Sunday, February 24, 2019

Making Choice Seating Work for You (Plus a Free Guide to Help You Get Started!)

When I applied for a teaching position with my current school, I knew they placed a lot of value on creativity and out-of-the-box thinking from their teachers, so when they asked me during my interview what completely crazy thing I would love to do, I didn't hesitate.

"I want to create a classroom that feels like a coffee shop combined with the work space of library. I want a room where students can comfortably collaborate in large groups, small groups, pairs, or work independently. In the real world, people don't usually sit in small cramped desks in rows. When possible, we choose a spot where we will be both comfortable and productive. Seventh grade is a perfect time for students to start learning how to make the choices that meet their needs, and I think having a room like this would be the perfect opportunity to teach them this skill, and it would be so much more convenient for me as the teacher."

When I was offered the job, I asked if I could make my coffee shop classroom happen, and I was given an emphatic, "Absolutely."

Making my coffee shop classroom happen was an involved process to be sure. I have been fascinated by classroom design pretty much since the beginning of my teaching career, and choice or flexible seating has occupied a lot of my summertime research for the last three years. This was one of those rare instances in my teaching that I didn't just dive in. I sat on the side of the pool for a long time, really wanting to jump in but not having the freedom to do so. While I watched from the sidelines, I observed and made notes and planned. When I was finally given the chance to jump in, I had already given this thing serious thought and planned it all out. Thus far, I would say the implementation of this type of choice seating in my classroom has been a resounding success.

Here's the thing, though. You want to make choice seating work for you, not make more work for you.

Today, I'm going to take you through the process I followed when preparing for my deep dive into flexible seating and how I've made this work for my classes. I'll be sharing my successes and my failures, because I'm a believer in stealing other people's best ideas and learning from their worst. If this is something you really want to do, I've prepared a free guide for you to use as you plan in order to make choice seating work for you.

Step 1: Your Why

Before you even begin planning your choice seating revolution, make sure you understand why you're doing it. You should have very clear goals in mind. It's just as important to remember what you do not want as much as what you do want. Here's a broken down list of my goals for my classroom.
  • I wanted to create an environment in which my students could be comfortable, creative, and productive. 
  • I wanted to allow students agency. 
  • I wanted a room that I could quickly and easily transform to meet whatever conditions the learning needed that day.
  • I wanted a room that would hold up to the typical wear-and-tear that comes along with hosting 90+ students every day.
  • I did not want a room that caused me stress, anxiety, or a daily headache.
  • I did not want furniture that would be a distraction.
  • I did not want to could not spend a ton of money.
Actionable step: make a list of wants and don't wants for your flexible seating classroom. Be very clear and very intentional in making this list.

Step 2: Reality Check

Once you have your "why" in mind, honestly ask yourself if it is a good enough reason for you to completely disrupt your current mindset and to take on the challenges associated with this major change. Personally, I don't think that a teacher should pursue flexible seating because it is trendy or because they want a beautiful classroom. If you're merely following a trend, chances are your resolve won't hold up the first time this adventure goes a way you didn't plan for it to go. As for beauty, I can appreciate a teacher's need to be in a beautiful classroom since we spend so much time in this one room. However, it's worth remembering that kids are kids, and kids can be destructive (intentionally or not). Dropping a lot of money on a gorgeous classroom is great if that's your thing, but it could be incredibly devastating the first time a kid pukes on that adorable rug or an ink pen bursts all over your cute white chairs.

Actionable step: step away from Pinterest and Instagram and ask yourself, very seriously, is it worth it. You guys, this whole flexible seating or choice seating movement is a mindset shift. In many ways, you are taking some of the control away from the teacher and giving it to the students. Go back to your list of goals that you made. As you read each one, ask yourself if it is going to worth it to invest the time and effort and money into this new adventure. For me, it was totally worth the impending challenges to make this room happen.

Step 2.5: Dot the i's and cross the t's

Hey, do yourself a favor at this stage. Before you go any further in your plans, you need to ensure that the powers that be are totally kosher with this wacky scheme of yours. You should probably check in with folks such as your building level administration, co-teachers (if you'll be sharing a classroom), and the person in your building that deals directly with school safety. Figure out now what your area's fire code will and will not allow. It seems like every school is different in this regard. Some fire marshals will let you put flame retardant filters on your fluorescent lighting; some will not. Some will be cool with hanging stuff from your ceiling. Some will insist that all paper is at least eighteen inches from the ceiling. Some administrators will be totally okay with that squishy couch you want to put in your room, while others cry "bedbugs" and "lice" and give that couch a big ole NOPE. Before you set your sights on that amazing reading chair in your parents' basement or those twinkle lights you plan to drape from the ceiling, make sure that those dreams can become reality without red tape getting in the way.

Actionable step: reach out, starting with building-level administration. Be prepared to share your clearly defined goals and to defend your plan for choice seating. Be honest and upfront in this conversation, and be willing to both make concessions and push for what is best for your students. It is likely that the conversation with your building level admin will lead you towards any other conversations that need to take place.

Step 3: Make Good Choices

Alright, you're doing this thing! Sweet. Now it's time to begin your research, and I don't just mean Pinning pictures of beautiful rooms (although, let's be honest, we should legit be getting professional development points for scouring Pinterest for amazing classroom ideas). No, if you're going to do this thing, do it right. Begin doing research on flexible seating gone right, flexible seating gone wrong, and the research behind classroom design. And, if you're using technology in the classroom, consider 21st century learning and how the classroom can support that. After doing loads of research, it is time to make some good choices. What kind of seating choices do you want to offer your students? I had to keep myself very disciplined when exploring all of the wonderful seating options. I would see these amazing classrooms with wobble stools and yoga balls, and they were so cool. But here's the deal: those did not fit my why. Check out my list again. That kind of seating was not going to work for my vision. In fact, I knew for certain that I would hate corralling yoga balls in a classroom full of 7th graders, and I definitely did not have time to make little rings out of pool noodles to house said yoga balls. I also didn't have the time to do a bunch of DIY seating (have you seen those seats made out of old tires?) and those cute DIY seats would fit neither my vision or the huge variety of growing bodies found in a middle school. So when you start choosing the seating options you would like to offer your students, take some of the following into consideration.
  • Your sanity - Will this choice make you completely bonkers? (If you can't handle bouncing, wiggling, rolling, squeaking, etc. make sure you choose seating that won't do those things.)
  • Your finances - How will you be acquiring these items? Are you buying out-of-pocket? Are you getting funding from a grant or a Donor's Choose project? Are you willing to pay to replace these things when they get broken?
  • Your age group - Different age groups have different needs. Keep the bodies of the humans in your classroom in mind before selecting that rickety dollar store stool.
  • Your classroom management style - This kind of ties in with your sanity. What can you handle? What can you not? Do not set your students up for failure by providing them with a source of chaos that you cannot manage!
  • Durability of the item - All it takes is a jab with a pencil to make a yoga ball pop, and one bodily fluids accident (ya'll, it's gross but it happens!) can completely ruin the upholstery on that papasan chair. How will you ensure these items last?
For the sake of real talk, I think you should know that so far this year I had one chair ruined due to a bodily fluids accident and two rolling desk chairs that have been broken and repaired due to being wheeled too quickly and the wheel breaking off when it slammed into something. I have a third rolling chair that I'm pretty sure won't survive until next year (but to be fair, it was a little broken when I got it), and I've resigned myself to the fact that I will have to put new contact paper on my tall table every school year. Lessons learned: Teflon coating is your friend, rolling chairs should be relegated to a certain zone of the room, and contact paper is a pain in the butt.

What if I can't replace all of my furniture? What if I must use the furniture my school provides? 
This is such an important topic. Ya'll. Choice seating does not mean you must have all of the special furniture in the world. Choice seating, at its heart, is giving your students agency over their seating. Choice seating means we are moving away from the traditional rows and columns and seating charts, and we are letting students choose where they sit while reconfiguring the seating to the best of our abilities to create a classroom space that best supports the learning. Are you, for whatever reason, "stuck" with those desk/chair combinations or school-provided tables and chairs? You can work with this! Ditch the seating chart and try out new ways of organizing your desk arrangement. If possible, add in a corner of the room that just has a rug and some pillows so kids can sit on the floor and work, or let your students use your rolling desk chair or that tall chair that you sit on occasionally. It's all about choices that support the learning, ya'll. Don't be blinded by all of the bring and shiny things; keep the why at the center of this whole process.

Actionable step: Do your research. Make a budget. Consider each option's pros and cons before adding it to your classroom. Take preventative measures. Tis better to be proactive than reactive.

Step 4: Design Your Space with Purpose

Now that you know what kinds of seating you plan to offer, it's time to figure out your room configuration plan. This, again, needs to go back to your goals for the room. What are you trying to achieve with your space? When putting my room design together, I came up with the following requirements for the space.
  • The room would consist of zones for whole-group instruction, student collaboration, and independent work.
  • The room would progressively get quieter. The noisy zones would be in the front of the room, and the silent zones in the back. (This has actually changed since the year began, and now it's more like the room gets quieter as you cross from one side to the other.)
  • There would be many numbers of seat groupings possible. Some tables would seat up to six, while others would seat trios. Some spots would be individual spots.
  • There would be a space that could be reserved specifically for small-group lessons.
  • The room would be able to be reconfigured quickly.
  • The room would be able to comfortably seat all students + four others without taking advantage of floor seating.
As a result of this, my room has a "master layout" that is the typical formation (this has changed a little since these pictures were taken). However, I can easily shuffle furniture around to make the room more appropriate for stations or shared inquiry or playing Grudgeball or whatever we're up to.

I cannot more highly recommend listening to this episode of the Cult of Pedagogy podcast for inspiration on classroom design. There's a lot of food for thought here.

Actionable step: spend some quality time in your classroom and develop a basic floor plan. Figure out what cannot be moved and work around those things. How can you make the best use of your space? How can you make the space work for you, your students, and your vision?

Step 4.5: Make It Happen

This is either the fun part (if you're an abnormal human who likes this sort of torture, like myself) or the worst part. This is the part where you start pulling the room together. My garage became my found treasures warehouse for pretty much the entirety of last summer. It looked like a rummage sale in there. In the old days, when I worked just fifteen minutes from school, I would have pieced my room together slowly. My new school is forty-five minutes from home, though, so this wasn't an option. Fortunately, my dad has a truck and my uncle has a box trailer, so we literally had moving day. I called in the troops, and my family helped me load up this box trailer full of secondhand furniture plus all of my other classroom supplies that was making the move to my new school. We unloaded everything into my new classroom (which, fortunately, is in a single-story building and pretty close to an exterior door) and then started shuffling around the pieces. My floor plan worked out exactly as I'd hoped it would, so that made the process go much faster. But you guys know what a closed school building is like during the summer. It was a million degrees in there. We were hanging up brick wallpaper and putting together bar stools and adjusting furniture while my infant played with his grandma in one corner of the room and my preschooler watched PJ Masks on the Promethean board. This process, for me, is both Hell on Earth and one of my best memories.

Actionable step: Just do it. If your transformation is big, recruit help and pay them in food and adult beverages.

Step 5: The Rollout Plan and the Management Plan

Yay! You have an amazing room! Maybe it isn't the dream room yet, but you've made some serious progress. Oh, but honey... you're not done yet. Because now we've come to the most difficult part of this process: the Rollout Plan and the Management Plan.

Rollout Plan
This is your plan for introducing your students to the new world of your classroom. If you're a trailblazer in your building, chances are high that your classroom is going to completely throw off some students, especially the kids that are really good at The Game of School. Now, you guys know I'm a big fan of Harry Wong,* and in The First Days of School, he says that out students need to know where to sit on the first day of school. This provides the student with a sense of security amongst all of the uncertainty of the first day. It is comforting to know exactly where to go and what to do in a new environment. As someone who deals with social anxiety, I happen to agree with the Wongs on this point. Teachers roll out their choice seating in different ways. Some let the choice begin immediately. Some create a seating chart for that first day. My goal was for students to know where to go, find the seat quickly, and begin the provided first task while also letting them dip their toes into the waters of choice seating. Since my room is divided into zones, I labeled each zone with a sign featuring a creature (Mockingjays, Wookies, Ents, Bandersnatches, Drogons, and Hippogriffs) and the seating configuration for that zone. I printed and laminated playing card sized versions of these signs, with enough cards for each zone (so, for example, the Wookies zone seats six, so I printed six Wookies cards). When my students arrived the first day, I greeted them at the door and handed each one a card from the deck (I shuffled the deck prior to their entrance). Students were instructed to find the zone on their cards and to choose a seat within that zone. Then, for the next two weeks, I met students at the door every day and gave them a card. This allowed students to try out different zones and seats in the room with very little risk or social pressure, since I was assigning them their zones. This system worked beautifully, and I will definitely use it again next year.

The Rollout Plan also needs to include how you introduce choice seating to your students. How will you explain the concept to your students? What will the rules be, and who is coming up with these rules - you or your students? What choices are they allowed to make with their seats, and what are the non-negotiables? (For example, my students may move around the room freely during work time, but they must stay seated in place and facing the front during instructional time.)

The Management Plan
Once you've rolled out your choice seating and everyone has agreed on the rules and procedures, you will now have to actively enforce these rules and procedures with appropriate consequences. Don't forget there is a difference between and rule and a procedure, and there is a difference in how we deal with those infractions. For example, you might expect that students not stake a claim to certain seats and that they switch up their seating frequently. When you see students assigning themselves seats and calling dibs on seats for friends, this is a break in procedure, but isn't really a breach in a rule. As a result, you'll need to reteach your students this procedure. However, if one of your firm rules is to respect the public space of the room, and you see students writing on a tabletop or leaving shreds of paper on the floor, a repercussion should follow (perhaps they must clean up their mess and serve a lunch detention). As will all classroom management plans, you must have a set of logical consequences and you must hold to them. You must be consistent in the management of your choice seating environment, and you must be very firm in the beginning. If the expectation is that students will not put their feet on the furniture, you must uphold the rule rigidly until students truly understand what is allowed in this new environment and what is not.

The structure and implementation of these two plans is absolutely critical to the success of your choice seating movement.

Actionable step: take the time to write out your Rollout Plan and your Management Plan, both very specific to your new classroom environment. Be extremely clear about your expectations. I strongly advise that you have a solid Rollout Plan before the first day of school, and you should have at least a general outline of your Management Plan in place. I recommend talking to the students about the Management Plan and having them come up with the rules for how to respect the classroom space. I'll share a mistake with you; I originally thought that telling my students to treat our classroom space the way they treat their personal belongings or home would suffice, but students were quick to bring to my attention that the expectations in their homes were completely different. Some students were allowed to have shoes on the furniture, and some were not. Some were allowed to draw on their bedroom walls, some were not. Some blatantly admitted to me that they are much more careful with belongings in a public space than they are with their own things. If I had not gotten student input and I'd just stuck with my "treat it like you treat your own things" mentality, I know the classroom would have been ruined in short order. Get student input. It is valuable.

There it is! Are you ready to make the change from traditional to choice seating? Download my free guide and get started!

Happy Teaching!

*Seriously, that joke will never get old.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

8 Sweet Free Tech Tools You Can Start Using Tomorrow

I had the privilege of attending the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando at the end of January and let me tell you, as a tech conference newb, my mind was blown! I dissected a dolphin using zSpace. I made a margarita by pedaling a stationary bike. I was the fastest and most accurate typist of the day at the Learning Without Tears booth. I learned about Novel Engineering on a makerspace bus. I got to tinker with some LEGO robotics. There were so many big name vendors on the floor showing off their amazing gadgets and services, but I was just as impressed with the immediate takeaways from the event. I was able to grab a ton of new tech tools and ideas that can be implemented immediately! Today I'm sharing with you eight of the sweet free tech tools I found at FETC that you can start using tomorrow!


You guys, I am seriously in love with Wakelet. Wakelet is a curation tool that allows you to create collections of web addresses, tweets, YouTube videos, images, PDFs, and textboxes. The process of adding to the collection is incredibly simple, and reorganizing the items in the collection is very easy. There are three viewing modes, all with different pros. Media view allows for videos to play within the Wakelet collection, compact view shows tiles and descriptions only for links, and grid view is organized into blocks. You can add collaborators to the Wakelet collection and sharing is simple. I'm currently using Wakelet to create a tech toolbox for our teachers, organized by tool utility (assessment, interactive learning, publishing, audiovisual, etc.). The simplicity of this tool is what makes it so awesome.


Symbaloo is another very cool curation tool, but with the added benefit of having a free educator pro account that allows you to create learning paths! Not only can you curate content and create Symbaloo landing pages for students (imagine a world where every website your kids need is on one single page, neatly organized in a highly-visual tiles layout, so they don't have to try to type in a URL or find it in your Google Classroom stream somewhere), but you can design interactive lessons AND it will track student performance! I'm just getting started with Symbaloo but I can see the possibilities being endless with this powerful tool.

Adobe Spark

I knew a little about Adobe Spark before going to FETC thanks to a few students who had used it for video creation, but I had no idea of its true capabilities. Kasey Bell (Shake Up Learning) and Holly Clark (The Technology Infused Classroom) presented together, and they showed us the power of the Spark Page. My mind was blown! They presented this great idea of taking a traditional writing assignment and "shaking it up" by having them publish their writing as a Spark Page. I love this idea! Let's teach our essay genres and formatting as we need to, but then let's kick it up a notch by adding in this creative element. I can't wait to show my students what this tool can really do!


At first, I thought this tool was kind of a cutesy, "oh that's pretty fun" kind of tool. Once I started messing with it, though, I realized just how useful this could be! AutoDraw uses AI to guess what you are drawing and then to clean it up and turn your drawing into something that looks cleaned up and professional. These drawings can be shared out, or they can be downloaded as png files! Students can do their own illustrations for stories and presentations with the help of AutoDraw instead of just searching for an image or a piece of clip art.


Do you love using games in class, but your students are bored to death of Kahoot! and Quizlet Live? Throw Gimkit into your classroom gaming rotation! Gimkit is unique for two reasons. First, no projection required. All questions pop up on student devices and it is student-paced, based on how quickly they answer the questions (if they make it through the whole set of questions before time runs out, they just start answering the same questions again). Second, the points system is monetary. Students earn in-game money for correct answers, and that money can be used to purchase upgrades, power-ups, and even sabotage items! When one of our teachers tried this game last week, he remarked on how quiet and engaged the students were as they played. Unfortunately, you only get five free kits before you have to start paying, but if you don't mind creating temporary games, this is a great gaming option! Bonus: it integrates seamlessly with Quizlet, so your Quizlet decks can be turned into Gimkits with just a few clicks.


I cannot explain to you how excited I was to discover Bookshare! It is such a needed resource. Bookshare provided free ebooks for students with reading difficulties. Here's a direct quote from their landing page: "Bookshare makes reading easier. People with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers can customize their experience to suit their learning style and find virtually any book they need for school, work, or the joy of reading." Schools can sign up for an organization account and add students who have reading difficulties due to disabilities (IEP, 504, or other documentation is required), and the Bookshare library becomes available to those students free of charge. They offer books using the dyslexia font, read-aloud, highlighting, large font, and other formatting options to customize the reading experience. I haven't had the chance to use this in my classroom yet, but I'm looking forward to giving it a go.


Ya'll, Flippity is one spiffy tool! Flippity will take a regular old Google spreadsheet and Flippity it right on its head and turn it into something awesome, like flashcards, a quiz show, a randomizer, puzzles, artwork, a progress indicator, and more. There is a Flippity add-on for extra speed, and if you don't have a spreadsheet but you do have a list of things that need Flippityed (I just made that verb up), you can just input the list. As someone who has spent a painful amount of time trying to design my own tournament brackets before, I'm basically crying with relief at the discovery of Flippity.

PDF Candy

PDF Candy should be called PDF Freaking Magic! Take pretty much everything that Adobe wants to charge you to be able to do with a PDF, and PDF Candy will do it for free. Conversions, compressions, merges, splits, locking, editing... PDF Candy has you covered. I love PDFs for the fact that they cannot be easily manipulated, but sometimes there is a need to tinker with a PDF. This tool has you covered.

Hopefully there's something here that you'll be able to turn around and start using tomorrow to kick things up a notch in your classroom! What are your favorite free tech tools?