K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

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Your classroom should be arranged to help you meet your pedagogical goals. Any setting, including your classroom, exerts many and frequently subtle influences on the people in that environment. (Restaurant reviewers call it “ambience,” and they rate it along with the quality of the food.) An uncomfortable environment can jeopardize the very climate you are trying to create.

Good environments are frequently flexible ones. Feel free to have students move their chairs several times during a class. For example, you might have them move into a circle for discussion, into small groups for in-depth exploration of a topic, and back to rows for your lecture. Experiment with different room arrangements to find those that work best for you and your students. Often if you arrange the students’ desks in the configuration that you find most conducive to cooperative learning, it makes for smooth transitions between individual, group, and whole-class activities. If this arrangement means that some students have their backs to the presentation area at the front of the classroom, have them turn their chairs and move into “listening position” whenever someone is speaking in the front of the room so that they can better concentrate.

Think about how the rest of the classroom can be used to meet instructional goals. Students will not always be in their seats — sometimes they will be using computers, looking at books, accessing supplies. Each of these alternative instructional areas should be well-designed. For example, is there a comfortable chair near the book shelf? Or is there enough room around the supply table for several students to gather supplies at once?

Individual students’ needs

Each student in your classroom should have space to work. They should be able to easily get to and from their seat, have space to keep their materials and should be able to see the front of the classroom where someone might present material or write on a board or overhead. Also, make sure there is a place in your classroom, away from the rest of the class, where you can have a private conversation with an individual student.

Take time to sit in each seat in your room. This will allow you to notice things that might make a seat a less-than-ideal learning environment. For instance, is a certain seat directly under an air-conditioning vent? Or does another seat too far back in a corner, creating a claustrophobic feeling? Remember that your students will all have different needs. Try to listen and accommodate their learning preferences — within reason, of course! “I learn better when I eat chocolate ice cream” is not the kind of thing you can work with. “I learn better when I sit near the window” is easy enough to try. A simple change can sometimes make a huge difference to one student. Sometimes that difference comes from the student knowing that you care about her as an individual learner.

Make sure that students with visual or hearing impairments sit near the front of the room. Read these students’ IEPs (Individual Education Plans) and check to see if any other student in your class has one. These may or may not be brought to your attention, so it is important to ask, since you are legally bound to follow them. Some students might need to sit near the teacher or near the door. Some students may need to leave the room often or during lessons. Consider seating them near the back of the door so that their leaving does not distract the other students. As you get to know your students, you will start to understand what seating arrangements work best for them as students. Some students might need to be seated away from distractions; others might do better with a little controlled distraction.

Change the seating arrangement of your room every few months. Make sure that students who sit on the periphery of the class are brought into the center and vice versa. Some students do very well sitting in the center of the room yet cannot seem to focus when they are on the periphery of the classroom. The reverse is also true. Keep adjusting things until you find the configuration that works for the greatest number of students.

The social life of the classroom

Sometimes it is a good idea to group students with others who are different from them. While this is a sensitive area, it is important for the students to have opportunities to socialize and work across difference. Often they do not have any other opportunity to do this. However, don’t be afraid to let friends sit next to each other. This can improve students’ attitudes toward their work, while allowing them valuable peer interaction. Students who are learning are most often not silent listeners, but active participants. Don’t worry about the noise level if students are actively engaged in learning. Remember, if any arrangement doesn’t work, you can always make a change.