classroom organisation: some reflections

I was re-reading a booklet the other day on how to use Cuisenaire Rods in class, written by John Evans whilst at LTC Eastbourne. It’s brilliant so look it up! Anyway, the first activity in the booklet involves using rods to tell the story of the Battle of Hastings. This is still one of the best teaching resources I’ve used.

The very first procedure of activity says this:classroom arrangements10

Set the chairs up in a horse-shoe. Do not have students sitting behind their desks. You WILL kill the lesson. It is important that they can see the rods and that they are close to the action. If you don’t believe me, try it!

As John points out, the layout of the learning environment can really influence the class dynamic. Here are some of my reflections on organising the classroom and dealing with some problems have arisen.

Don’t forget your CELTA training

I’ve mentioned before about little tips from the CELTA that go a long way in the classroom. Most of our input sessions on the course involved trainers modelling classroom activities – doing so often involved tweaking the classroom layout in some way. Something I instantly noticed about these activities, when the trainer would tell us how to organise the furniture for the next activity, was that it’s energising. It’s also intriguing – sometimes you wonder what the activity might entail. Plus, it was clear by watching experienced trainers (as teachers) that seating arrangements involve planning and anticipation. If you know that a task will involve working alone, then in pairs, then in groups, facilitate this task by starting with students in groups of 4 around a table.

I know this might sound like I’m stating the obvious, but these are important considerations if you are being observed. Organisation takes time. It also involves clear instructions to students so you should think about this at the planning stage, along with how the initial classroom layout might save you a few minutes during a lesson.

Furniture – what’s practical, what’s not?

The furniture you’ve got in your classroom can help certain activities and hinder others. The hardest classrooms I’ve found to work in are the ones that have chairs and writing tablets!writing chair

On both my CELTA and DipTESOL training our classrooms these ‘writing chairs’, rather than a chair and desk combo. These are pretty versatile. It’s fairly easy to get up and move around with these writing chairs. It’s also easy (given the lack of actual tables in the classroom) to rearrange chairs for different activities, like circle discussions. A semi-circle layout with these can create a sense of equality and it creates an open floor in the centre, which facilitates discussion and can be a performance space. The floor space is also good for demonstrations without the need for everyone to crowd around a table.

classroom arrangements

It’s easy to organise your classroom into any of the above patterns when there are no tables in the way. However, it’s not that hard to just shift tables to the side of the classroom and have students sitting/standing in the layout above. That way, the tables are there when you need them – and I need them for project work. I’ve worked at one summer school where the set syllabus involved project work almost daily, but each classroom was equipped with only these chairs. If I had a pound for every time I saw a coloured pencil rolling off a writing tablet I’d be a millionaire.

Ok, I’m exaggerating. All I’m saying is that some activities become less practical just by the furniture at your disposal or even the shape of your room and access to it!

When my planning ignored the classroom layoutclassroom arrangements12

Here’s a good example of the restrictions I talked about above. This was the default arrangement of one of my classrooms at a summer school (right), as recommended by the DOS. The door of the classroom was to the right of the board.

The first activity in the lesson I was given involved a running dictation – something I’d organised hundreds of times. However, in my complacency I’d completely forgot to consider the logistics of this task in relation to the classroom layout.

Here are the problems I had to deal with:

  • I’d only printed one copy of the text. This meant everyone would be huddled around the paper in a small corridor outside class.
  • I’d planned for the students to work in pairs – this meant 8 people entering and exiting through 1 door!
  • People at the back of the classroom had a disadvantage as their movement to the sides of the class are restricted
  • Attempts at moving down the sides of the classroom may be hazardous!

I thought on my feet to solve these issues and the activity was a success. However, I should have been far more proactive in anticipating these issues. I learnt something very important from this activity: every time I plan a task involving a lot of movement, I plan from inside the classroom to visualise how the task will work in practice.

When classroom organisation was dictated by my school

My first two years teaching abroad were spent in South Korea. I worked in a high school on the EPIK scheme, which was an enjoyable experience. Classroom methodology in South Korea was a lot different to what I expected, and I found that some communicative methods I’d employed in England weren’t best suited to my environment. One big restriction I had was in the classroom layout, which was not flexible at all. The chairs were in rows – I couldn’t deviate from this. I also didn’t want to deviate from it as the combination of nearly 40 kids in a class, plus my inexperience and poor classroom management skills would undoubtedly lead to chaos.
classroom arrangements4                    classroom arrangements5

I found little ways to tweak activities and utilise the classroom layout. These included similar dialogues lines as I mentioned before, plus ‘Chinese Whispers’ activities like the one above. This just meant putting some information at the back of the classroom, having the people at the back of each column share this information with the students in front. This continues until the students at the front of each column hear the information then run and write it on the board.

Sure, this layout felt limiting at times. However, that didn’t make the setup wrong, just different. It had its perks in providing ready-made exam conditions, and in facilitating a teacher-centred approach if that’s your style.

When my classroom layout arose during observation feedback

Sometimes issues with classroom organisation aren’t obvious unless someone points them out! I had an observation in my first job as a teacher; in the feedback my manager drew something like this:

classroom arrangements7

Apparently, I had two major blind spots. As I tend to walk around a bit at the front of class, I tend to angle myself away from the ends of this ‘inverted-U’ shaped layout. The boss said that students sitting at the ends of the semi-circle were largely being ignored. Actually, the solution proved simple. I shuffled everyone backwards by one foot so I could see them all clearly! A tiny thing, but it solved a big problem!

If you feel that the way you set up the classroom might be causing issues, why not ask a colleague to observe and give you feedback?

Recent changes to my classroom organisation

The British Council seem strong on grouping students. All our classrooms are laid out with in their default way with the students grouped together in fours, and teachers rarely change this (unless they are teaching a very small amount of students). For YL classes I’ve seen a lot of teachers do away with the tables and have students sitting in circles on the carpet. I’ve never taught kids under the age of 8, but the opportunity is likely to arise next year so I’ll start observing more YL classes before Christmas and see how the classroom organisation differs.

I’ve found that having students in groups suits my classroom management techniques, and leads to more collaborative activities (hence more communication). I can’t say that’s always the case though!

One issue I have at the moment is that my classroom is fully equipped! It sounds like a strange issue, but here’s how things look:

classroom arrangements8

Most of my lessons use the interactive whiteboard (IWB) as a presentation tool and the whiteboard for new vocabulary (and the stuff I wrote about here). I tend to have some issues with drawing attention to the whiteboard, which I’m working on!

The black dots above are my current blind spots. When a class is full, I tend to overlook the two students nearest the IWB, whilst another two students can hide a bit behind their friends. Their view of the IWB can be also be a bit restricted. Other than that, I haven’t had any major issues. My beloved phonemic chart is a bit stuck away in the corner, but I feel the students might like it that way!

Something I hadn’t tried for a while…classroom arrangements9

Again, as with most of my classroom activities, I encountered them first on the CELTA. The idea of sending ‘envoys’, as the trainer put it, has been something I’ve revisited lately. Once a group has collaborated over ideas, I send one student to a neighbouring group to share their ideas, and hear different views. They then return to their own group and share anything interesting they heard. This task is really suited to the classroom layout where students are grouped. Until two months ago, I hadn’t used this envoy activity since my CELTA! It just goes to show, some small changes to classroom organisation can go a very long way!

How about you: What is your preferred classroom layout? What difficulties have you encountered with classroom organisation? Do you feel that some layouts have resulted in issues with behaviour/classroom management? Has your classroom organisation ever been mentioned during observation feedback? All comments are welcome!

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