The Pedagogy of Furniture- #NCTE16

I don’t really want to sound angry- this is a thought, not a rant.

How we arrange the furniture matters. It matters in the classroom and it matters at a conference. We found presenting from a raised dais, with chairs in rows, with microphones that don’t move, pretty challenging.

I found attending presentations with rooms in that configuration pretty challenging.

I find the word ‘presentation,’ frankly, pretty challenging.

If I set up my classroom in a way such that the only acceptable dynamic was for me to deliver content and my students to passively accept it, you, my admins, my colleagues, and most importantly, my students, would be right to call BS on my teaching. I would call BS on that teaching. That isn’t how I really do anything.

Do you see where I’m going here? If all of us generally agree that the ‘sage on the stage’ mode is pretty outdated, pretty ineffective, and I think we do generally agree on that, then why are we presenting in rooms set up for only that?

In our Surviving (And Loving) Teaching presentation we expected the attendees to write, speak to one another, and speak to the group as a whole. Part of our goal was to get as many voices heard as we could (since we think being heard is an important part of ‘surviving (and loving) teaching.’ We got there, but we did so despite the furniture. Being up on that dais created a physical barrier between us and the other people in the room. I don’t want barriers between me and my students. OR between me and my colleagues. Most of my professional life has been trying to figure out how to knock down barriers, or at least get around them.

I’ve watched this dynamic my whole life. When I worked in the ski industry, someone who was the most engaging, dynamic instructor you could possible imagine when working with paying clients, suddenly had a group of colleagues freezing their butts off standing on the side of a run talking when they were in trainer mode. How many PD events have you been to where the leader was expounding on the need to be active and engaging while not actually being active and engaging themselves? Or even worse, making a gesture towards active and engaging without actually succeeding. I’ve been to grad school, three times. I can handle a lecture just fine. But fake active teaching just pisses me off.

One of the most delicious moments of irony in my professional life was my Ed Psych professor in my licensure program lecturing for eighty minutes about the need for multiple modalities of assessment in a course where the only assessment was multiple choice tests filled out on scan-tron sheets.

If we want teachers to teach in an active and engaging manner, then they need to be trained in ways to be active and engaging. They also need to be trained in active and engaging ways. We replicate the deep structures we are raised in. It took me years as a teacher to realize that if I really wanted to change how my classroom worked, I had to change how it looks. Part of that was rearranging the furniture.

We talked in our grading session about D.F. Wallace’s great speech “This Is Water.” ‘Water’ is the stuff that’s invisible. The structure you don’t question. The arrangement of the furniture and it’s profound effect on how we engage one another.

Just pointing out the water.

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One Response to The Pedagogy of Furniture- #NCTE16

  1. Tracy Brennan says:

    Yes! We need to move away from the industrial factory model of sitting in straight lines and move to circles or pods to get our students engaged not just us, but with each other, with their learning community. We need to be willing to step aside and let the learning happen while we watch! Last week, my colleague, Karen Nieb, and I were leading our first practice oral exam. We have the students turn their desks towards each other, and we give each of them a soliloquy from Hamlet so that they have different passages to cover. Then we give them a few minutes to annotate and outline what they will say in their ten minute commentary. While one student is speaking, their partner is listening and taking careful notes. At the eight minute mark, the listenercan ask one or two questions if the speaker is done. Then they have five minutes for the listener to write specific feedback (no grading involved) for their partner. Then we repeat the process and the listener becomes the speaker doing a commentary on their passage.

    The beauty of this practice is that the students are completely engaged, working hard, listening carefully, and giving each other constructive criticism, and I am simply moving around the room and listening to bits of different commentaries. I have become an observer, not a talking head, and the students are very actively engaged in their own learning. What a beautiful feeling!

    And this could not happen in straight lines in a factory model classroom. So yes, get up, move desks around into curves, arcs, or pods to change the dynamic to a student-centered classroom. Sometimes I even get rid of desks altogether to do some yoga to help them focus! And students love it, they love change and variety and moving things around and shaking things up!

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