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Flexible seating empowers Romulus students for better learning

By first grade, most children have heard the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” where a young girl invades the home of a family of bears and finds Papa Bear’s chair is too hard, Mama Bear’s chair is too soft, but Baby Bear’s chair is just right.

For the 6 and 7-year-old students in Matt McCusker’s first grade class at Romulus Central School, finding a seat that was “just right” was all part of a better learning experience.

The concept is called flexible seating and it leaves the classroom of old far behind. The typical desk setup arranged in rigid lines with assigned seats is being put aside and new forms of seating are being offered to students. For McCusker’s first grade class, these seating options included yoga balls, standing tables, a small couch, a tent, a shag carpet with a low table and some swivel chairs. But his students didn’t restrict themselves to just those options. The youngsters made themselves comfortable on the floor covered with a blanket or atop pillows. The typical desk and chair was also always an option as well, he added. It’s all about making students comfortable while they learn.

McCusker said he first heard about flexible seating a few years ago on social media, in articles from other teachers he follows online, as well as from a number of colleagues. With the introduction of Common Core, McCusker said his focus was on all the curriculum changes. It wasn’t until this school year that he was able to put some serious thought and energy into changing his classroom layout.

“I try to keep the big picture in focus for our students,” he said. “As a staff, we really want students to be collaborating, problem solving and thinking critically. Having the students sit in assigned seats for up to six hours a day does not accommodate that philosophy.”

But before changing anything, McCusker said he explored the idea to ensure the decisions made were “research-based and not just a fad.”

In January, McCusker began introducing the flexible seating options to students, taking a week to ensure students understood the concept.

“It was important for the students to be introduced to each seating option one at a time,” he said. “We would spend a day taking turns at each station and having a discussion on what that area would be best utilized for – whether it was working with a group, independent work or reading quietly. We had to discuss if they liked it or not and how they wanted to use it.”

From there, students were presented the flexible seating expectation chart and each student signed a contract.

“We set up classroom supplies at each station and the students placed their personal tools – pencil boxes, reader, workbook, etc. – in a plastic bin we call their ‘portable desk,’” he explained.

McCusker said there are several teachers using flexible seating in their classroom to varying degrees at Romulus. Right now, the choice to use the concept is up to the teacher.

So why offer flexible seating in the first place? McCucker said this classroom setup has many advantages.

“I believe the greatest advantage is the students have a better sense of it being their classroom, not mine,” he said. “This type of setup is more student-oriented. They have been a part in every step of the implementation and are in total control of where they sit.”

There’s also the advantage of the exercise they are getting on a daily basis. Students are moving around a lot, McCusker said.

“These small movements, along with some more formal brain breaks, allow for a release of energy that did not happen in a traditional classroom setup,” he added.

There’s learning as well. McCusker said since he instituted the flexible seating “students are displaying a greater amount of stamina when it comes to individual work” and their collaboration has improved as well.

“They are taking more control of their educational path by making decisions on where they sit as well as who they are sitting with depending on the work that is expected,” he said. “I have seen an improvement with some of my ‘busy’ friends that would struggle with staying on task in the past.”

Goldilocks may have a been a bit particular about the temperature of her porridge and the size of her bed, but making her own choice about seating seems to be “just right.”

Tammy Whitacre is a reporter for FL1 News covering Seneca and Wayne counties. Send news tips to tammy@fingerlakes1.com and follow @FL1_TWhitacre for the latest.

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