Flexible Seating in the Secondary Classroom Post #2: Planning

Implementing Flexible Seating Social Media Graphic (1)In my previous post, the first post in my ongoing series on flexible seating, I laid out my rationale for implementing flex seating in my high school English classroom. In this post, I’ll walk you through my planning process.

The first thing to mention here is timing: I waited until summer vacation to plan out my flexible seating in earnest, and I’m glad I did. It took me about the entire month of August to go through these steps from start to finish — and honestly, I could have done even more if I had started earlier.

It’s also important to acknowledge that I wasn’t starting totally from scratch with flexible seating in my classroom; the year before, I had already brought in one armchair, a rug, & curtains (from a previous, post-college apartment), two wingback armchairs (from my in-laws), and a side table and a couple of pillows (purchased new). So my goal was to add several new types of flex seating options while incorporating these with my existing ones to create a cohesive and functional whole.

  1. Reevaluate the Floor Plan

 

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My 2018-2019 classroom floor plan — I mostly stayed faithful to this vision

I began by reevaluating my classroom floor plan. For those of you looking to redesign your classroom, Ashley Bible from Building Book Love created the Classroom Design Challenge to guide teachers through the entire process. I didn’t complete the full challenge, but I did complete Task 5: designing a new floor plan using floorplanner.com

 

 

In designing the floor plan, I tried to do a few things:

  • Incorporate the existing furniture I already had
  • Offer a mix of traditional and non-traditional seats
  • Create different “zones” of the room that could be suited to different types of activities

Making the floor plan before doing anything else was useful for two reasons. First,

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My new quiet corner — students love it for reading

it helped me to realize that I should try to work with some of the weird/unchangeable architecture of my room — for example, I decided to turn the built-in countertops into a seating area with stools and the empty corner into, as Bob Dillon calls it on Cult of Pedagogy, a “space for quiet.” And second, it allowed me to determine, in advance, what specific furniture pieces I needed to acquire to achieve my ideal floor plan rather than shopping blindly and potentially wasting money on items my students wouldn’t need or use.

 

2. Decide on “Must Haves” vs. Wish List Items

After making my floor plan, I sorted the stuff I wanted into two categories: “must haves” and “wish list items.” The must haves included large furniture pieces like a futon, 2-3 low stools, a bookcase, and a big round table. These pieces would be integral to executing the floor plan I laid out. The other pieces, like a standing floor lamp, a second side table, or a second rug, would be nice, but not necessary.

3. Find (and Fund) the “Must Haves”

I now had a much better idea of what specific pieces I needed and could be more targeted in my search. I was willing, as I think many of us are, to spend some of my own money fulfilling my vision, but I simply didn’t have enough to shop for all of it new. So here’s what I did instead:

  • I posted on social media. I let my friends and family know which “must have” items I was looking for. It worked! A former classmate of mine (now a teacher herself) hooked me up with an awesome large, round table that her school was getting rid of. The only money I spent on it was the gas it took me to get there.
  • I went thrift shopping. Over and over again. I got in the habit of checking the
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    Thrift store chair + free books for being a teacher

    local consignment store about once a week, waiting for the perfect items to appear. And eventually they did! I found two low stools for my counter area at $7 and $13, respectively, and this amazing yellow armchair for $33. (It wasn’t technically on my must-haves list, but it was too beautiful and reasonably priced to say no!)

  • I created a GoFundMe and shared it with friends and family. I didn’t aggressively fundraise, but I did create a GoFundMe and shared it around thinking that maybe a few people I knew would want to would kick in a few bucks. I was right, and I received enough to offset the cost of most of my thrift store purchases.
  • I scoured Facebook marketplace. This is eventually how I found the PERFECT lightly used teal futon for my classroom one town over from me.
  • I mentioned I was a teacher. Often, especially at the thrift store, people would be willing to give me a teacher discount for items I was purchasing for my classroom. One time the manager let me choose a few books for my classroom library for free (pictured above)!
  • A final funding resource I didn’t explore (but may in the future) is Donors Choose. Donors Choose allows teachers to create online fundraising campaigns (similar to GoFundMe or Kickstarter) specifically for classroom items. It would be an awesome way to acquire flex seating furniture, and plenty of teachers have used it for that purpose, but here’s the catch — you have to identify in advance what specific items you want for your classroom, as in order to ensure an ethical use of the funds raised, Donors Choose purchases the items directly and has them shipped to your classroom. I simply waited too long this summer — by the time I researched specific items, created a project on Donors Choose, received funding, and had the items shipped, it would have been well into my school year — so be sure to plan well ahead if electing this option!

4. Get It All to School & Set It Up

Again, this was pretty time consuming, especially given that I don’t live close to where I teach. I made multiple (5? 6?) trips back and forth over the course of about two weeks, transporting my new chair, stools, futon, big round table, side table, and other small, miscellaneous objects to my classroom. At this stage, make sure to bring or borrow:

  • A big enough vehicle
  • Cleaning supplies
  • A toolkit
  • A dolly
  • An extra set of hands!

In my next two posts, I’ll cover important lessons I’ve learned throughout this process plus I’ll highlight some responses from my students to these new seating options.

Stay flexible,

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Flexible Seating in the Secondary Classroom Post #1: Rationale

Implementing Flexible Seating Social Media Graphic (1)Over the past several years, teachers of all grade levels and content areas have expressed a growing interest in flexible seating, an approach to classroom design in which some or all traditional desks/work spaces are replaced with a variety of more flexible options. I’m also one of those teachers, but until last year, I didn’t have my own classroom. This year, heading into my second year with my own space, I decided to expand my flexible seating options. The research on flexible seating is, as Edutopia has reported, “scarce but promising,” and so far has mostly focused on elementary age students. Nonetheless, given that flexible seating is often understood as simply an extension of a broader, student-centered pedagogy, its use in the classroom has less to do with grade level than with teaching philosophy — meaning that although it is perhaps more commonly used and studied at the elementary level, it has equally promising applications at the middle and secondary levels as well.

Here are a few of my personal reasons for incorporating flexible seating in my secondary classroom:

  • I believe that every student is different and learns differently. Flexible seating is therefore another form of differentiation to meet every individual learner where they’re at.
  • Flexible seating promotes metacognition in that it encourages students to consider what immediate learning environment will be most effective for them.
  • Flexible seating honors student voice and choice by providing them with some control in selecting a learning environment.
  • Flexible seating options can promote movement in the classroom (e.g. yoga balls, standing desks) and help reach kinesthetic learners.
  • Flexible seating options can make it easier to plan lessons that incorporate group work and collaboration among students.
  • My flexible seating (and other decor elements) make my students feel more comfortable and at home. Their increased comfort may drive up their engagement with the class overall.
  • My flexible seating (and other decor elements) make me happy, too. Given how much time I spend in my classroom, this is no small thing.

However, I acknowledge that flexible seating may not be the right fit for every teacher, every classroom, or every school community. Some things that could conceivably impede teachers from implementing flexible seating, even those who may be interested in it, might include:

  • Shared classroom space. I’m lucky enough to have my “own” classroom at my school, but when classrooms are shared, all teachers and students must share a common set of expectations in order for flexible seating to be successful.
  • An inapt content area. Flexible seating is a natural fit in my English classroom, but I could imagine it wouldn’t make as much sense for my colleagues who teach Physics, for example.
  • Unsupportive administration. I suspect this is more relevant at the secondary level at which I teach, as flexible seating in lower grades is becoming increasingly common.
  • Budget limitations. As teachers, we already spend more than enough of our own money on our classrooms, so some teachers may be unwilling or unable to invest in flexible seating options that can withstand the daily use of teenage bodies.

Fortunately, none of the above constraints applied to me. But in proceeding with implementing flexible seating in my high school English classroom, I knew I had to be thoughtful and deliberate in order to stay on top of my budget, maintain effective classroom management, and avoid alienating parents and administration. In this series of four blog posts, I’ll share with you my planning process, what I’ve learned, and how my students have reacted.

Stay flexible,
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Striving for Diversity in American Literature

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Last year, as a first year teacher, I constantly struggled with feeling like I was just getting by, just staying afloat. Often that meant I resorted to teaching the curriculum as it had previously been established. Unfortunately, in my American Lit & Comp class, that curriculum skewed heavily canonical — almost all dead white guys. I found myself apologetic for the limited nature of the perspective in my curriculum at parents’ night; and in general I felt I had missed an opportunity to expose my population of students (mostly white and middle or upper-middle class) to a broader variety of life experiences as depicted in literature and to thereby cultivate empathy for others who are not like them, as well as an opportunity to allow my students who are minorities to see people like themselves on the page.

So heading into this year, I took some time to reevaluate the texts and authors I taught and, along with a colleague, implemented some fairly significant changes — partially with the goal of better aligning my curriculum with a capstone assessment, but also with the goal of diversifying that curriculum. Here’s what my course looked like from last year to this year:

2016-2017

2017-2018

  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Transcendentalist literature by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, & Elizabeth Palmer Peabody
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • [Mini-unit on the American Dream using informational texts]
  • Literature of the Gilded Age, including “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and “Ten Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly
  • Jazz Age and Modernist poetry
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  • A free choice reading book
  • The Crucible by Arthur Miller
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Male authors: 10/11 (91%)
  • White authors: 11/11 (100%)
  • Female authors: 1/11 (9%)
  • Authors of color: 0/11 (0%)
  • Male authors: 6/10 (60%)
  • White authors: 6/10 (60%)
  • Female authors: approx. 3 (+/- free choice read)/10 (30%)
  • Authors of color: approx. 3  (+/- free choice read)/10 (30%)

Clearly there is still room for improvement. Going forward, I’ll probably swap out Of Mice and Men and The Crucible since those earned the poorest marks from students at the end of the year in terms of interest and engagement. I’d especially like to add in a work(s) of LGBTQ literature and a full unit on the Harlem Renaissance (I downloaded some awesome Harlem Ren resources from TPT, including an escape room from Nouvelle ELA and a growing bundle from Write on with Miss G that I’m excited to try this year!). It’s something I’m going to continue working on in the form of summer curriculum work over the next few months. But it’s a strong start, and I’m really proud of the changes we’ve made.

The proof of this curriculum’s efficacy can be found in the reactions of my students, who shared their thoughts in an end of year course reflection. When asked what was one thing they would remember about literature or writing into next year, they said:

Striving for Diversity Blog Post Student Quotes

Ahhh! What more could you ask for! So proud of my nuggets for growing in empathy and understanding for others through our study of American literature.

Do you struggle with teaching an overly canonical curriculum at your school? How much control do you have over the literary texts you teach? Have suggestions for me on diverse literature to consider adding to my curriculum next year? Leave a comment below!

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Image source: https://www.maxpixel.net/States-United-Flag-America-Usa-Independence-1291945

Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature

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Image credit: pebbled on deviantart

TW: mental illness, suicide, sexual abuse

Recently my school has seen an explosion in the number of students who report struggling with a variety of mental health challenges, but especially anxiety and depression. I have had more students than ever being hospitalized, more than ever missing a significant amount of school due to anxiety-related school avoidance, more than ever requiring a non-traditional classroom experience. I’m still a relatively new teacher, but my veteran colleagues agree — our kids are struggling.

They’re not alone. I’ve heard my anecdotal evidence echoed by the anecdotal evidence of other educators across the state and region. This past fall, the New York Times ran a significant article titled “Why Are More American Teenagers Than Ever Suffering From Severe Anxiety?” describing precisely this phenomenon.

Regardless of its causes (which I don’t pretend to fully understand and I’m sure are numerous and complicated), as a teacher, I see its effects every day in my classroom. It is in this context that I just concluded my unit on J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, a unit which I teach through a lens of psychological criticism and trauma theory.

I’m sure you’ve read it (I hope you have). Its highly original 17-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield tells the reader about a weekend in his life when he got expelled from yet another prep school (his fifth), ran away to NYC, and hid out in a “pervy” hotel, all leading up to a mental breakdown that lands him in a psychiatric facility. Teaching this text through a lens of trauma theory means that I frame it for my students around the original trauma that sets Holden adrift, the loss of his little brother Allie to leukemia.

In the lead up to this unit, I worried about whether teaching this text in this way would be triggering for any of my students, if I was running the risk of re-traumatizing them by discussing subjects like the loss of a loved one, suicidal ideation, and child sexual abuse, which I already know some of them have experienced (and I’m sure many others have that I don’t know about). In some cases I contacted home to give parents advance notice. I geared myself up for complications, difficulties, a resurfacing of a painful past or present.

Here’s what happened instead.

Continue reading “Talking to Teens about Mental Health through Literature”

Letters of Recommendation

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Whew! I have finally finished my senior recommendations for the 2017-2018 school year. 🙌 As a junior year English teacher (core subject + most recently completed academic year), I get asked to write these a LOT — been working on this bunch off-and-on since August and I’ve written close to 30. ✍️ It takes a lot of time and thought to make each one personal and special. 💖 Not to mention it is hard to find the time to write them in between lesson planning, grading, emailing parents, checking in with guidance counselors, running off copies, and all the other tasks that fill my days. 😵

So in writing all these letters of rec, what have I learned? A few things:

  • On a logistical level, using a digital letterhead and digital signature (rather than printing, signing, and scanning) is a huge time saver.
  • Say no if your letter won’t be helpful. Fortunately I haven’t had to do this yet, but I do talk to students, especially during their junior year, about how integrity and character are important, and if they make a poor choice, I may have to include that in their letter of recommendation OR opt to not write them a letter at all for fear of harming their chances of admission.
  • It helps to brainstorm first. I usually start by grabbing a sticky note and jotting down anything I associate with a student — qualities and character traits, stories, assignments they did for me in the past. Then I try to see if there are commonalities/overriding themes emerging, which is important because…
  • I like to write letters with some kind of a theme. Maybe it’s just because I’m an English teacher and I appreciate cohesion in writing, but I try not to submit letters of rec that are just a jumble of random thoughts and observations, but rather well-thought-out narratives about students’ identities.
  • It’s probably clear by now that for me, writing a good one takes time. About 30-45 minutes each, on average. I really try to keep it personal and write a unique, original letter for each student rather than copying and pasting language from a previous letter. Every student is different, so every student deserves a different letter.
  • The best ones include a personal story. Without that, I feel like I’m just spouting off facts about the student’s academic record or extracurriculars that an admissions committee could simply read on the student’s resume. To that end…
  • I’ll probably try to write more of them over the summer. Or maybe even take a professional day to work on them at the beginning of the year. That way, my memories of that group of students are still fresh and I alleviate the struggle of finding “free time” to write them during the school year.

Regardless of how much time and energy this process takes, I still enjoy it. When my students ask me to write them a letter of recommendation, my response is always, “I would love to say all the nice things about you!” And it’s true. Now I’m done just in time to start getting requests for next year!

The first month, in 10 words

So I’ve been teaching full time for a month now. I don’t have much extra time or energy to expend on blogging at this point in the semester, but I thought I’d try to capture how I’ve been feeling/what I’ve been thinking about this past month in 10 words. Here we go, in roughly chronological order.

Literally me. Source: Kappit
  1. NERVOUS
  2. Unqualified
  3. Comfortable
  4. Harambe?!
  5. Sick
  6. Stressed
  7. Connections ❤
  8. Tireless!
  9. Exhausted…
  10. Content

What I learned about teaching from publishing my first article

I consider myself a teacher-scholar. To me, that means I remain curious, open-minded, and pursue my own intellectual growth in the same way that I want my students to.

And now I finally have the publication credit to back that identity up! Over the past year and a half, my Digital Writing grad class has worked to prepare a scholarly webtext on sonic rhetoric (i.e. composing with sound) for Kairos: A Journal of Technology, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy. This month, that webtext has been published at last as “Navigating the Soundscape, Composing with Audio.”

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A view of the homepage. We hope our webtext will serve as a pedagogical resource for other teachers looking to teach their students about sonic rhetoric.

 

Even though I was a student myself when this project began, I actually learned a lot, especially from my professor, Tanya Rodrigue, about good teaching practice. Here are a few of those lessons:

Continue reading “What I learned about teaching from publishing my first article”