Friday, July 09, 2010

Recommendations and Issues When Using Risers Instead of Desks

We Love Our Risers

During one of our final classroom meetings, I asked my students for advice about the risers and whether or not they thought I should use them again next year.  The message was clear and unanimous on two counts: definitely use risers again next year, but start SLOWLY.

My students loved the risers for these reasons:
  • The risers gave lots of choice in seating (i.e. stretched out, standing, sitting behind them, kneeling on the floor, cozying up underneath them, etc.).
  • The risers looked good.  (I actually disagree with this.  By the end of the year, the plywood covered risers looked like scuffed shipping crates.  I'll cover those ones with some left over laminate flooring, like I did with one other one.  The laminate holds up well, and cleans up nicely from food or art spills.
  • Everyone could see.  Because of the multi-tiered orientation, everyone could see the Smartboard, me, and pretty well everyone else.  
  • There seemed to be more room.  The risers were extremely efficient in terms of footprint.  I tended to have them in a horseshoe a bit in from the perimeter, so there was usually a big space in the middle where we could gather if necessary.  Desks tend to be more sprawling and they were always in the way when I was trying to get to someone.
  • The risers were more "friendly".   The students liked that they could sit side by side with their classmates with no barriers (desks) between them.  By the way, the students who recognized that they needed personal space would sometimes retreat to a desk, but mostly periodically.
All in all, students thought they could learn better because they felt happier and could see more.  Some students liked also that they had had a hand in assembling the risers.  I build the components in my garage, and then students would sometimes help me assemble the risers when I brought the parts to school.  They had also helped to sand the risers so that they were smooth as a baby's bum.  Most of my kids have never had the tactile pleasure of using tools or sanding, and they loved the experience.  It also created built in ownership.  Looking back, my students took REALLY good care of the risers (way better than the care they took of their desks).  Maybe that is a result of introducing them slowly as prescribed by my students.

Except for One Thing
The students also gave one piece of negative feedback.  The risers, especially at first, were uncomfortable.  The risers are long, flat pieces of plywood.  There are no scooped out places for little backsides like their blue plastic chairs had.  This didn't bother most students, but for the ones that it did bother, those students brought their own cushions or used some of the ones I had.  Some students also did not like the lack of back support ("bleacher back") and found their backs sore from not leaning back on their chairs or not getting elbow support from their desks.  Coincidentally, I found those complaints coming from students with the worst posture and muscle tone.  Also, this was only an issue when we all had to stay in one place, and I generally try to keep my teacher talk time down to no more than 15 minutes at a time.  When my students are working, they can choose a number of different body positions.

And Despite Initial Fears    

I have to say that using risers was a major success.  When I first envisioned using risers, I almost didn't do it because of the number of fears that I had.  But looking back, those fears turned out to be non-issues.  Here are some of the fears I had and what the actual resultant was:
  • Chaos.  Without desks, I feared there would be pandemonium and that everything would be a total mess.  The exact opposite is true.  Because everyone could see and hear properly, it actually cut down on off task behaviour.  Because there were no desks, students couldn't just mindlessly stuff materials in the back of their desks, and if they left things on the floor or the risers, it was highly visible so they'd have to take care of it.  Mind you, the little storage in their lapdesks and giving them alternate storage on a rolling trolley were essential too.
  • What would my principal think?  When I brought in the first set of risers, I didn't actually ask permission.  I just did it.  I wasn't sure if I was eventually going to go whole hog anyway, so I didn't want to scare anyone.  My fears were totally unfounded because my principal was so great about it.  She understands the educational value, and she supports me 100%.
  • What would the other teachers on my staff think?  Actually, they are pretty used to some of my weird ideas.  None of them have gone all the way and started building their own furniture, but some of them have really started to think long and hard about how their classrooms look and function.
  • Is this bad for kids' bodies and muscle development?  According to our great occupational therapist, no.  In fact, she praised the number of alternate body positions that out set up affords.  I was worried about bleacher back, but she said it was akin to having children sit on those big yoga balls.  As long as they kept both feet planted on the ground, it was good for muscle development.  (Linda also recommended taping paper to walls so child could work upright or having them work on their bellies).
  • What would the parents think?  By the time parents saw the risers, we had already had the full set up going.  The students had slowly gotten used to the risers as I only brought them in as fast as I could make them.  We experimented at the beginning about who got to be on the risers to see how each student responded to them.  In doing so, students saw that being on the risers was a privilege, and saw them as something special.  When the parents saw the risers, the students had already provided them with the hype, and our bulletin board outside provided the educational reasoning.  All of the feedback that I received from our parents was very positive.
  • Can I afford all this?  Because this was coming out of pocket, and I am cheap, budget became an issue.  The risers and lapdesks were going to cost me about $400 I thought.  The actual cost for them was really closer to $200.  I got some plywood from a parent, I used some Ikea doors, I had some 2x4s in my garage, I also had a bit of money left in a slush account, and one of my students gave me a giftcard to where I bought the lapdesks.  Sometimes being cheap also make you creative.  I can also justify the money in that because I no longer buy commercial posters or borders, I can now spend that money on my new vision.  Of course, that does not take into account the other items I bought to give a new atmosphere to my classroom.  (See the previous blog entry). 
Going Slowly Next Year
In an email to my friend Kyme, who is currently and enthusiastically exploring classroom atmosphere, I talked about some of the reasons why my students recommended implementing the risers slowly.  I'll list them here:
  • Going slowly gives kids a chance to process the changes.
  • The teacher gets a chance to see what is working and what doesn't. If you make all the changes at once, it is hard to pinpoint what made the difference or what the problem was.
  • Going slowly and introducing a few changes at a time prolongs novelty factor. Kids and their brains like novelty.
  • It is easier to handle financially.  Instead of spending $500 in one shot, it was gentler to spend over the course of three months.
  • By going slowly, your kids get to buy into the process with you, which they can't do if you've made all the changes before they got there.
Here is my new fear: can I sustain this?  I'll try to answer this in my next blog entry.

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