Friday, August 28, 2015

Setting Up the Science Classroom – Desk Arrangements and Other Ideas

For some of you, the students have arrived and classes have already started.  If your year is anything like my early ones, there are rare moments to read blogs like this, let alone enact advice from them.  For others, the year is about to begin and there’s a crazy scramble to get ready. Obviously, it is best to set up your classroom before classes start, however I strongly recommend changing a system if it is not working.  Here are some key parts of my classroom that you may want to consider or re-consider:

Desk Arrangement
There are many different seating styles you can adopt for your classroom, and the best way to see them is to pop your head into other teachers’ classrooms.  Although I’ve tried many options, there are two that I settle on: stadium seating and group tables.

Group Tables  
When I think of my ideal classroom, I picture group tables—students working together on labs, activities and other assignments. When I first started teaching, I jumped immediately into group tables, because I had learned that student-centered teachers have desks arranged in groups. For some teachers and classes, this works great. However, if you are new to teaching and don’t feel confident about your behavior management and other aspects of teaching, it might make things more difficult. (Key Takeaway: If you are new and feel overwhelmed, I recommend you start with Stadium and move to Group after you are comfortable!)

Here is a sample chart for group seating of what group table seating looks like in my classroom. Desks are labeled by letter and seats are labeled by number.  This way, students can find their assigned seat easily, seat numbers can be used to identify group roles, and table numbers can be used to help clarify how to rotate.  Notice group tables are angled to face towards the front of the room so that no backs are completely turned to the board.

Stadium Seating
If you are new to teaching or still struggle with classroom management, you may find stadium seating to be a better option, especially at the beginning.  I still prefer this seating method because you can have all students facing the front of the room while giving instruction, presentations, or modeling something, but then students can turn to a table behind them to work in groups.

Here is a sample chart for stadium seating. Notice, just like  group tables, the stadium seating has table letters and seat numbers. 

The type of desks you have will make different arrangements easier or more challenging.  For example, in the sample charts shown above, I had nine larger lab tables meant for four students per table, so I had to squeeze three or even four students to a table in rows.  In a previous school, we had 16 smaller lab tables that were meant for two students per table. This allowed for better stadium seating which I doubled up for group tables.  If you have regular classroom desks, they are easier to arrange and move, but are harder to keep as groups.

Tips to Make Your Desks Work:

  • Assume you will have more students than is on your roster.  I always make room for at least two more students in even my biggest class.

  • Although it is labor-intensive early on, I like to put student names on tiny Post-It note squares (using the sticky end of the pad) and then arrange names on a template.  When its time to change seats, I simply move the Post-It.  I keep the chart in a plastic sheet protector so names don’t fly off.

  • When using the above system, I have codes for students with seating requirements (from IEPs, vision needs, etc.).  If you are afraid students will see your codes, you can write names in different colors to symbolize needs (e.g., seating up front as required from an IEP in blue).

  • If you don’t have the energy for the system above, use an online tool to arrange and assign desks

  • I’ve found the fastest way to get students in the right assigned seats is to line everyone up around the perimeter of the room, wait for complete attention and silence, state expectation that students stay around the room until I’ve shared all names, and then quickly put hands on seats and call out names.  Other teachers prefer posting seating charts or telling students as they enter the room.  Having letters and numbers on the desks can make this fast! (David – A4)

  • Desks move, especially in middle school.  Use colored duct or painter’s tape to mark where the desks should be at the end of each class.  Check with your custodian if there is a better material to stick on the ground (duct tape might not be a favorite).

Arranging Lab Space
For most of us, the instructional space and lab space are the same.  How do you make space for labs then?  You need to have lots of cabinets with items well organized in boxes. I have found clear plastic boxes (or labeled boxes) work best.  When it is time to do a lab, take out the boxes with the required materials and place them in a logical order along a back table or counter. Have one student from each lab group line up, cafeteria style, and pick up a tray or plastic shoe box, and then have them place each required object in their tray.  At the end of class, students clean and return items to the boxes for the next class.  If you train your first and last classes to learn how to set up and put away boxes, you have very little lab set up to do yourself!

Other Room Arrangements to Consider:

A Cool Down Spot 
Having a safe place for an upset student to calm down is very helpful! Find a nook where you can see the student, but most of the others can’t, where they can sit and re-group.  I have often put a spot in a corner by bookcases, where the cases can create a little nook area. To make sure it does not feel like a punishment, name the spot and explain its purpose at the beginning of the year.  I liked to call my corner “Antarctica” because you could “Cool down there” (plus I was going there that year!)  I decorated the wall with pictures of penguins and seals.  Also, I included some important books:  Anger Workbook for Teens, as well as fun science magazines.  For students who were really upset, I had little puzzles and fidgety toys, although I kept them in my pocket until the student sat there.  Be mindful to not have too many fun items, or else students may abuse the location.

Doc Cam / Powerpoint helper
You can leverage a lot out of an important seat!  In the first weeks of school, I look for students who are easily distracted or have a low self-image  about their success in science class.  I seat easily distracted students near my projector and computer, and ask them to forward PowerPoint slides for me during class.  I seat students who don’t think they are “good” at science near the document camera, where I ask them to help me by showing their work, correctly modeling note-taking or tracking lines in the text as students read aloud. I have a model notebook for them to follow so there is support and safety in showing their work. (Of course, I check in with students about this ahead of time and make sure they feel comfortable doing this.)

Standing tables
Whenever possible, I try to arrange standing tables at the back of the classroom for the students who do much better when they are not sitting still.  I get taller stools, so they can sit if they choose, but it is amazing how much more productive some students are when they are standing up!  For group work, these students hop up to the nearest table.

Help Me Help You! 
Is there something you are struggling with as a new science teacher?  Post it to my facebook ( or my twitter @MsBrownTeacher


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