Bridges Elementary School teacher Janea Sailing has given up control of her classroom, and the learning has never been better.
Students are allowed to sit on window sills and lay with tummies flat on the floor. They can be found propped up against pillows or lightly wiggling on toadstool chairs.
While traditional desks and chairs are provided in Sailing’s classroom, for the most part those spaces remain empty.
Sailing cruises from student to student. The room is quiet and a sense of peace and relaxation is present while all 22 of her students are engaged in a book.
Sailing subscribes to the idea of alternative seating for her learners, which provides students with an atmosphere of choice and self-control in the classroom. It eliminates the teacher-versus-student mentality by establishing a sense of ownership among the entire class.
There is a lot of research about alternative seating in classrooms as an emerging best practice for student learning, but Sailing was already aware.
“It sort of came to me around 2005 on my own,” She said. “I had this idea for kids to be able to cozy up with a book during reading time.”
She was teaching in the Weston School District at the time. Finally, in about 2010, the research for alternative seating options started showing up and Sailing’s confidence in the practice soared.
Now in her third year at Bridges, Sailing’s classroom-style has piqued interest among other staff.
Last year, Sailing co-taught about 50 second graders in a large classroom with Laura Moher. She had never tried it with such a large group of students and was a little apprehensive. But Moher was completely on board with the idea, and Chanda Kulow, Bridges principal, gave her support and encouragement, too.
“She said to go ahead and try it and see if it works,” Sailing said.
For the most part, it did. After a few weeks of gentle redirection and the novelty of it wore off, students started figuring out what type of seating worked best for them in a learning environment. While some learners were fine sitting next to friends, others recognized they were distracted by it and simply relocated themselves to another spot in the classroom.
“If I noticed a few kids talking during learning time” she said. “I would quietly go up behind them and offer gentle reminders and suggestions. They’d get the idea and start realizing where their best learning spot was.”
Sailing said the biggest hurdle came from parent buy-in.
“Sometimes it’s hard to understand that the way kids are learning today is much different even from when I was a child,” Sailing said. “We used to sit in rows facing the front of the room. That doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
Admittedly, Sailing said, if she’d never worked in a classroom or understood children learn differently she might have questions about it, too.
“I think it was fear of the unknown at first,” Sailing said. “It’s just about recognizing our entire world has changed and this is just one more way of empowering kids to have more self-control. Once the novelty of it wears off, it’s just about learning.”
Currently, Sailing’s class features a reading hut structure for kids, a variety of tables of different heights and work zones, colorful rugs, mats and pillows, and seating options that range from traditional chairs to stools, cushions, upcycled foot stools, camping-type chairs and even the window sill can offer a place to sit. Sailing said she chose to keep the traditional desk and chairs because she felt the kids still needed to feel like they had their own spot or home base.
“But then there is also flexibility and choice throughout the classroom,” Sailing said.
Although Sailing and Moher no longer co-teach, Moher still has other seating options in her class, such as mats, wiggle seats and circular tables. She doesn’t have the variety Sailing does, but still sings the praises of kids having options.
“I think the kids really need it,” Moher said. “Some really need alternative ways of sitting. The trick as a teacher is knowing who can and can’t handle it. But just like in anything we do as educators, there’s modeling and coaching. You can’t just provide the option and expect them to know what to do.”
“It’s really amazing what’s out there now for classrooms,” Sailing said. “Our learners today want that instant gratification. We live in such a face-paced world. Kids can’t help but to want to move. It’s our job to provide them with those options and help support them however they best learn.”