April 14, 2007


When I get to the horrible little classroom I was given for my literature classes, the desks are always in rows. The professor who uses the classroom just before me teaches in a traditional lecture style. His students take notes while he stands at the blackboard and talks. As soon as he leaves, my students go in and rearrange the room, shoving extra desks out of the way and pulling most of the desks into a circle. Because the afternoon class in the room is taught by a professor who also likes to put her students in a circle, we leave the room arranged that way.

One morning, I came in to the room to find a note on the blackboard: "Reading/dancing classes: Please have the courtesy to put the desks back into their proper positions when you are done with class. Thank you."

I read it and shrugged. I tend to ignore those kind of messages. I was busy looking for something in my backpack as my students came in, but they looked at the blackboard and began talking to each other about the message.

"Does he really think this is a dance class?"
"Dude, he's being sarcastic."

"The words please have the courtesy are kind of a snark, aren't they?"
"Yeah, like he's saying we aren't being courteous now."

Every time a new student walked in, she would look at the board and make some kind of comment like, "Dancing classes? We don't have dance classes here," and the discussion would start up again.

"Why are rows the proper position?"
"Yeah, why should rows be the default?"
"Maybe a circle should be the default."

"Most of the classes that meet in this room use the circle format."
"I think he's the only one that uses rows."
"Maybe we should leave a note saying Statistics/medieval studies class: Please have the courtesy to put the desks back in the circle formation when you are done with class. Thank you."

I pulled out the book I'd been looking for and looked up at my students.

"Gee, you have to analyze everything," I teased them. They laughed.

"I wonder who we learned THAT from," said Flannel Shirt.


When we went yesterday on a class field trip to the Nature Center at Lake Named After Animal Who Builds Dams, we were pleased to find a bunch of benches built into a semi-circle rather than straight rows.


Linda said...

You've corrupted them. They'll never be the same again. ;-)

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

Well, now I have to get all indignant that your students think medieval studies is the kind of class where people would sit in rows and listen passivley to lectures. ;)

Dr. Mon said...

We had an "announcement" in a recent faculty meeting because some of the faculty who taught in the morning were concerned that somebody who taught in the evening (that would be me) was not using the desks properly. I rolled my eyes--in a circle.

david silver said...

judging from their reactions and their suggestions for solutions, your students seem very wise. more fieldtrips!

What Now? said...

I love their analysis of the blackboard message and their reassment of "proper"! What a fun post.

cieux autres said...

I've always hated when I got those notes. I usually just responded as your students did: Why are rows the default? One professor responded that rows were the most efficient use of the space, and that when the desks were in a circle, he couldn't accommodate all of his students comfortably. I told him that he should take that up with the Dean and insist on smaller class sizes.

Actually, that didn't happen, but I often imagined it. I got a little paranoid thinking about how the other teachers viewed the way I taught. We were a small, small college, and everyone talked.

MonkeyPants said...

Jo(e), I love reading about the rapport you share with your students.

Pilgrim/Heretic, my Medieval Studies classes' desks were in rows, but the discussions were in giant, looping chains of questions and answers. Circles in the air.

todd said...

That's great!

Something tells me I would've really enjoyed your classes.

And I agree; who decides what's 'proper', anyway? Seems like if two classes use the circle pattern and one uses the 'proper' pattern, that other professor is outnumbered.

Or maybe that's just me...always rooting for the underdog. :)

Breena Ronan said...

Your desks can be moved? I either teach in rooms with fixed desks or in rooms too small to fit the twenty+ students in my section, so we can't really make a circle. (I'm glad that I'm not the only one who thinks about this stuff. People look at me weird around hear when I complain about the rooms.)

Breena Ronan said...

Oops, I mean "around here." I'm tired.

Life&Times said...

I love that story :)

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

While I appreciate the critical thinking the note inspired.. I end up being a rows person because my students fill up every one of the desks in my room, thus leaving no room for a circle.

Next time you are in your circle, look at the extra desks and realize that they probably wouldn't be a comfortable place for your students to sit --

Perhaps that is why the rows are the default, because the bigger classes shoved into a small classroom need them that way? Perhaps instead of getting snarky back, you should realize that you are lucky to have a class small enough to sit in a circle.

Also, there are some educational thinkers who call the circle arragement an intimidating arrangement, because you have to face all of the other people in the classroom. If you are an introvert, that can be very intimidating and cause you not to speak-up. In my classroom the interested introverts sit in front so they can speak up without having to look at the rest of the large class.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I just recalled the educational thinker, his name is Stephen Brookfield...

jo(e) said...

Pilgrim: LOL. I thought of you when I was typing that. Eh, these are science students -- what do they know? Sadly, none of them will ever have a chance to take medieval studies.

Inside the Philosophy Factory: I don't think the students were arguing that a circle is a better arrangement than rows. I think class room arrangement depends on any number of factors such as subject matter, class size, teaching style, etc. Class size is not the issue in this particular classroom because it only holds 20 desks.

It was the professor leaving the note who was asserting that rows was the "proper" way to arrange the desks. My students were reacting to his assumptions that everyone using the classroom should cater to his needs.

I do think a circle is an intimidating class room arrangement -- there's no where to hide. But I teach an upper level literature course in which the students are expected to speak up so the arrangement works for me.

ccw said...

I always love to read about your students. They seem like such wonderful people.

LMC said...

Your classes sound wonderful, jo(e).

As a student, I do prefer the circle arrangement for most of my classes, although I think rows do have their place. I think the linear structure of rows lends itself particularly well to math, for example. I like a nice right brain/left brain correlation between the subject matter of the class and the formation of the seating. Lol.

Also? Rows drive me nuts, because for some reason they tend to bring out my anal-retentive side. I become obsessed with whether or not they're perfectly aligned in a straight line and then I'll be distracted by that all class. Messy circles don't bother me, but for some reason crooked rows send me off the deep end.

Wow, that was a lot about my personal tics.

jo(e) said...

LMC: It's funny -- I am just the opposite. Perfectly straight rows drive me nuts. When I go to a conference and walk into a room full of chairs set in completely straight lines, I always have the urge to start messing them up so that the room looks friendlier.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

MonkeyPants - I love the idea of discussion-circles in the air!

Yankee T said...

great story, jo(e)

Kyla said...

I love it!

susan said...

Glad to see that the state park knows about the proper position for benches!

And just for the record, when I teach medieval English (for about a month every fall) there are no rows in sight.

Jodie said...

I know that on a day like today it doesn't really matter, but in your original post of what the other teacher left on the board, from what you said he never mentioned what the "proper position" really was.


I would have left him a message that "we always do and are equally mystified at who keeps changing them. Every time we come to class they are all messed up again"


Liz said...

I got so much flack for rearranging classroom furniture into circles and squares that I had to actually put in a written request with my dean who had to have it signed off on by the Vice President of Instruction (!!!!!) to have one of our classrooms "officially" arranged in a square and I have to teach all my classes in that room.