Don't let anyone fool you. Don't let anyone tell you differently. To create an "inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive" environment for students, desks matter. I know this fact firsthand, because one day at school could have gone very badly if it weren't for the desk arrangement in my classroom.
In fact, one singular moment for me and an eighth grader named Tim could have gone horribly wrong if I had chosen a different way to set up my desks.
The head counselor had warned me about Tim the day before he arrived. It was already the middle of the first week of school when she told me, "Now, Dru, Tim is a strong-willed student and he may be a little tough, but I've gotten good reports from the reform school." She slid a plain, one-inch manila folder my way, and it was filled with white, yellow, pink and blue papers of various sizes.
I put my hand over the folder with some trepidation, wanting to look inside this archive—this embattled history—to read about Tim and prepare myself for his arrival. But as the cold fluorescent lights buzzed above us and mingled with a growing chorus of student voices, I looked at the contents in the folder and knew there was more to Tim.
I knew Tim was going to be the kid who walked in my eighth grade English Language Arts classroom door. Sure, I was a little fearful. I was a relatively new teacher, and I didn't want to let anybody down.
But as I thought about Tim, I thought that maybe he was going to be nervous, too. He was the one who was going to walk into a brand new classroom. He was the one who was going to carry years of bruised history like baggage before his peers—kids who had heard the truth and the rumors about him. He definitely needed a classroom environment where he could start writing a new story for himself.
Fortunately, my desks and I were ready. On the morning of Tim's first day, I was running a Writer's Workshop when he walked in. We were all seated in a large circle--no rows, chevron patterns, triads, or quad groups—as he sauntered in wearing a faded yellow t-shirt that had "NO FEAR" splashed in black letters across the front.
Immediately, his eyes stared from beneath the brim of his baseball hat, and I could tell that he wasn't quite sure where to go (or, in fact, where I was). So from a student desk, I raised my hand and beckoned him over. When he finally sat down with me, I said, "Tim? How're you doing this morning?" I explained what we were up to, what Writer's Workshop was all about, and that I was going to be his writing partner for the pre-writing conference.
I also added that I was going to talk to him about a meaningful time in his life, and as his writing partner, I was going to share something meaningful with him about my life. While the rest of my students interviewed each other, I asked him some questions, he talked, and I wrote down his story. The tough, "NO FEAR" exterior started to dissolve around the narrative he wove about being at his uncle's farm over the summer where he helped deliver a calf in the morning light of the barn—as we sat in the inviting, safe, inclusive and supportive workshop circle.
Working and writing with Tim was one of my earliest lessons on the importance of physical classroom structure. At the beginning of every school year afterwards, I recalled that moment and considered the environmental decisions that would build relationships and engage students in my classroom and across my team. When I would change desk arrangements, for instance, I would sit in those desks to see what they would see, imagine how they would feel, and get a sense of distractions they may encounter. In terms of what I would put up on the walls and on the boards and how I would arrange my desks, I also asked myself (and answered) the following questions:
What information do my students need to know every day?
Students need daily details in the same place (across the team/grade level): date, agenda, assignment, reminders, procedures, 3-5 positively-stated norms (not rules); and specific classroom roles. This is not only necessary for students, but also for teachers.
What inspiration do my students need every day?
They need to read and see a quote of the day/week/month; college and career symbols (i.e., diploma, pennant, shirt); famous historical and everyday heroes (i.e., students!) in each content area; individual and team awards; famous and everyday art; and blank boards and walls for students to fill up.
What education artifacts and actions do they need every day?
They need a daily warm-up activity; active Word Walls; purposeful posters/boards; and literacy resources (writing/reading materials; books, magazines, newspaper articles).
How do I need to structure desks and for what activities?
For teacher-focused activities, straight rows facing front; chevron pattern angled to face front are most appropriate and needed when giving/projecting direct information from the front of the classroom. This desk structure provides teacher controland lets you put certain kids up front; however, it complicates teachers and students getting in and out of rows, and separation can inhibit student-teacher relationship-building.
For student-focused activities, whole/semi-circles, triads and quad groups, and rotation stations are necessary when working on collaboration, teamwork, relationship-building, and projects. Those student-focused arrangements are more engaging and active, and they create a structure/control for the social interaction that our students need.
Reaching and teaching young adolescents in the middle level involves a constantly evolving recipe with a lot of ingredients. Through the workshop method, a conversation about a calf with an eighth grader named Tim, and empathetic reflection, I learned that the ingredient of classroom structure has the potential to serve up a warm, inviting, safe, and secure environment every time.