Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Great Desk Debate

Decisions, decisions-- teachers have to make them all the time, and they're often of the "behind-the-scenes" variety, the kinds of deliberations that non-teacher-folk would rarely even consider.

Here's one of them: rows or circles? Or, in other words: Do you arrange the desks in rows or in a circle?

It's a real issue. Traditionally (if we're to believe all those Norman Rockwell prints), it seems teachers have always set their classrooms in rows, and intertia, after all, is responsible for many decisions in big institutions like schools. (Why else do you think we’re still reading snoozers like Jane Eyre?)

But is this arrangement the best way? What about all those kids who hide in the back of the room? Besides, configuring the classroom in this way reinforces this idea that the teacher is the one dispensing all the answers, and the students just passively take it all in.

On the other hand, arranging the desks in a circle suggests community and equality. No one voice, not even the teacher’s, is more important than any other, and the circle (what Paschal called the perfect shape, with all points an equal distance from the center) reflects that idea.

With the circular layout (or something like a circle-- a horseshoe, say), no one is sitting behind anyone else, which means students have an easier time actually “seeing” each other and thus talking to each other. Also, since no one can “hide” in the back, the circle encourages the more reserved students to participate.

Morever, the circular arrangement, with the teacher as just another curious and interested voice in that circle, goes a long way to helping students see that not every idea has to be filtered, somehow, through the teacher. While not a guarantee, the circular set-up tends to allow for better, and more student-centered, discussions. (Certainly, more things go into an effective discussion—the choice of text, the enthusiasm of the students, the number of students who actually did their homework, etc.—but the circle configuration can definitely help.)

And, I think students recognize all this. In fact, if you usually have your desks in a circle, and you put them back into rows for whatever reason, they notice. (You can even use this rearrangement to your advantage, as a "punishment" for the students, a reminder of what class could be like if they don't shape up.)

However, the circular set-up isn’t completely perfect, despite what Paschal might say.

If a plus of the circle is that it gets students talking, a minus us that it gets students talking—when they’re supposed to be listening. Obviously, sitting right next to a peer, or in between two peers, intensifies the temptation to chat. For some, the undercurrent of chatting might outweigh the benefits of the rich discussions. As one of my colleagues once said, after she gave the circle arrangement a try: “There were just too many Chatty Cathies.”

Also, the circle configuration may not be the best for tests and quizzes; for some, just knowing the right answer might be just a few inches away may be too much.

So what's the answer to the "row vs. circle" debate? Ultimately, the idealist in me knows that arranging the desks in a circle contributes to important discussions. On the other hand, the realist in me knows some practical considerations get in the way. For example...

If you are sharing a room with colleagues (which I do), you both have to be on the same page as far as the desk arrangement. If not, that means you have to move the desks every time you want to have a discussion—and move them back at the end.

Taking a minute out of class to rearrange the desks into a circle-- not a big deal, especially since you're enlisting the students' help. Getting the desks back into rows for the next guy who's coming in after you-- that's where things het hairy.

At the end of class, you’re trying to collect homework, this student has a question, that student needs you to sign something. Then the bell rings, and everyone bolts. Meanwhile you’re left trying to put twenty-desks back into rows before the next period. And it's not like you don't have things you need to do before youre next class.

As always, it comes down to the issue of time. My school, Glastonbury High, has 45-minute periods; as it is, we have hardly any time to waste. To take up time at the beginning and at the end to move desks may not be the most effective use of instructional time.

Me, I compromise. I have my A.P. English classes get themselves into a circle every day; other classes, I only have them get into a circle on days when I know we're going to have what I like to call a "Life-Altering Discussion of Literature" (that's for another column).

Ideally, I wish I could have the desks permanently in a circle. I think arranging desks in a circle is excellent in theory and often in practice; unfortunately,as with virtually everything in education, we do have to attend to practical issues. What do you folks think?


JDKontheMacSide said...

Often, I like to have students involved in small group discussion and guided group activities. As a result I suggest another altnerative where desks are in small groups of 3-4.
However, over time I have moved away from any seating configuration that promotes talking. I find that students are too social to begin with and have a very hard time getting down to work! But the groupings to a circle configuration would be very helpful when trying to involve the students that like to get themselves lost in back of the room. I find with groups I can also do this and sometimes if seat are assigned (I teach 8th grade) I do it strategically to deliberatly pair students in ways I feel will be most beneficial. With all this said we are not well into the second marking period and my desks are still in rows. I have been too busy with all of my other jobs to worry about my seating.
I like the time to think about this. I haven't visited this idea in any meaningful way since college and back then everything we said and discussed was conjecture and theory because we had not truly lived in the trenches yet.
Thank You!

Christine said...

I miss your life-altering discussions of literature. I have rearranged my desks so many times this year. I started out with groups of four or five, which worked nicely for group work. The downside was that the kids talked non-stop. I tried rows, but hated it. I created ells, which probably would have worked except for the fact that there isn't enough room in my room for that setup, so the kids couldn't have their chairs out too far. Now I have them in chunked rows. Instead of having to walk to the end of a row, I can walk through the spaces in the middle as well. If I had more room, I would love to try a double horseshoe. Sigh, decisions.

Mick Henry said...

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