If you are the teacher who likes to keep up with the latest trends and research in pedagogy and who wants to do what is best for language learning and students, you most likely tried a number of setups in your room. I know, I did!
Over my teaching career, I experimented with many different classroom configurations: from rows to octagonal tables, from pods to pairs and groups of 4 facing forward. Some arrangements worked better than others, but nothing really worked for all of my classes. However, a few years ago, I found the ideal set up for me and my students following a workshop that promoted lots of speaking and interaction with partners. The workshop presenter actually uses a desk-free classroom, but that is not an option for me, so I am utilizing the space I have available to me.
Our schedule is a 90 minute A/B block and teachers who teach 90 minute classes know that they have to incorporate lots of movement and vary their activities. In my class, we have circle time, mingle activities, inside/outside circles, story time on the floor, and much more. All this is very hard to do with 30+ desks, 30+ bodies, backpacks, musical instruments, sports gear, jackets, etc. in the classroom.
Here is my solution: I set my room up in a fish bowl arrangement. The desks are pushed against the side walls, very close together to create a big empty space in the middle of the room. The desks are in set pairs, so that the students have a partner to talk to for quick interpersonal activities. The rows are only 3 desks deep. This way nobody is more than 3 seats away from me. This gives us teachers lots of “preferred” seating for our needy, chatty, shorter, and special needs students. If I need more than the 30 desk I currently have, I just add a few desks on the right side of the room, right in front of the teacher desk,
This setup ensures that students always have a partner to work with. When I create the seating charts, I pair them very deliberately, using a lot of data and observations to make sure that the partners are well-matched. Come “circle time” or “mingle time”, there is enough space in the middle to move around or sit on the floor. I try to make sure that activities change and students get out of their seat every 15-20 minutes. With the big empty area in the center of the room and no space in the back corners and by the wall, students can’t hide in the back and not fully participate. I have all of them to come to the center of the room and make a circle at the start of every activity and I can move amongst them to make sure they are engaged and conversing with each other. We often use the “in-side/out-side circle” to switch partners quickly; we use TPR to practice verbs; we play chain-games or toss a ball to each other, while reviewing numbers or practicing vocabulary or certain structures.
In the beginning, there were some growing pains. Some students are perfectly comfortable to sit in their seats and hide in plain sight. Others are shy or feel awkward talking in the target language. It took a few days of team building activities to get everyone to be at ease with this. Other students were on-board right away and after they got over the surprise that they are not only allowed, but required to stand up, move around, sit or even lounge on the floor, pretty much everyone embraced it. My students now love to sit on the floor when we read or watch a video. Playing board or memory type games works so much better on the floor as well, because students can spread out.
In this picture students match the word, picture and the description of lucky symbols and arrange it in a circle. Due to its size, this would be extremely hard to do on their desks.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks. At testing time, we have to move the desks around a bit, because I want to keep them honest. When we test, I have them put some room between themselves and their seat partners. Test cover sheets are also a way to keep their wandering eyes under control. I have to totally rearrange the room to create a traditional setup when standardized testing takes place in my room. But isn’t a smooth running classroom worth a few minutes of pushing around desks? Sharing a room with another teacher might also be an obstacle to such a configuration, but talk to your colleagues, encourage them to give it a try. You will see that it is totally worth it!