I came into student teaching with a slight assumption that seating arrangements would have settled the classroom into a calm and productive learning environment by the mid-point of the school year. However, I was quick to learn that class dynamics are constantly shifting and with them, so must assigned seats.Two aims in my practice are in helping students to develop community and autonomy. Additionally, projects involving small groups and partners have the potential for providing students opportunities to work with peers they may not often interact with. With developing communities in mind, students must be given opportunities to interact with different groups of peers throughout the year. With autonomy in mind, students must have a space in which they can successfully work on their own with minimal distractions. My student teaching apprenticeships posed many situations during which I was challenged to arrange students according to individual needs and in initiating successful cooperative groups.
During my elementary apprenticeship I found myself particularly challenged in managing kindergarten and first grade classes. For a specific project students were to work in pairs to trace each others bodies in action poses on large white sheets of paper. The space requirements for working with such large pieces of paper came with a lot of potential chaos, so all steps of the day’s agenda had to be very well planned. An extra challenge was thrown into the mix when PARCC testing had me teaching in the classroom, rather than the art room. Asking first graders to pick their own partners would likely be a disaster and take up more class time than there was room to spare. My youngest students were always quick to tell me about systems used by their classroom teachers. In this case I was introduced to picking partners by drawing popsicle sticks with student names. I re-used this same process in the art room by cutting name strips from the class roster to draw from. Some students were even responsible enough to alert me to pairings that wouldn’t work well–a student letting me know that he wouldn’t get any work done if he works with his best friend, and then another stepping up with a similar admission. Randomly assigning partners allowed a smoother transition into the activity. I was able to re-draw to change partners without being noticed if I ended up with a pair I knew wouldn’t work. It also allowed me to slowly release the students in pair to grab papers and materials and find a workspace without all thirty students scrambling around the room at once.
At the elementary level, especially with the lower grades, I found it incredibly useful to speak with classroom teachers and with the students, to be made aware of routines, procedures, and to get insight into social dynamics. Only seeing students once a week does not allow for the same depth in getting to know each class. Speaking with classroom teachers, aides, and other ancillary class faculty allowed me for a much smoother transition into projects that involved teamwork, and in looking for seating arrangements in the art room that were not working. The seats in the art room are labeled with numbers and broken into colors for each table. When I noticed disruptive behavior that was being prompted by a seating arrangement, I could quickly ask a student to move to “Yellow 5,” for example. I was also able to move struggling students to sit by higher-performing peers for support, as well as place anchor students at each table to take leadership roles during clean-up and as needed with specific projects.
When I came into the high school art room, it was nearing the end of the semester and we were on the brink of a major project. This was an ideal time to switch up the arrangement of the room, both in layout and in seating arrangements. Where there had previously been eight individual tables, they were arranged into two long ones. The advantage of teaching at the secondary level is only having 160 students compared to 800 at elementary. Seeing my 5 Art 1 classes five days a week I was quick to learn class dynamics and troubleshoot cracks in the seating arrangements. We were working on large scale paper sculptures for a cancer fundraiser, and in addition to needing the long tables to accommodate the project, I began to see the arrangement build a stronger sense in community in the art room where previously there had been cliques and pockets throughout the room where students thought they could not work and go unnoticed.
As students were ready to move on to work in groups I made sure that students were assigned to groups in a way that created an equal balance of combined skills for successful execution of the project. In my fifth period class I had a number of students with very strong personalities, and when near each other conflict would immediately arise. I was very specific in placing them in separate corners of the room and grouped them with students I knew they worked particularly well with. With the tight configuration of the room while working on such a large scale project I was also able to identify groups that I could send out into the hallway to work responsibly with periodic monitoring. Another consideration in grouping students was in having a few quiet, but high achieving students placed in groups where students with more dynamic personalities would socially engage them. In some cases quieter students with more advanced skills or a stronger knowledge base stepped up as leaders in the project when working with less advanced or interested students. Having a strong grasp of each group I was also able to pull students I saw slowing down or inferring with the group momentum to work on smaller tasks that were meaningful in the overall outcome of the project. A few students in each class were pulled to help with documentation and I saw them take a much stronger interest in photography and video than they had with the process of creating our sculptures and they became solidly engaged in using time wisely each class period.
At the conclusion of our installation project I used my observations of the groupings to establish new assigned seats, as I rearranged the room for a watercolor unit. I staggered four tables across the room this time, keeping groups that had worked successfully together, while breaking up opportunities for too much socializing. My most challenging group was 8th period.
Besides the challenge of being the last class of the day, they were my largest class with 35 students, including many with disciplinary issues and undiagnosed learning disabilities. A student in this class had Asperger’s and often hid in the bathroom instead of coming to class. I suspect this had something to do with the disruptive and chaotic class dynamic. I reserved one single table in the back of the room where he wouldn’t be as overstimulated by the environment and sat a student who kept to himself due to cultural and academic differences with the other students, this gave both students a social outlet as needed without disturbing their desire to work in isolation.
A unique feature of studying art is the social aspect of it. It is incredibly important to hear the voices and opinions of others when studying and creating art. Students should work in a variety of modes and arrangements to be exposed to multiple perspectives, while also having the space to explore their individual relationship with art. As often as possibly I designed my lessons with opportunities for discussions and sharing. I facilitated my high school students’ first ever art critique, and by the second one had a fully engaged class. I shifted the room and seating arrangements as needed to give students an appropriate and necessary environment for looking at, thinking about, discussing and creating art.