This year in all of my classes I have been using a new system to switch my students’ seating assignments frequently, adapted/stolen from Henri Picciotto.
I know I have gushed on this blog before about the Center for Innovative Teaching “Hands-on Geometry” workshop I attended over the summer. After the first day of the three day workshop (when teachers who already knew each other had stuck together for small group work), Henri mixed up the groups of teachers that had naturally formed by having us draw cards as we walked in the door and sit at the table with the corresponding card. That was the group we worked in for the day, and the next day – same drill, new groups. In my opinion, this was another example of Henri’s ability to show (not just tell) us something valuable about teaching – while a “student” at the workshop, I experienced some of the benefits of randomly shuffled groups and was left to draw my own conclusions about how to modify or use it in my own classroom.
In my classroom, I have long tables that each sit 2 students (in free-standing chairs, a serious luxury – my students have no idea!) Before the school year started, I taped down a number on each table. (Of course, because I am a completely geeky math teacher, they are not numbered normally, but instead: 1, phi, 2, e, 3, pi, 4, etc…) I also made 2 cards for each table, and on the first day of class I shuffled the deck and “dealt” their seats. After every unit, we reshuffle and deal new seats.
What I’ve found:
- Constantly changing seating has helped in creating a more comfortable/”safe” class environment. While I teach at a small school and many of the students already know each other, switching seats provides an external impetus to sit next to and talk to students with whom they might not have otherwise interacted. In my mixed grade level classes (in one Precalculus section I have everything from Seniors down to one Freshman) this has been especially important for creating a respectful, “we’re all in this together” classroom vibe.
- The fact that the seats are randomly shuffled takes the pressure off of me to mastermind a seating chart that works well, because there is never going to be one ideal seating arrangement. Some good pairings happen on accident with students that otherwise wouldn’t have been sitting next to each other. If there are pairs that are particularly chatty or disruptive it is only temporary, and it’s the cards that shuffle them to a new seat – instead of me.
- Throughout the year each individual student sits in many different places in the room, which I think is good for them (new seat = brain subconsciously pays more attention) and for me (my attention isn’t always focused on the same students in the front of the classroom.)
Having students work in partners has become my “go to” small grouping for in-class practice. I’ve really been trying to focus on encouraging students to talk to each other as they work through new and challenging concepts, rather than instantly seeking help from me, and partners work well for this.
I know did a better job intentionally building an environment where this happens in one of the courses I teach this year, and it has really paid off in what those students feel equipped to tackle on their own in class. I can plan small group or partner activities and trust that my students will monitor their own work, talking through their progress with their partner and asking questions or explaining things to each other when one partner is stuck. I can write challenging problems that I want them to try without my help and know that my students are used to building their own understanding instead of looking to me as the “expert” to bail them out when they are struggling. I don’t think I’m way off base to say that the system for seat switching played at least a small role in creating this classroom culture. With constantly changing seats, it is not always the same student asking questions while the other explains things. Working with a partner is habit, and as seats switch it provides opportunities for different students to take the lead in that collaboration. I’ve seen incredible maturity in my students’ ability to work with their classmates with patience and good humor.
(Next year I need to take a close look at my other course and the kind of work I’m having students do in partners in those crucial first few weeks of school – because while I still believe the seat switching helped in terms of the classroom climate, I haven’t seen as many academic gains – students comfortably turning to each other to talk about math.)
(Note: I originally started this post a couple of weeks ago with the intention of sharing one of my favorite partner activities and writing about a particularly great teaching day I had using it. But time passed, I didn’t finish the post, and I wanted to go ahead and get these scant, scattered thoughts out there. Maybe later this week? Maybe over the long weekend?)