Stealing Ideas (or is it Borrowing Ideas?)

A number of years ago I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Ajna S Greer summer conference at the Phillips Exeter Academy. In addition to great mini courses, terrific connections, lovely food and drink, and just general all around wonderfulness there I was exposed to their Harkness table teaching. I had long struggled with the traditional rows and desks layout of my classroom and I remembered how I would utilize it as a way to hide as a student. Being relatively small in stature I was able to disappear into the classroom seating arrangement when I did not want to be engaged in class. As a teacher I want to avoid that. At my last school our desks were very moveable and I played around with a ‘pod’ system in my classes. The girls took to this system (it was a single gender school) and they took a certain amount of ‘pod pride’ in their group work. I played with group quizzes and I was feeling like I was moving forward as a teacher. I still found myself a bit frustrated by the lack of whole group interactions. I came to my current school in the fall of 2010 and inherited older desks that were not so flexible in their use. So, I prowled around campus looking for solutions and I found some old library tables that were sitting in a storage room on campus. My boss got our maintenance drew to help and over christmas break I removed all individual desks from my room replacing them with six rectangular tables. When my students returned they were taken aback by this new set up and by the new classroom behavior expectations I put before them. I simply asked them. I told them that it was understandable if I was the person who talked the most in class – not always desirable, but understandable – but my challenge to them was to make sure that my voice was not heard more than 50% of the time. I wanted them to talk to each other. I wanted them to toss out ideas and questions. I want them to interrupt me and to share their ideas. I want them NOT to interrupt each other when ideas are being voiced. In general, I wanted them to be active participants in the classroom not passive vessels waiting to be filled. I am the only math teacher in my school who has a room set up this way so when they get to me there is a learning curve. I encounter a number of different situations as they learn how to be a student in my class. There are social conversations occurring. More of them than there used to be. I wish that there were fewer of them, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay. There are students who are not sure enough of their ideas to share them with the class. So they try them out on their neighbors instead. I try hard to listen and pull those ideas out and toss them to the crowd. There are students who are distracted by their neighbors and want to just focus on me. I try to move people around so that this effect is minimized. The physical layout of my room means that some students have to turn around to see certain boards. I don’t know how to fix that and I am not sure it is a critical problem. Some students monopolize the class conversation. This used to happen anyway. I think that now I at least have the benefit of students making eye contact with each other. It is easier to listen to your classmate if you are not staring at the back of her head. Some students are quiet and more shy. I get that. I watched the TED Talk from Susan Cain about introverts. In fact, I shared it with my class and talked about the impact of the classroom set up. We had a great conversation about it. I know it’s not a perfect setup for everyone but I also hear back from my students that this setup has helped them put their own voice to their mathematical ideas. I have had students tell me that before my class they thought that their job as a math student was to know how to use certain formulas and know when to use them. After my class, I hope that they have a larger view of their job in the classroom. There is a learning curve at the beginning of each year and I hope that we are beyond it now as we head to week 7. I feel that I am more aware of my students and that I have a better sense of their level of understanding. I think that my students get better everyday at listening to a variety of voices in the classroom. I still spend too many days doing more than 50% of the talking in class but I think that I am still on that learning curve myself. I would not be so bold as to say that I am implementing Exeter’s Harkness style the way it is intended, but I think that I have found a way that makes sense inside my school.

5 thoughts on “Stealing Ideas (or is it Borrowing Ideas?)”

  1. It is good to hear that you use tables instead of desks. My student teaching classroom was with desks- it was wonderful and challenging, and yes, all those things you relate happened, but so did collaboration and learning and fun. My next classroom had desks and I felt like I and the students were being punished! I just started keeping my desks in pods of four or five. My principal didn’t like the mess, but my kids participated more and hated coming in to a room with rows!

  2. It is so nice to know I’m not an island all to myself!!! I too am utilizing quite a bit of group work (forcibly so – to some degree – by the Common Core). I can tell when my students are using my class as social hour when the decibel level exceeds a super sonic Lear Jet. But, I still try! Many of my teaching peers comment. “I don’t know how you do it!!” But, it’s on those rare occasions when I look out over my class and see my lowest of low teaching their classmates that I know we’re doing something right!

  3. It’s hard to go against the grain and try something new. Sometimes after I do what I think it is a terrific group activity, I realize that while the students did it, they retained absolutely nothing–the goal was to complete the activity rather than to learn something. I have a computer program which generates my seating chart–that helps with cutting down social conversations. I think I’ll try putting my desks into a big rectangle, to look like a big table that’s really not there.

  4. I also like the jump in communication between kids. When I taught in rows, kids turned to talk to anyone they liked. When I taught in “pods”, they only turned to pod neighbors, and it somehow seemed to cut down on general noise. Have you found this to be true, too?

    1. I did notice this a bit with the pod system, but I felt that the patriotic pod spirit that developed was worth the tradeoff. Now I have two large tables and I periodically mix them up or break up the tables into smaller pods. When I do this, I stand at the door with playing cards in my hand and they randomly draw teammates that way. I also feel that kids are more attentive when they can see the face of the person talking to them.

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