Monthly Archives: December 2015

Differentiating the physical space in your classroom – increased movement and flexible groupings

Have you ever been to an all day workshop where you sat in the same spot all day long?  When I have those kinds of days I feel tired and achy.  I find that I start to lose my focus by mid-afternoon or earlier.

As a teacher you have multiple opportunities during each period to sit and stand and walk about.  What about our students?  What is their day like?  A high school teacher shadowed students for two days and has this report:  https://goo.gl/utB7iA.

Many teachers I know have been experimenting with different designs of classroom furniture.  In our goal of being planned, purposeful and proactive it may be worth examining how you arrange both your classroom desks and how much movement your students get during their time in your classroom.  No one method is “the answer” but all may be worth a thought or two.

  • Sometimes students may wish to work in groups and sometimes on their own. Having a variety of seating arrangements available may be easier than moving desks around all the time.  Within a single class students may move to different seating or standing arrangements to work.
  • Some teachers are experimenting with desks facing the wall. It both provides students with an opportunity to work on their own and for students to be more accountable with their technology as you can easily monitor what they are doing.  Plus, it will give you a lot more floor space–read on.
  • There is a trend towards standing desks. Standing while you work should be an option for all students.  Particularly students with ADHD will find this beneficial.  Studies have shown that students use 17% more calories just by standing at their desks.
  • We tend to use PDA/outside time  as a “reward” at the end of class. Two teachers I know are having their students do 10-15 minutes of DPA at the beginning of class and find that their students have much more focus.
  • In most classes the guided learning table as become the centre of instruction where students know that they can get support and help. Teachers who use this space regularly find that students ask to work there.
  • When students are doing group work, try having them work standing up at the white board. If you can find enough space try having all your groups stand up and work on non-permanent surfaces.  The standing up means they can move as they talk and the non-permanent part means that they will take more risks.
  • One teacher has let her students sit on the window ledge. I sat there and it was fun (and I could focus).  The students were able to stretch out in ways they can’t in their desks.
  • Think about having a few exercise balls that replace chairs.  Although our natural inclination is to think of all the negatives, the classrooms I know that use them find that after a few days the novelty wears off and students who need the balls for seating, use them.
  • Students often like to work on the floor in the hallways. It allows them to spread out.  Of course, the difficulty with the hall is that it is often hard for you to supervise.  Can you arrange the room, even temporarily to give all groups a space?
  • Table groupings based on a specific theme are also useful. Grade 7 history students adopted a particular perspective for the War of 1812.  They sat in their 1812 communities, using their 1812 identify.  Some of them started to sign all their work with their 1812 name!  The grouping of the students helped them to stay in character and enhanced their understanding.

And a caveat….in the midst of all this movement and flexibility, there will be some students who need to sit in the same spot every day.  It is comforting for them.  Even grownups tend to gravitate towards the same place in the room time and time again (think about staff meetings).  So, do keep that in mind as well.  A differentiated classroom is not just about differentiating the assignment.  It is also about differentiating the physical space students have and the amount of movement they may require to be able to focus for the whole day.

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Grouping students for maximum success and comfort

Sometimes I go to a workshop and the presenter hands out a piece of paper and then tells you to find a partner (or a group of 3) to discuss it with.  Even as a grown-up, there is often that moment of dread.  Who will I talk to?  What if no one wants to be my partner?  I don’t know these people! Oh, it looks like everyone has a partner now; what should I do?  Maybe I will go to the washroom!

Another presenter will do the same activity but randomly number or colour code the papers.  The instruction will be to find the partner with the same colour or number and talk about the paper.  I don’t mind these nearly as much.  I know I will have a partner.  There is no looking, no trying to catch someone’s eye, no having to approach someone.  I enjoy these kinds of interactions.

As a teacher I often wanted my students to work in partners or in groups.  But, I will admit, I didn’t often think about how I would achieve the groupings.  And if I hadn’t planned that part then I resorted to “find a partner or a group of 3”.  It was easy for me, as the teacher, to give that instruction.  Invariably there would be a few kids leftover at the end and I would put them together.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I have been thinking about it more recently.

A new student came to my office this week.  She is struggling to fit in.  She told me she had no friends.  She said she hated it when the teacher asked everyone to find a partner and no one chose her.  I remembered how I felt at meetings, even meetings where I know people.

These days I observe classes more than I teach them and I see things I never saw when I was teaching.  When I am in classes where students are told to find a partner, inevitably students start to make eye contact.  Some students keep their heads down.  One or two students are always swarmed by a number of students and have the luxury of choosing their partner.  There are always one or two students that quickly bop around to numerous students trying to find someone who will say yes.  Some students grab onto another student’s arm and won’t let go, staking out their partner early.  And then, there are always some students left at the end.  Frequently when these students are paired up there is eye rolling or faces.

Now when I teach, even adults, I never say “choose a partner” unless I am totally disorganized.  And then, invariably, I regret it.  Here are some things to think about when grouping students in order to create maximum learning and maximum comfort for your students:

  1. Do you want students in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups?  If it matters, and sometimes it does, you need to make the groups ahead of time.  I suggest a variety of groupings so that the same students aren’t always paired together.
  2. Is there value in having students work with the same partner or group over time? I think so.  I think that trust builds over time and students are more likely to feel comfortable and take risks.
  3. Peter Liljedahl has done research on Visible Random Groupings where students are randomly assigned different working partners as they enter the room (http://www.peterliljedahl.com/wp-content/uploads/Visibly-Random-Groups-June-20-2013.pdf). He finds that this type of grouping works better than any other type of grouping and that teachers who try it also stick with it and do not go back to letting students pick their own partners.  You can assign numbers, group kids by colour, birthday, height, favourite songs etc.  It doesn’t appear to matter just that students see that all groupings are random and the expectation is that they will learn to work with their group.

Do consider the power we give to some students and the angst we cause other students simply by saying “choose your partner”.  Try random groupings.  Try working partners for the month.  See what works best for you.

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