TERRE HAUTE, Ind. –– While her students were gone over winter break, and fellow teachers were home with their families, Carla Arnold spent two weeks transforming her classroom into a desk-less space where students get to choose where they will be the most comfortable and productive. 

Through a cycle of building, buying, removing and replacing, Arnold's goal was to break the monotonous relationship between student and desk.

She cast aside the old classroom stalwarts — desks and chairs — in favor of learning spaces she finds more in tune with the 21st-century learner.

When her students returned to Terre Town Elementary School and saw the change, their mouths dropped, Arnold said, acting as if Santa had made a trip to their classroom on his way out of town.

In place of their desks they found a large area rug, and around it were tables with exercise balls, milk crates and step stools for seating.

Rounding out the room were low-lying tables with pillows for comfort and stations at which to complete work.

Arnold said she got the idea after talking to another educator, and decided it was worth a try. She admitted she didn’t know if the idea would work, but she hasn’t regretted the decision since.

“My concern, at first, was that everyone would run there, and everybody would run here,” Arnold said. “Once the newness wore off after everyone had been everywhere, then it’s pretty much a natural progression now

“The kids pick where they want to work and get their own little private space and get their thoughts together and just work. I don’t have anybody playing, or messing around. They are comfortable and enjoy it,” Arnold said.

Arnold said one of the biggest frustrations with the desks was the mess. The alternative seating, she said, has remedied the problem.

“There was just stuff falling out of the desks, all on the floor,” Arnold said. “Now, everything is self-contained in here, nothing is falling out, and they’re more responsible for their own materials.”

Arnold said the alternative seating hasn’t just helped tidy up, but has also has rid the students of some poor classroom etiquette.

“I don’t have the behaviors. I don’t have them distracted, turned around or playing around during lesson time,” Arnold said. “It’s really helped with the excess energy and lack of attention.”

Mark Benden is an expert in activity-permissive classrooms and an associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health. Benden conducted a study to determine how alternative classrooms, specifically standing desks, are beneficial for student's health and attention.

“The students at standing desks burned 15 percent more calories during the study period than students at traditional desks, and obese children at standing desks increased their calorie use by 25 percent,” Benden said. “Teachers also reported that students at standing desks had an increased level of engagement during lecture time.”

Jesse King, a student in Arnold’s class, chose to sit at a low table with a step stool for a seat. He said that’s his favorite spot, and when asked if he liked the classroom he smiled and gave a big thumbs-up.

When Arnold approached Terre Town Elementary School Principal Cinda Taylor with the idea, Taylor said she was all for it.

“I was delighted because I had done a lot of reading myself and I know a lot of time, in regard to the 21st-century learner, we have to think creatively and outside the box,” Taylor said.

“Our main goal is to make sure we’re setting students up for success,” she said. “So if they’re more comfortable standing and doing their work, she has a station for that. If they’re more comfortable sitting at a low level and working at that place or on one of those yoga balls, then it’s an opportunity to release some of those energies through that outlet and focus better on the task at hand.”

Additionally, Benden's study shows that the taller stools and desks improved students' circulation and posture.

Taylor and Arnold both said they haven’t received any pushback from parents, with Taylor crediting Arnold’s preparation before the switch as the reason why.

Taylor said Arnold’s idea is spreading to other classrooms at Terre Town. She said many teachers will do whatever it is to help their students succeed.

“Teachers are a group, on the whole, who are seeking new ideas. They’re always open to trying new things and I think that’s the beauty of teaching,” Taylor said.

“I just commend her for hearing about it and taking action to try it. Because we never know until we try. I love that we’re willing to think outside the box and try something new," Taylor said. 

Modesitt writes for the Terre Haute, Indiana Tribune Star.

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