Archives For classroom management

seating chartThe seating plan is often thought of as an important element for student success. From the first day of school, the seating plan is a teacher’s strategy for learning student names, and student names can be the most important piece of information a teacher can gather the first day of school.

For that reason most teachers choose to use an initial seating plan that is alphabetical, but once names are committed to memory, should teachers still use the seating plan?

Scramble the Seating Plan

One year, I experimented with my 9th grade students to change things up by using a different approach that was based on a need to have students be more cooperative and collaborative.

Every day, I would greet the students at the door with the following directions:

“Line up at the front of the room.”

Bags and backpacks tossed along the front wall, I would then ask them to organize themselves, without talking, according to different criteria. This criteria was not academic, and sometimes spontaneous, for example:

  • by birthdate;
  • by hair color (dark to light);
  • by middle name;
  • by number of letters in their street address;
  • by size order (tallest to smallest);
  • by color of their shirt (following a spectrum);
  • by the last four letters in their last name.

I would encourage them to silently communicate with each other. Some used a form of sign language; others simply put a letter or number on a piece of paper in order to find their place in line.

Once they were organized, I would check to make sure they were organized correctly (and not trying to stand next to a “buddy”). I would then place the newly organized line into whatever desk arrangement I had chosen. I would feed them into rows, sometimes horizontally and sometimes vertically, across the room. I would place them in a large square forum style set of desks. I would position them in short slanted sets of rows, angled towards the front. By the end of the first week, they were “trained”, and the process took less than 5 minutes.

Organizing groups

When I wanted to set up groups, I would arrange the desks in pods. Then I would create small groups by having them stand in groups based on other criteria, for example:

  • by fast food preferences (Taco Bell, McDonalds, Arby’s, Burger King);
  • by pet (cat, dog, reptile or bird);
  • by favorite color (blue, green, red, yellow);
  • by favorite car (Ford, Chevy, VW, Subaru, Toyota):
  • by favorite meal (pizza, spaghetti, hamburger, tacos).

Then I would either leave the groups intact or take one member of each group to form new combinations. I could take one  category overflowing with students and disperse those members into each of the other categories. These new groups could work for a day’s activity or a long term project. The students never knew who they might be working with that day or week.


My purpose for this scramble every period was social. Since our high school was a regional school, the 9th grade was a 60%/40% combination of students who had been together during grades k-8 with new students from any one of 10 area schools. Over the years, I had noticed the isolation of the newer students while familiar friends wanted to work exclusively with each other.

My goal was to have students get to know each other in order to work collaboratively and cooperatively. For weeks during this exercise, they were collaborative and cooperative.

By the end of the second month, however, some of the students expressed weariness of this daily exercise.

“Can’t we sit where we want?” they asked.

I agreed. Frankly, I was running out of criteria!

When they sat in their preferred seats or tables, I did notice that there were interesting social combinations that would not have happened if they had not spent time together as I mixed them up. My goal appeared to have been met.

Vocabulary and the Seating Plan

I did not give up the opening scramble entirely.  I would use the format for vocabulary lessons by placing a different definition on each desk, and handing a card with the matching word, one to each student, as they entered the room.

“Match the word to the definition on the desk,” I would say, “…that is your seat for today!”

This form of seating plan kept my social goal intact while letting me know how much vocabulary I needed to review.

Summary of Seating

My adventures in seating worked well most of the time. There were days that I was convinced that students represented by one part of the alphabet were definitely more challenging than other parts or that determining hair color was a more arbitrary decision than I realized.

However, I will counter that no seating plan was ever perfect, and I could still manage the “preferential seating” requirements of PPTs by placing myself or an aide next to students who had that listed.  Preferential seating is not always at the front of the room, and I found that most secondary students with that designation would prefer a more confidential location at the back of the room where they can be supported more discreetly.

At the end of the school year, my 9th graders waxed nostalgic about how I had made them scramble every morning.

I obliged them one more time:

“Line up by summer vacation plans… nearest distance from the school to the farthest….and no talking!”

From the stay-cationers to traveling vacationers, they were so cooperative!

Watching the Olympics has been an emotional mixture of admiration and frustration. Like many Americans, I was caught by the story of 15-year-old swimmer Katie Ledecky; she is the same age of many of my students. At 11:00 PM Friday (8/3/12), the hype was all about her 800 meter freestyle event; I was hooked. The NCB sports commentator noted, “The race will be about eight minutes long,” before the digital buzz sent the line of swimmers simultaneously into the pool. By the end of the first two minutes, Ledecky was a little ahead of the world record pace and in the lead. She was competing against the hometown favorite Rebecca Adlington of Britain and the 2008 bronze medalist Lotte Friis of Denmark. Ledecky’s arms churned the water, sometimes fully ahead of the animated world record line, sometimes only fingertips stroking its imaginary presence. The NBC commentator chatted away about her strategy; had she pulled in front too soon? Would her more seasoned rivals push her and then pass her? The race was exciting.

Suddenly, NBC cut away from the race to broadcast a series of commercials: a new sitcom, a credit card… who cares what else? The race was continuing in cyberspace while I impatiently waited for its return. Of course, I knew I was watching a rebroadcast. The event had been decided hours ago. I even knew who won, but that did not stop my level of engagement until NBC cut me off.

Six minutes into the race, NBC’s economic responsibilities addressed, Ledecky appeared once more on the screen, solidly in the lead. The commentator who had questioned her strategy was now unabashedly cheering her forward as were the crowds watching the race. She demonstrated that brand of immortal teenage exuberance, simply swimming as fast as she could for as long as she could until she literally hit the wall. This youngest member of the U.S. swim team had finished the race for the gold in 8 minutes, 14.63 second and narrowly missed a world record. Then, I heard the commentator ask, “The future of USA swimming! Have we seen it tonight?”

“No, we did not!” I snarled back to his rhetorical question, a response made more ridiculous by my awareness of our digital divide. No one watching that broadcast saw the race live. Nor did we see the race entire. Instead we saw a truncated version of an Olympic event. We saw the beginning, and the end, but we missed the middle…the plot where the protagonist fights against an antagonist: the water, an opponent, or herself.

I often joke with my fellow teachers that a student’s attention span in class is 24 minutes, the length of a sit-com without commercials. Understanding this programmed behavior has helped to guide my teaching. I get 24 minutes of “real understanding” in a 43 minute period; the rest of the time is administrative (attendance, homework, announcements,lesson prep or product collection, etc). A sitcom , however, is not a continuous 24 minutes, rather, each episode has several breaks at approximately eight minutes intervals throughout a broadcast. The first eight minutes introduces characters and conflict. The second eight minutes features conflict confrontation. The third eight minutes deal with plot resolution. Every eight minutes, a commercial intrusion follows the “cliffhanger moment” or a plot complication to keep viewers intrigued.

This broadcast now has me concerned. The race itself was eight minutes, the length of time that networks have conditioned the public to expect in the story sequence. The race itself could have been shown in its entirety. Instead, NBC pulled away only two minutes into Ledbecky’s race. Why? More than likely, the decision was made to maximize revenues and cram in more commercials to a committed viewing audience. Some executive probably thought that the race would look the same throughout; swimming is not as flashy as gymnastics or basketball. This, however, I see as a dangerous precedent. In chopping up this eight minute race, NBC has catered to the desires of those who only want the outcome.

Many of my students want to read only the beginning of a story and the end “to see how it turns out”, without reading the story itself. These students would rather have the answers rather than experience learning. They think the middle is “boring”. NBC’s coverage of this particular race is similarly condensed. The NBC model suggests that the race, an eight minute sequence of Ledecky’s story, is “boring” and can be interrupted; that the middle of her story is not as important as the concluding last lap.

When we look for reasons as to why students are unable to pay attention for an extended period of time, we might look at the powerful influences of media. How the media tells stories: news, sports, sit-coms, influences the pattern of stories. Audiences will adjust to the shortened version. Ledecky is the same age as many of my students; she is part of the generation that operates on the 24 minute window of learning opportunity. Her race, the plot where she battled in split seconds, at the very minimum deserved the eight minutes of uninterrupted broadcast time. NBC’s methods of broadcasting the “future of swimming” is an indication of a how media will fragment or remove parts of a story in the future; our students’ attention spans will soon reflect the same.