Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Close your eyes and go back to your high school days when you peaked. Remember your hair? Your freshly-popped pimples? Jesus, you were a loser.
Now imagine one of your classrooms. If your high school was anything like mine, you sat in rows. And if you were anything like me, you sat in the back where you wouldn’t be noticed because hey, let’s face it, you weren’t worth noticing. Remember that seating arrangement? Just like this:
I won’t say that I never use this arrangement in my classroom, but it’s damn close to never. Perhaps for exams or presentations. Perhaps. This set up describes the traditional ‘teacher-center’ classroom where the teacher is primary and all eyes are on him/her. While such an arrangement was perfect for someone like me who wanted to sit in the back and do fuck all, it doesn’t suit the ESL/EFL classroom for several reasons, the most important of which is that you want your students’ eyes typically on each other rather than the back of someone in front of them.
Remember the mantra — ‘students are primary’. I’ll flesh this out in another post, then I’ll beat it like a dead horse. Suffice it to say that your main job is less about teaching and more about providing students with opportunities to use English. So how do you do that?
This is the default setup for my classroom. Do you see the first of the Cons — ‘not suitable for work in small groups’. Bullshit. [I didn’t design the picture.] The horseshoe gives students the opportunity to see each other speaking while everyone can still see the board, but also allows students to peel off into pairs or small groups with minimal movement.
Some teachers choose clusters for their default setup. The cluster is the student’s group or team, and often there’s a running tally of points kept from all the games played throughout the lesson. Students being noisy? Take a point from the team. There is an increased risk of distractions since the students are constantly focused on each other as opposed to the teacher, but there’s a possible hidden advantage to this. Eventually you’ll have a class with an absolute catastrophe of a student. One that will make you question not your choice of teaching as a profession, but the existence of God. Think Type-A, know-it-all, class clown, bully, ADHD, jock, whatever. These students have the potential to ruin a lesson if they’re a constant distraction to the whole class which can easily happen if you’re in a horseshoe arrangement. Put them in clusters, though, and these assholes are neutralized by only being able to distract their group. In your face, John Bender.
My classroom, as noted above, typically begins as a horseshoe, then breaks up into clusters of two or three depending on the activity, then again reverts back to the horseshoe. Horseshoe mode is for presentation and instruction. I want all my students’ eyes on me and the board, not a partner or group member or potential love interest. Then, when it’s time for group-work, students shift into cluster mode. This switching between the two arrangements lets students ‘know what time it is’. Horseshoe means shut up and listen, clusters mean it’s practice time.
[Confession: 75% of my lesson is in horseshoe mode. Students can easily pair off or even form groups of three without actually having to shift their desks into a cluster. Consider me a fan.]
The point is that students should feel comfortable but never completely settled. They need to know that just because they’re in one place now doesn’t mean you won’t move them later. The sooner you can play with different seating arrangements, generally the more amenable students are to changing. Don’t let them grow roots.
Other options to play with:
There’s little you can do with a runway that you can’t do with a horseshoe, but I might employ two parallel rows when I want partners face to face for activities such as speed-dating or dictation.
I’ve only ever used this for presentations.
Rare. Perhaps if some students have finished an activity before the others, I’ll group them up separately for another activity while the others finish.
In a nutshell, the type of activity should ideally dictate the seating arrangement and not the other way around, but in practice teachers are often given limited space and resources which constrains the number and type of activities we can employ. If you find yourself in this latter situation, you’ll probably have one of two possible reactions depending on who you are as a person. The first reaction is to piss and moan about how shit the school is and how ridiculous it is that poor you is forced to slave away under such abject conditions. The second is to be creative and challenge yourself to come up with activities that work within the confines of your resources.
I confess I was in this first group until a wise man told me three pieces of sage advice that have stuck with me every since. Three tenets of a philosophy not just of work, but life: 1. Shut the fuck up and stop whining. 2. Suck it up. 3. Adapt and overcome.