Classroom Management: Reconsidering Physical Classroom Structure

October 17, 2011

Classroom Management: Reconsidering Physical Classroom Structure

[caption id="attachment_524" align="alignleft" width="298"] Think about different ways to arrange your students' seating to change the conversation pattern in the classroom.[/caption] I went to graduate school at a small, state-funded Liberal Arts College in the State of New York. The program itself was rather large though, since graduate-level English courses were taken by people on a number of degree paths, education among them. Our purpose in these classes was to read and discuss literature, but our diverse backgrounds in education (my fellow students ranged from elementary teachers to the other college-level instructors in my program) allowed for a certain degree of pedagogy to permeate every course we took. As an adult educator, many of the learning theories that I focused upon differed from those of my peers in those literature classes, but there was one theme that we all seemed to share: classroom management. “I’m Subverting Classroom Structure” A good friend of mine, whose formal training was in secondary education, was the first person to bring the idea of classroom structure to my attention. Even as adults and educational professionals, we fell into predictable patterns while taking our courses. Everyone would arrive at approximately the same time each week, some early, some late, and we would sit in our self-designated “spots.” Then, one night, about midway through the semester, my friend arrived before everyone one evening and sat in a desk opposite from his usual place. As the rest of us began to arrive, we began to take our customary seats without issue. This went well until those who usually sat where my friend was noticed this “newcomer.” “I’m subverting classroom structure!” he matter-of-factly declared, and the true implication of classroom shuffling began to take place in my mind. Physical Classroom Management  Many of us, especially college instructors, hear the term classroom management and immediately think of the behavioral problems most common among younger pupils. However, classroom management is actually broken up into three, distinct subcategories:
  • Content Management
  • Conduct Management
  • Covenant Management
It is this first aspect, content management, which is defined by Froyen & Iverson (1999) as, “when teachers manage space, materials, equipment, the movement of people, and lessons that are part of a curriculum or program of studies,” that is most often overlooked. The physical set-up of the classroom is very important, we all inherently know that, but perhaps more important is the alteration of that physical setting as a means to encourage deeper thinking, different student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions, as well as “subvert” the classroom social structure that can lead to problems in the other two classroom management fields. How to Shake Up Your Physical Classroom The two most used classroom formats (rows and small groups) have their place, but let’s consider some alternatives: [caption id="attachment_523" align="alignright" width="328"] Row seating, though functional, can attribute to student boredom and encourage non-participation.[/caption]
  • The “U” – I like this one for larger classes where circle work becomes a bit of a circus. When teachers arrange desks in a “U” shape, those students hiding in the back get put front and center. In a lecture environment, using the “U” over traditional rowseating helps to open up discussion among students since they literally face one another.
  • Large Circle – we all remember our first upper division college course or graduate school seminar that, rather than desks, sat us all around one, bigconference table. Some of my fondest educational memories took place in that intimate setting. I love to use circle seating in smaller groups (15 or less) and especially in workshops. As the teacher, by getting down and sitting in a desk yourself, you come on eye level with students which can change the way they perceive you. In creative classes, like writing and art, this change can really impact a student’s willingness to share her work and comment upon that of others.
  • Debate Setting (Divided Floor) – Technically, this is simply a modified row seating, but the idea of placing the center of the classroom, rather than the front, as the focal point can help to stir up conversation, easily break a group of students into two teams and allow for a new dynamic to emerge as students pick a “side.” It’s important to set up debate seating to reflect the exact number of students in your class, though. Having too many seats can lead to some students being obviously shunned or left out.
  • Clusters – This is, again, a modification of the more popular group structure. The first time you set up a classroom in clusters, cliques will obviously emerge and band together, but if you vary the size of each cluster – 2 desks in one spot, 5 in another – choices will have to be made that may reveal a lot about your students. While this at first can seem to create tension in a classroom, the simple act of discussing people’s seating choices in these situations can open the floor for character discussions. Rather than a permanent setting, using cluster seating during projects or to make that greater point about classroom dynamic can send a powerful message.
Take Time for Classroom Management As the college semester hits its midterm and students in K-12 classes begin to fall into the rhythm of mid-fall social roles, taking the time before class to reconsider the physical make up of your seating chart can be just the punch you need to get ideas flowing and students reengaged. Writing this article has already got me imagining ideas to shock my English 101 students after midterms. Are there any seating arrangements that you like to use that I left out? Reference Froyen, L. A., & Iverson, A. M. (1999). Schoolwide and classroom management:  The reflective educator-leader (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


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