At the end of last year, I asked my class for feedback about the changes I had made. They told me to keep the peaceful decor. They told me to keep the risers. They told me to introduce the risers slowly (the way I did it with them, so that my new class could get used to the idea).
Needless to say, I followed all of their advice. I kept the decor (i.e. lamps, area rugs, mood lighting, pillows, reading nook, some drapes, the ceiling mesh, etc.) and added a few new things (a wall hanging, a big mirror that my neighbour left on his front lawn). I kept one set of tall risers (that for the first month was used for me to pile my junk on because I got rid of my desk and filing cabinet). Last week, the first set of 3 students got to sit on the risers. It was a very big deal, bigger than I had imagined.
Students really started to get motivated by the risers. When someone asked why I chose those particular students, I told them it was because they could work in a number of situations, were always safe, and were organized. I immediately saw others wanting to make an impression on me by being more conscious about work, safety, and organization. Some even got rid of everything in their desks to show they were ready to go when I gave them the nod. The funny thing is is that those 3 students were just a trial. I didn't really intend to keep them on the risers, and in fact, I didn't even have the rest of the risers assembled. (I took them apart during the summer to store them and to resurface some of them with some leftover laminate flooring I had.) So now I have six students on two of the high risers, and worked my tail off over the weekend to have the rest of them ready. I still haven't fully assembled the others, but they are ready to go as I see fit.
I can see that the risers are important to the students, but I didn't realize how important they were to ME. If you walked in my class during September, you wouldn't have noticed a big difference between my class and any other. I couldn't figure out why my classroom did not have the same feel as my last classroom. At first I thought it was because I switched classrooms, but my new classroom is in almost the exact same configuration, and I used a lot of the same decor. Then I thought it was just because of the new year and new kids, but I have a cohort of some of the same kids and I think they feel the same way I do: it doesn't feel right.
But as I start to add more sets of risers, the feel is returning. My class is starting to look the way I like it, and my teaching, I noticed is starting to move in the right direction. When I have a bunch of desks, I feel way more hemmed in, and my teaching is more directed: I am going to talk and you're going to follow what I say, step by step. Subconsciously, the risers remind me that kids can't sit still for so long, so I have to be more economical with my words and less directive. I tend to move more with the risers because they are more open and I can move randomly through the classroom instead of row by row. The risers also tend to promote student interaction among a variety of students whereas the desks promote interaction with the same people they always sit beside. With desks, it is not as easy for students to move because they feel the need to stay with the stuff in their desks. I also feel cut off from my students; we are separated by their desks. The risers promote more fluidity, more ease of movement for me. The classroom with desks is also more rigid as I cannot easily change the configuration without having to move fifty pieces of furniture (which can be frustrating, cumbersome and loud). With the risers, I can change the configuration of my classroom in about 30 seconds. (This really promotes changing lessons on the fly. For example, we can create large graphs because we can use the tops of the risers. We can cut into a story drama of the book we are reading because we can clear the floor space. We can have another class over to sing some songs because we can all fit). I think it's all about the freedom, openness, and flexibility that the risers afford that makes me like them so much.
Hmmm. I didn't realize how much the risers symbolize my style of teaching until now. By not having them, it has caused me to look at the how and why I use them. And I wouldn't have noticed the difference if it were not for the students last year telling me to introduce them slowly. Smart kids.