Flexible Learning

By: Ryan Bergeron
October 12, 2016 issue of The Tribune (Greenbush, Minn.)

Some lay back in a banana-shaped chair, others sit on square-shaped pillows, mats, or milk totes topped with cushions, in a corner with their backs against a pillow and their bottoms atop pink or blue tires topped by cushions, or in a large green bean bag chair called “Big Joe”. Some stand at desks heightened by black bed lifts. All the students are quiet, reading or working on different subjects without sitting at their chair and desk. This describes a scene in Greenbush-Middle River teacher Robin Waage’s fifth grade classroom in Greenbush.

Thanks to a Greenbush Area Community grant, Waage purchased furniture for a “Flexible Seating” environment, similar, she said, to Starbucks-style seating, but without the coffee.  She pursued this idea to allow students to not only move, but also choose a learning environment that fits their leaning style.

“I was excited about movement for kids because I’m not a traditional teacher. I think our kids have different learning styles now and so I think it was good to kind of foster to the change in learning styles, the generation of kids we have now,” Waage said. “I think active is good. I think having them moving, involved in stuff, making their own choices, (being) critical thinkers (is a positive).”

Excited when she heard the community fund was going to fund this proposal, she knew she had to now put the funds to work. She ordered different classroom furniture on amazon.com. While working on the grant proposal, she implemented the expertise of occupational therapist Erin Eeg, assisting her on the medical side of the classroom setup choices, including helping find high quality products that worked certain parts of students’ bodies and engaged certain parts of their brains. Eeg actually came up with the idea to put bed lifts on the bottom of the desk legs.

Specifically, the fund helped the class purchase pillows, rugs, crate cushions, wobble chairs, and the cycles. In the second quarter, students will get to “read and ride”, using these cycles, that Waage hopes improve engagement and alertness. Students would sit in a chair and scoot back to a comfortable distance from the cycle pedals, allowing one to sit back and read their book while pushing the pedals. The cycles have timers and allow one to set the tension.

“It’s kind of my way of encouraging movement and exercise just to help the whole cause of child obesity, all those issues that we have in today’s world,” Waage said. “I wanted to kind of try to engage them.”

Introduced to this classroom setup by former GMR High School and Greenbush site Principal Eldon Sparby, Waage pursued it to provide students the chance to do more than move, seeing it as an opportunity providing them with both physical and mental benefits. For example, when putting together the grant proposal, she found that research showed that having this type of environment improved circulation and, more specifically, the wobble chairs helped work the core muscles. The more circulation going to the brain means the more connections students are going to have in their learning. She also discovered through research that test scores are supposed to improve with more movement within the classroom.

Beyond physical and academic improvements, she also found out that having such an environment also has an effect on life long skills. Students experience some decision-making, having to find out what learning environment best fits them.

“Kids will say to me, they’ll panic (and say), ‘All the standing desks are taken and I only learn standing at a desk.’ And it’s kind of interesting,” Waage said. “I can tell that they really know that about themselves and I think that’s important. You see certain kids get up during the day and move themselves if they are distracted by commotion next to them.”

As for distraction, Waage said this environment so far has led to more productivity and less off-task behavior. When asked if the classroom options did distract, students replied no, instead all pointing to how the different setups help them learn.

“I don’t know why I like standing, but just I feel like I can write better and do stuff, move easier than sitting down in a regular desk,” fifth grader Sierra said.

Fifth grader Easton on the other hand has enjoyed the sitting down on the floor option, and said it also helps him learn.

“It’s really easy to learn because you can see wherever she (my teacher Mrs. Waage) is going and if she goes behind you, you turn around, and it’s fun to sit down sometimes,” Easton said.

Fifth grader Ava also echoed how much “fun” this environment has provided, more so than just sitting in a regular desk, something she called boring.  The students have noticed not only how much enjoyment these stations can provide, but also how many options. Fifth grader Vincent said that these stations have allowed him to stand if his legs get tired of hanging or to stretch more versus just sitting at a regular desk.

“It helps me because I can learn what I work the best at, which is the standing ones (desks),” Vincent said.

Speaking of other life skills, she also looks to foster collaboration though this setup, something she has already witnessed so far in the first month. Students share or give up spots, looking out for one another. They can work alone or in groups thanks to the table settings.
On the first day of school with this setup, she thought this, “I was wondering if I lost my marbles.”

This thought dissipated as things improved by the end of the first week, thanks to her and her students making improvements within this environment. She had to develop several routines and communication methods within an environment with much variety. She also had each student go to all the stations and model the proper behavior at each one. The students signed contracts that set the rules of this classroom setup and if they didn’t follow these rules, they could lose this privilege and go back to a regular desk setup.

Having this environment teaches responsibility, orderliness, self-control, and respectfulness to both the furniture and fellow classmates. The students know this classroom setup is a gift, Waage said, and due to that recognition, respect the different parts of that environment.

This environment has fostered activities she had already been doing in her classroom in the past, including “Daily Three”, a math rotation activity, and “Daily Five”, a reading and writing rotation, where students read to self, read with a partner, do “word work” or spelling, work on writing, or listen to reading.  While she’s working on or teaching a group activity at a table with a group of students, others students can work independently or in a group on another activity. 
So what impact has it made on learning? She said the last two reading tests have been “wonderful,” but added that it may take years to see how this classroom setup is improving student performance.  She hopes this leads to improved learning, and so far has heard positive feedback. At parent-teacher conferences, she looks forward to hearing both the positives and drawbacks, and hopes parents have witnessed a demeanor change in their son or daughter thanks to this classroom setup.

“I’m really looking for just growth in their not even just test scores. I mean of course that’s always a goal, but I’m hoping that I foster kids that love to learn, that love to read because it’s fun and they don’t think of it as work,” Waage said. “… I’m hoping they learn to love it because they’re kind of making a choice in how they’re doing it throughout the day.”

Whether it’s standing at a desk or nestling into the “Big Joe” beanbag chair, the point is they’re making a choice, making their learning experience a flexible one in more ways than one. 

Copyright of The Tribune (Greenbush, Minn.)


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