Across the country, the newest health phenomenon is picking up speed. People are learning more about flexible seating, allowing students to pick their own seats, and it has found its way into the Scotts Valley Unified School District. I stopped by Vine Hill Elementary and Scotts Valley High School to visit the classrooms of Kelly Shulman, a first-grade teacher, Anna Hipsley, a fourth-grade teacher, and Megan Laws, an English and journalism teacher, to hear more about their flexible seating practices.
Flexible seating started a few years ago, in Shulman’s class with a lower table and it’s grown ever since. Hipsley was, “subbing in Kelly’s classroom, and got to see the seating in action. I was like, ‘My gosh, this is the best classroom set-up I’ve seen! Everyone is reading and working quietly.’ I knew that when I finished my credential, I really wanted to do this.” Hipsley and Shulman recently taught a Professional Development Course on flexible seating, which further inspired Laws. Aside from collaboration throughout the district, all three found inspiration from other teachers’ flexible seating posts on Instagram.
To get the ball (chair) rolling, Hipsley, Laws, and Shulman all requested donations from parents, through Amazon wish lists and Donors Choose. Laws was amazed to get, “almost everything I asked for… I didn’t think it was going to come together so fast. I got it all together in a month and I thought it was going to take two years… The parents are so generous.” Shulman was especially proud of a beautiful teal, velvet couch and ottoman set. “When [the seller] found out I was a teacher, she gave me a crazy deal.”
All three teachers noticed immediate changes in the classroom. Laws declared, “Students that are typically up out of their seats or need to take a lot bathroom breaks are doing that less. They seem a lot more at ease and comfortable in the class, it’s more of a community, instead of a traditional brick and mortar classroom.… I don’t enjoy telling kids to sit down 25 times in a class. I don’t think it’s helpful to give constant negative feedback… It’s been really cool to see the upward trend of kids getting their work in on time, especially those that have struggled to in the past.” Shulman chimed in, “They take so much more pride in the classroom as a community.” She then recounted the devastation of her first graders when they discovered doodles on a stool during their daily cleaning. “This is all of our stuff, it’s not just their desk and their chair. It helps build that family and community you want in a classroom.”
Flexible seating has another less perceived advantage as well, creating more space. People are constantly surprised walking into Shulman’s classroom. The past principal once walked in and wondered where half of Shulman’s students were. She replied, “No, they’re all here. You can use your entire space, not just fill the tables and be crammed. It feels more open, spread out, and quiet… We have larger class sizes now with our community growing. I have 31 students, but it doesn’t feel like it with flexible seating.”
The extra room has also changed their teaching styles for the better. Hipsley mused, “It allows us to teach from different areas in the room. We use different walls or have proximity to kids that need more attention and it’s less awkward.” It also allows for better relationships between peers in Hipsley’s classroom, “We do so much collaboration, that if they’re stuck at a table with someone they’re not learning well with, or their learning partner is absent, or someone is cheating off of them, it’s a lot easier to see and change.”
Unfortunately, flexible seating comes with a unique set of challenges. However, these smart and creative teachers are up for the challenge! Shulman described “There’s a lot of necessary structure with flexible seating. If it’s not done right, it can get away from you.” Laws had to come up with creative ways to stop her kids from picking the seat next to their friend. She explained, “They’re assigned to teams and each unit they have a different team. Their team moves around the room during the unit… That keeps it equitable, so everyone gets to experience the couches and different areas.” Hipsley was less worried about cliques and more worried for the quieter kids. She outlined the “VIP seating system,” which Shulman now uses too. “There are 8-9 VIPs on each day, so they get first choice to enter the room and are excused off the carpet first to find their ideal seat.”
On top of their complex seating systems, all classrooms employ the same rule, as put by Laws, “Any adult can move any kid at any time… It’s really important for them to know that this is a privilege.” Hipsley adds, “I’ve taken flexible seating away, not the seats, but the opportunity to choose… They realize at the end, ‘I don’t like this and I’m tired of it.’” Shulman “shuts off an area. We can’t use this because we’re not using it correctly.” Shulman also prohibits flexible seating when substitute teachers fill in, “I can’t trust someone else to uphold the flexible seating rules when I’m not around.”
Aside from crafting seating systems, the biggest trial comes in the form of transitions. On Mondays, Laws’ classes transition to a different part of the classroom, and it generally takes longer than expected. Shulman had to think outside the traditional desk, “There’s a lot of transitioning, so there’s no desks. You have to think out where you’re going to put all their things, like glue, scissors, and pencils. That’s why we have cubbies.” Hipsley manages transitions by projecting a countdown timer throughout the two-minute period.
Although these transitions appear inefficient, ultimately, the time taken to transition teaches students important lessons. Hipsley clarifies, “It teaches autonomy and how to advocate for themselves… They have strong reasoning behind why they want their spot.” Laws students, “have to choose a smart spot, the spot that will work best for them and their learning. Sometimes kids don’t choose properly. It’s a challenge for them to figure out and for me to enforce. One of the goals of flexible seating is to develop student agency, how do they work and learn the best?” Hipsley explained the importance of this experience by recalling her time studying in libraries, “There’s so many different kinds of seating and you have to pick what will work best for you every day… Understanding where to sit can make or break their entire higher education experience.”
For the future, the three teachers are extremely excited to see where flexible seating will spread. Shulman proudly lists classrooms where teachers employ flexible seating, “kinder, third grade, fourth grade, myself, and the high school as well… These great ideas are trickling into Scotts Valley.” Laws grinned, “The principal has been so supportive. We’re holding my desks in case it doesn’t work out, but at this point, I think I’m never going back to traditional seating, because it’s helped the kids and me.” Perhaps it’s time to takes notes from these teachers and rethink my office.