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Assigning Seats to Build Community

When students enter my classroom on the first day of school, I tell them to sit wherever they'd like. Once they have settled into their seats, usually next to their friends, I then break the bad news: "I hope you're not too comfortable where you're at because we have assigned seats in this class." The walls then inevitably reverberate with collective groans.

I give students the following three reasons for having assigned seats in class:

  1. To ensure that students work with different people

  2. To ensure that students change locations in the classroom

  3. To ensure that gender balance is maintained in group activities

If given the option, students will usually sit in the same place with the same people for the entire year. Even though students initially groan about assigned seats, they almost always state in course evaluations at the end of the year that they enjoyed changing seats every month and working with people they would not have otherwise gotten to know.

To alleviate the tension that is sometimes created when student choice is eliminated, I stress that the seating each month will be randomly generated. In other words, I, as the teacher, will not control where they sit or with whom they work. Instead, I tell them that Fate will decide. (More on this later.)

Since I do not know the students on the first day, I prepare a seating chart with students arranged in groups of three or four, depending on the size of the class, that ensures gender balance within each group. Note that in each group of four, the front right position (from the teacher's perspective) is male and the front left position is female, which is then reversed in the back two seats. This arrangement ensures that seats alternate gender not only within groups, but between groups. In other words, the goal is to never have two students of the same gender sitting next to each other.

It's a little time intensive, but I create seating charts by writing student names on Sticky Notes that I have cut down to 1" squares. Using Sticky Notes for my seating chart allows me to manually move students to new locations every month.

Before I go around the room pointing to desks and reading off names, I tell students to wait until I finish reading all the names before students move to their assigned seats. I also apologize in advance for any names that I unintentionally mispronounce. (As a general rule, I try to visit the previous year's English teachers before classes begin to get help in pronouncing names accurately.)

When students move to their assigned seats, I then re-read the names, moving from student to student to ensure that I am correctly pronouncing their names and if there is an alternative name that they would prefer to be called. Once we have gone through everyone's names, I point out that student desks are arranged in groups of three or four and that students will work in these groups for the next month before we change seats again.

When desks are arranged with everyone facing front, the expectation is that students are focused on the teacher (or students who are presenting in front of the class). The "amphitheater" seating arrangement is similar to traditional rows in the sense that everyone is facing the front of the room. The downside of this alignment, compared to rows, is that students on the sides can make eye contact with students across the room, which can sometimes lead to distracting behavior. What I like about this arrangement, however, is that it gives the classroom a more informal feel and allows students to quickly move into small-group activities.

When students turn their desks for groupwork, we use the acronym 4DEK because students' Desks, Eyes, and Knees should face their partners sitting next to them:

When students are in small groups facing each other, the expectation is that they should talk in order to complete a task together. In this arrangement, it is difficult for a teacher to give instructions because students are no longer facing the front of the room. The beauty of the 4DEK formation, however, is that students can still turn their heads and see the teacher in the front of the room if a brief announcement needs to be made. What is most important in any arrangement is that students can always see the teacher, which means they should never have their backs towards the front of the room.

If groups have only three members, they form 3DEKs, with the partners in the front facing each other and the person in back facing front:

At the beginning of each new month, students change seats. To ensure that the new arrangement is randomly generated and maintains gender balance, I use two decks of playing cards, each being a different color and representing a different gender.

The numbers on the backs of the playing cards signify the number of the group. For instance, in the seating chart previously shown, there are 37 students in the class, which has been divided into ten groups: 7 groups of four and 3 groups of three. (Since there are only ten groups, the jacks, queens, and kings have been eliminated from the decks.) It does not matter the number that you assign different groups, but that number should remain consistent the entire year.

If we have red signifying female and blue signifying male, we need to remove all spades and clubs from the red deck and all hearts and diamonds from the blue deck. For instance, Group 1 (represented by aces in both decks) should have only two red aces (hearts and diamonds) and two blue aces (spades and clubs):

Additionally, since some groups have only three students in our sample seating chart, we would also have to remove one card from those groups (either a red or blue card depending on which gender has only one person represented).

Once the cards have been prepared and shuffled, I show the students the shuffled deck and then, to make sure students know that everything is on the level, I ask a random student to cut the deck, Vegas-style, before distributing the cards—red to female students, blue to male students. Once again, we ask students to remain seated until all cards have been distributed. Once the last card has been handed out, students move en masse to their new seats and meet their new groupmates.

When students move to their new groups, they should maintain gender balance in the seating arrangement within the group. In other words, the front right position should be male and the front left position should be female (or vice-versa). The genders should then be reversed in the back row. If teachers want to be even more deliberate, they could designate the front right position as a spade (or club), the front left a diamond (or heart), the back left a club (or spade), and the back right a heart (or diamond).

Changing seats every month is actually a pretty fun process for the students. There is an excitement as students anticipate where they will sit next and who their new partners will be. Best of all is that the teacher has no idea how the new arrangement will turn out either. Inevitably, some students will end up in the same location or with people they have worked with in the previous month. At that point, I just tell them that Fate has decided, for whatever reason, that they need more time in that location or with those people. The last thing anyone wants to do, I emphasize, is mess with Fate—just ask Oedipus.

What I like most about this system of changing seats is that it achieves the desired goals without the teacher controlling the process. When students understand the rationale behind working with new people and changing locations in the classroom, they see the randomness of the new seating assignment as a fun thing to look forward to each month.

In addition to our standard seating arrangements of either facing front or working together in small groups, we also have special seating arrangements for special activities—such as debates, philosophical chairs, or Socratic seminars. Two concentric circles is our standard alignment for a Socratic seminar, which we conduct at the end of every unit when we discuss how the Essential Questions connect to the themes of the major work we have studied:

Ultimately, the most important aspect of any seating arrangement is that it reflects the goals and purpose of a particular assignment or activity. Students should face front when they are taking an assessment, receiving instructions, or listening to a presentation. Students should face each other when they need to work together to complete a collective task. Teachers should use seating arrangements to provide behavioral cues for how students should act in order to complete the given task. Thus, we need to constantly assess the purpose of our activities and whether the seating arrangement helps students achieve that purpose.

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