Tuesday Tips: Ditch the Rows of Desks

As I’ve probably stated way too many times now, my classes are pretty large. To manage large class sizes and maintain some semblance of sanity, I must be deliberate about all of my practices: grading, writing feedback, student writing conferences.

Today, however, I want to discuss the physical layout and arrangement of the classroom. I teach seniors, some of whom, compared to my just-over-5-foot height, are fairly large. These are adult-sized students who take up an adult-sized amount of space.

Rows of desks just don’t work for me. Here are two main reasons:

  • Rows take up too much room, and I have the bruises from desk corners to show for it. Teenagers have ridiculously long legs and even more ridiculously enormous backpacks. I felt confined to a very small part of the front of the room when I was teaching, as in-between the rows seemed like a minefield.
  • Rows of desks cause disengagement. I can’t tell you the number of classrooms I’ve passed (including my own when I had rows) where the back two rows of students were completely checked out of what was happening in the classroom.  Instead they were on their devices or working on other homework or staring into space or putting on makeup (not even kidding).

Frustrated with rows, I decided to try “tables” or “pods” of desks. Of course, I’m jealous of all the teachers who have actual tables, but I can’t even think about that for very long.  I took my oversized classroom desks and created six groups of five or six desks each. I arrange them so that no student has his or her back to the front of the room, although some are turned to the side and have to turn their heads.

I do have to confess, in case you were wondering, yes, I was terrified to arrange my room this way. Lots of scary thoughts occurred to me: What if they don’t pay attention? What if they talk to each other too much? What if I can’t get them to be quiet? What if this arrangement makes this room fall into total anarchy and chaos?

Those fears didn’t really come true, but that’s for another post.

This arrangement is beneficial in several ways:

  • More floor space: It makes the room immediately seem larger. With the desks pushed up against one another, the available floor space is widened around the various pods/groups/tables.
  • Proximity: With the additional floor space, I can more easily walk around the room. No student is free from my proximity, and therefore off-task behavior is more limited or at least more surreptitious. I can also more quickly help individual students. Teaching as the “guide on the side” is much easier when I can actually reach each student’s side.
  • Paper management: My students are all arranged in groups of five or six.  When I have to pass out a copy of anything, I simply go around the room and hand each table a set of five or six handouts.  If I’m really on the ball, I can even put enough stacks for the whole day on each table and save more class time. On the other side, after students complete a written assignment, I simply ask them to create one stack with everyone’s work.  I can either walk around the room and collect the six small stacks, or I can collect them after class.
  • Collaboration:  In my class, I want to emphasize the power of collaboration over competition. Not only is this just a valuable life skill, but it’s the reality of today’s economy.  Individual ratings and rankings are products of attempting to create students as products who conform to a standard.  I want to help students, instead, to learn from each other and to share great ideas.  The physical layout of the room should reflect my values.
  • Social Interaction:  This is what most teachers are afraid of when they think of putting their desks in some shape other than traditional rows.  They think that students will talk to each other and not pay attention.  Maybe. But that really depends on how you design your instruction in the first place. Humans are social creatures, and teenagers crave social interaction with their peers.  If they aren’t allowed to have it, they will take it in other forms: skipping class, texting through the lecture, waving at friends in the hallway. I find that if I give them a bit of a chance to interact with each other by sitting closely together at a table, all of these off-task behaviors seem to subside.  Yeah, it gets a little noisy, but the noise, I promise, is mostly about the learning.
  • Breaking down traditional power structures: All of this in-depth discussion of a seemingly small classroom decision is ultimately about the message I want to send my students about power and authority.  Traditional rows of desks facing the teacher send the message that the teacher is the ultimate power and knowledge-holder in the classroom, and the students are simply waiting to be filled with the knowledge.  While I’m not sure that it’s possible to have a classroom free from the understanding that the teacher has quite a bit of power, I would like to emphasize with the physical layout that students learn from each other as well as from me, that they can have their own ideas and ask their own questions. Compliant, standard obedience is not my goal; critical and creative thinking is.  Even thinking that challenges my authority.

I know lots of you have arrangements with tables or pods in your rooms. I’m so jealous of all the classrooms I see where the room is built for collaboration!  What are some of your reasons for liking or not liking the arrangement? What are some of your strategies for managing the collaborative groups?


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