseshoe promotes discussion, but in a full-group, one-person-at-a-time, kind of way. Adding to a discussion in this setting requires a participant to be willing to be vulnerable in front of his or her peers. Some students are willing to enter this state of vulnerability when discussing something they are familiar with. However, mining a mentor text for writing techniques is a brand new concept for my students, and very few were willing to try a new skill in front of the entire group.
I decided arranging desks into pods of four may be a better way to encourage meaningful discussions of mentor texts, which are so vital to kicking off a successful writing unit. The horseshoe was just offering too many crutches; students who were unsure of their answers knew that if they stayed silent long enough, some brave soul or the teacher would save them from exposing their vulnerability. When students are asked to have a small group discussion with their peers, however, the crutch of the teacher is instantly removed. And while some may still rely on others in their group to carry the discussion, it is easier to encourage our more silent students to speak out with a smaller audience.
So, this August, I took the leap. I’m now one month and one writing unit into the school year, and I seriously can’t believe I ever did this any other way. I keep laughing to myself about how the less of a presence I am during the hard work of inquiry, the more knowledge my students are building. Rather than asking students to share their craft noticings in front of the whole group, I have been encouraging small group discussions within their pods. While many groups are noticing a lot of the same things, there are also a few unique noticings within each group that broaden our total understanding of the genre. And when I combined everything that was noticed between all of the groups within my three class periods onto an anchor chart, it meant students went into the unit a lot more knowledgeable and confident than I have ever seen in the past. Honestly, I can’t remember a time when, on the first day of drafting, I didn’t have at least 5 or 6 panicked students tell me they didn’t know what they were doing or how to start.
In addition to promoting the types of discussions I wanted students to have about mentor texts, my new seating arrangement has also opened up possibilities in my instruction that I would have never before considered. For example, we tried something new last week that I called the “scramble discussion.” In this activity, students put a star next to the two noticings in a mentor text they felt were most interesting and effective. I then used an app called Team Shake to quickly “scramble” students into new groups. They discussed their noticings with their new group members and added annotations if their group members noticed something they didn’t. After a few minutes, we scrambled again and students had the same conversation with a new group, adding even more annotations to their mentor texts. At the end of the activity, students returned to their original groups with a lot to talk about.
To be clear, I am not arguing that pods are the “right” way. I have also encountered some obstacles with them, too. One day, my second hour class launched into this awesome impromptu whole-class discussion, the type that is kind of off topic, but you let it go because they are learning from each other and it’s reminding you why you became a teacher. It was great, but the students expressed how the pods they were in made it difficult to see who was speaking and was holding them back. It’s kind of the nature of our job to try to fix one thing and break something else in the process.
What I am arguing, however, is that we need to continue poking and prodding at the different details in our classrooms that we can control and see how our horizons broaden. Could I have done a scramble discussion in the past? Absolutely. Would I have even thought to try it? Probably not. It’s amazing to me how changing just a small detail in my classroom has made me look at the process of encouraging inquiry in my students in a whole new light. So let’s keep on trying to fix things. If we break something, who cares? Maybe the solution for how to fix it will open up a whole new world.
How does seating affect what happens in writing instruction? What affordances and constraints have you found with your current set up? I’d love to hear your thoughts below or on Twitter @pbrink12!