What “Think Work” can take the place of “Seat Work?”
I once helped open a new school that drew children from umpteen districts, each with a different philosophy of schooling. I had expected a challenge, but I was still surprised with how hard it was for my fifth-graders just to move across the room the first time I asked them to work in assigned groups.
Some children thought they needed to bring chairs, so they hoisted theirs dangerously over their heads. One or two children climbed directly over a portable coat closet as they made a beeline to their assigned table. Other students scrambled, crawled, ran, hit and even screamed.
Once I stopped the chaos I introduced a substitute lesson: How to move in the classroom.
Later, while the class took a bathroom break and I tried to collect my composure, a polite girl walked up to me and asked, “Why do you work so hard, Mrs. Haag? In our other school, the teachers assigned us a page in our workbook, we did it, handed it in and did another page. You should try that.”
Involving students in classroom design
Over my years of teaching, I concluded that my failure that day resulted from my wanting too much control. I directed the play without consulting the players. Arrogantly, I assumed my students would do everything exactly as I would, even to the point of moving across the room my way. I hadn’t shared what we were doing and why, nor had I asked them the best way to achieve what I wanted for them: to work independently.
As I changed my approach to involve my students, I discovered flaws in the physical layout of my classroom. Now, I start the year by inviting the students to help design our classroom. The end result has a coffee-shop feel that also reflects the tastes and needs of my students.
Our goal is to create a room that is comfortable for learning. Granted, we have gallons of water with plastic cups instead of coffee and the students bring their own snacks. But the room has some living room furniture like couches and chairs, grouped so that children can talk to one another. There are also individual tables or desks so that students can get away from everyone and work alone if needed.
The floor is cleared in some areas so that the students can spread out messy projects. We use moveable tables that can be pushed together for large meetings and paired for partner work. There are tables, too because we need space to conference with the teacher and other students. Even though the room is small, we also create an area I’ve never seen in a coffee shop, a space big enough so we can all meet together in a class circle. Even in small rooms, I teach the students how to move their chairs to make the circle around the desks in the middle of the room. We call this a 30-second circle because it should only take 30 seconds to transition.
Redfining classroom 'work'
In addition, we create “work” largely based on what I observed in the preschool my own children attended 20 years ago! At Countryside Montessori in Charlotte, North Carolina, my 3-year old ate snack when he wanted, played when he wanted, worked alone when he wanted, worked in pairs, produced plays, met in groups and worked with the teacher alone and in small groups. He had large, uninterrupted blocks of time to work, and work was what he called his play.
The building was designed so that he could go outside when he chose to and play, supervised by a paraprofessional. Snack was a center as well. If he was hungry, he ate. Often times, he had to “read” the directions to make the snack donated by the parents, like mixing Cheerios with Rice Chex, for example, or cutting an apple exactly in half with a child-friendly plastic knife to share with another student. The children were in charge of cleaning the room and keeping it organized. Plenty of modeling and evaluating conversations helped the students “see” how these tasks could be carried out. Plus, they had child-size tools to complete the work effectively.
Even though there would be differences, I began to see that if 3-year-olds could manage all these decisions about their work, so could the students in my fifth-grade class. As a result, I created meaningful work with my students’ help.
Which work is most important?
I also have been challenged to revise my approach to classroom work from another source – reading expert Richard Allington. Among his important contributions are the books, “Classrooms That Work” and “What Really Matters for Struggling Readers.”
The first time I heard this short statement by Dr. Allington, I was shocked. “Most basals provide a story that takes 30 minutes to read, and then activities which make up 6.5 hours per week of ‘stuff.’ Children spend more time on the after-reading stuff than on reading,” he said at a 2002 Reading Recovery conference. He challenged the audience, “What would happen if we stood that statistic on its head and read for 6.5 hours and did stuff for 30 minutes?” (Southeast Reading Recovery Conference, Greensboro, 2002)
When I share that concept with teachers, I’m often asked what the other kids do when I get those reading groups going. If students don’t spend 6.5 hours a week on “stuff,” what do they spend it on?
I’m still working on that, but I have found some answers. I create Think Work instead of seatwork. This has become easier in recent years thanks to all the new technology available in many schools.
Some help getting started
Click on "Think Work" or "Learning Style Responses" in the sidebar on this page to find work ideas for your students. These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. The goal is to interest students by encouraging them to complete authentic tasks and solve real problems. Ask them what or how they want to study. Fit their needs under the umbrella of your curriculum so you are “covering” the requirements, but your students have input.