Re-imagining Classroom Work Spaces: Reaching Your Writers

After a couple of years of teaching fifth grade in NYC, I came to understand the importance of having community work spaces and flexible seating for my students. I was lucky enough to have a principal who was willing to allocate some funds to buy new tables and chairs, as well as other necessities (e.g., storage space for each child’s writing materials, a writing center) to outfit the kind of writing workshop I envisioned for my classroom. I had several DonorsChoose proposals funded for a variety of writer’s notebooks, beanbags, benches, and a classroom rug. However, when I changed schools, the furniture didn’t come with me and I started over again. This time I found myself needing to make do with what I had or purchase what I wanted. I spent way too much money trying to get back the classroom I had in NYC. Years later, I came to realize that I probably could’ve thought a bit more creatively about how to use the space I had with the furniture I was given to create a variety of flexible work spaces in my classroom. 

At the time, I believed I needed expensive flexible furniture from a glossy classroom supply catalog to make it work. Now that I’ve spent time in more schools as a literacy consultant, I’ve come to realize it’s possible to create an inviting space where children feel at-home and ready to write without spending $10,000 – $20,000. As educators, we cannot always afford to provide students everything we want to give them, but it’s important to find ways to give all kids what they need. It is possible to create a space with flexible options on a limited budget. 

Let’s start with a quick look into the library area of a fourth-grade classroom:

I notice:

  • White paint was applied to furniture to make it look uniform
  • A plastic Adirondack chair with a pillow for student-use
  • A low table (with extendable legs were removed) where individual students can write or a space where a small group of students can meet to discuss writing
  • Baskets in the classroom library are covered cardboard boxes with labels created by students
  • A single desk for a student who wishes to work independently

There are a variety of spaces in this one part of the classroom to help children find a work space that works well for them. 

Moving down to third grade, here are some unique classroom features you might choose to incorporate to reach your writers:

This is a shelving unit that has had the shelves removed. There’s a carpet lining the bottom of it along with pillows. The carpet and pillows were purchased inexpensively from IKEA. 
Some students need a “take a break” spot during the day. This former closet serves as a semi-private space where students can refocus and recenter before rejoining their peers.

Let’s move to Kindergarten where there are some unique ways to help students get what they need.

This dramatic play station that doubles as a work space for writing workshop. The ledge can support two seated students. Alternatively, the plants could be removed to create a standing work space.
Some students need to sit up close for vision or to do their best learning. While the rest of the class may choose where they sit during a minilesson or end-of-workshop share session, “E” and “K” always have a special place near the front of the room that’s just for them. 
Students have options for sitting in the classroom meeting area. Not all kids are comfortable sitting like a pretzel. Therefore, students are given a few options to keep their body gathered during the minilesson. (Image created by Shawn McGibeny of Compass Charter School.)

What about the kids who need more?

Some schools have occupational therapy rooms that are stocked with a variety of supplies that can be loaned to individual classrooms so that students can benefit from more specific tools that will help them focus.  This kind of equity provides individual students with what they need without teachers needing to spend their own money to provide students with customized flexible seating options.

If your school has an OT or PT on staff, you might consider inviting them to do a whole-class lesson to help students make smart choices regarding fine motor and gross motor tools, as well as seating options. In some schools, OTs may visit a classroom to teach students how to try different pencil grips, seat cushions, fidgets, etc. This helps kids determine what may be helpful or distracting (i.e., too much fun). 

Here’s a portable wobble cushion that provides sensory input for a student who needs it to stay focused and comfortable. 
This is an Alert Seat, which goes beyond what a yoga ball can do for a student. Not only does it help with proper posture, it helps students who need to move around increase their attention by providing them with two different kinds of movement (i.e., rolling and bouncing).

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Long gone are the days where all children should be expected to sit in a single place in the classroom. As educators, we cannot always afford to give students everything we want to give them, but it’s important to find ways to give all kids what they need. Not every child needs the same thing. Some students will get the support they need by laying prone on the floor with an inexpensive pillow while other children will need a sophisticated seat to help them eradicate their extra energy. 

I will leave you with some advice about making sure all writers have the physical space they need to write from Melanie Meehan’s book, Every Child Can Write:

The striving writers I know need more physical space than most. As you observe your students at work, take inventory of how much space they are using and how much space they might need. For example, you may have striving writers who cram themselves into tiny spaces, yet you know real productivity requires some elbow room. Work with those students to find solutions they can be comfortable with: Perhaps instead of sitting in a reading nook to write, they sit at a desk with a cardboard divider that provides coziness but offers more room for paper and materials. 

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For more on classroom seating, check out the following resources:

Credits: Many thanks to Vicky Chau, Kelsey Corter, Katie LeFrancois, Shawn McGibeny, Portia Senning, and Madeleine Zuck for sharing photos of their classrooms.

Giveaway Information:

  • This giveaway is for a copy of Every Child Can Write by Melanie Meehan. Thanks to Corwin Publishers for donating a copy of each of these books — one book for a primary educator and one book for a secondary educator. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
  • For a chance to win this copy of  Every Child Can Write, please leave a comment about this or any blog post in this blog series by Sunday, November 17th at 6:00 p.m. EST. Betsy Hubbard will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. Their name will be announced in the ICYMI blog post for this series on Monday, November 20th.
  • Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so Betsy can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, our contact at Stenhouse will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
  • If you are the winner of the book, Betsy will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – EVERY CHILD CAN WRITE  within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.