I rarely allow my students- even my college students- to choose where they sit in my classroom.
From day one of the school year, my students beg and plead in utter desperation for me to not use the dreaded seating chart, and allow them to sit with their friends.
“Mr. Muir, I promise I work so much better when I sit next to her. We’re best friends and get along great.”
“Mr. Muir, I work better in the back of the room.”
Or how about this one?
“Mr. Muir, we’re in high school now. You can’t tell us where we have to sit.”
You wanna bet?
But what students often don’t understand, even though I explain it on day one of each school year, is that assigned seating in my classroom is not a punishment. It’s not a result of bad behavior, and not really even a preventative of it. I don’t assign seats to make taking attendance easier. My mission isn’t to separate friends from each other so that they won’t talk during class.
I assign seats so that students will talk in class. Let me explain.
My classroom table arrangement is always in groups. I want students facing each other and in a conducive position for conversation and discussion. When I used to allow students to choose the groups they sat in, they always found their friends or close acquaintances- the people they are comfortable with. Of course they do. I do the same thing at staff meetings. Sitting by people you know is easier, and if you are not great at meeting new people or not in the mood for it, it makes sense to stick with the familiar.
But when it came time for class discussion, which happens daily in my classroom, students were rarely stretched and challenged when sharing with the people around them. Because they were surrounded by friends, they either-
Hardly discussed at all because of the distraction of sitting with close friends.
Discussed openly because, “Why not, we’re all friends here.” (I’ll explain why this is a problem in a moment)
Now number 1 can be improved by constant facilitation by the teacher and developing discipline during class discussions. Good teachers have this one down. From using great discussion stems to making discussion participation a graded assessment, there are other ways to get kids involved in discussion without changing up the seating chart.
Number 2 is the main reason I mix up groups. I already know that friends can can converse and discuss with each other. That’s a skill most kids have down and do not need more practice of. However, assigning students to groups with people who they are not comfortable with can create an uncomfortable tension during class discussion. It is essentially asking students to perform public speaking with a 3 or 4 person audience.
Discussing with new people is public speaking practice.
Public speaking is no simple task for a lot of us. In fact, it’s many people’s greatest fear. I honestly think this is at the heart of why many students have trouble joining class discussions when they are with new people. It’s another form of public speaking.
However, it’s a skill that is valuable in almost any career field, and students need to learn how to use it. Creating a space where students are forced to share their thinking with “strangers,” or even kids who are not apart of their inner circle, is a great step towards students feeling comfortable with communicating with larger groups.
It requires leaving the comfort zone and students having to sometimes will themselves to speak.
Create a discussion culture.
And it can also create some very stale conversations at first. And that’s okay. In the beginning, students can be apprehensive about sharing with people they don't know, and they can have a fear of being judged (See this blog post).
But if you create a culture where students are constantly turning to talk to each other and shifting the focus from you- the teacher- to them; the conversations will loosen up. Students will start sharing with kids outside of their friend groups, and they will realize that they are capable of discussing and conversing outside of their comfort zone. This will make them better at holding discussions on their own, but also at public speaking. All because of seating charts.
And I’m not gonna lie, it does help with taking attendance.