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Flexible teacher remakes classroom

When Brooke Markle had 30 traditional desks and seats in her seventh-grade English classroom, there wasn’t an inch of space. Today, with “tire seats,’’ bean bags, and other unique furnishings she rummaged and pieced together, there is room for 40 students and space to spare.

More importantly, the learning environment is thriving.

Flexible seating is a concept better known in the elementary grades, where teachers have a group of students for the entire day, and where the atmosphere with those age groups is less formal. Secondary students change classrooms each period and are at ages where classroom management sometimes is more challenging for teachers.

But Markle, who teaches at Mechanicsburg Middle School, Cumberland County, noted that student collaboration is a big part of the secondary curriculum in her school district, and in many other districts, as a way to prepare students for the working world.

“Anytime I asked them to collaborate, the desks were in the way,’’ Markle said. “I also noticed that anytime I gave them the option not to be in their desks, they’d be sitting on the floor in the corner collaborating, or they’d be sitting on the counter.’’

She started researching flexible seating, and in the summer before the 2017-18 school year she made a presentation to her building principal to try a pilot program in her classroom that she felt would better help her achieve the district’s goals.

Markle received the green light and solicited local businesses, foundations, colleagues, and anyone else she thought would help her create three different levels of seating – floor, regular height, and high-top.

She spent the weeks before school spray painting tires; assembling pillows; collecting bean bags, buckets, and video rockers; and taking the legs off tables. She came up with eight options for students – tire seats; bean bags; floor tables with cushions; standard height tables with standard chairs for students who are more comfortable with traditional seating; traditional height tables with bucket stools; Adirondack chairs; high-top tables with rolling chairs; and the counter.

During the first week of school Markle allowed students to try out the different options and select a “home-based seat’’ where they sit when the class starts. Throughout the year, student achievement improved, and student behavior was never an issue. In fact, it was better.

“Classroom management was one of the things I was most concerned about – that the kids would think they were at home and wouldn’t do what I was asking them to do,’’ Markle said. “But I found the opposite effect. In terms of student performance, the engagement of the students definitely increased in this environment. I felt like students tuned out more in the traditional setting.’’