Gathering on the Rug
I arrange my students strategically in all sorts of groups throughout the day to maximize their academic, social, and emotional growth. Considering who will sit where around the rug when we gather there for whole-group discussions and activities is a natural extension of this approach to teaching. I call these placements "rug spots," and I carefully select them, keeping in mind the strengths and needs of each student in my class. For whole-class discussions and meetings, I place students around the perimeter of the rug so we can see one another. For mini-lessons or read-alouds, when I want their attention focused on me, I have the children gather in a close group.
Choosing Rug Spots
After the first week of school, when I've had a chance to observe each student and the class as a whole, as well as perform initial assessments, I sit down with a map of my rug area, my class list, and my anecdotal notes.
First, I mark off places on the map for students who are distractible, or who need extra academic or physical support, making sure to spread them out. Then, I write in the names of children who focus well near those who need more assistance, since having a strong role model close by really helps these kids. I position students who have good self-control near bookshelves, since others might not be able to pay attention there. I am careful to separate best friends—they need encouragement to interact with other students; and I sit some students next to each other to foster friendships. I place students who require the most direct attention in close proximity to me, where a touch or glance from me draws their attention back to our lesson or discussion.
Mixing It Up
I continually monitor the rug spots and make changes as necessary. I always talk to students privately if I notice a problem in the seating arrangement and give them the opportunity to resolve it on their own. If they can't, I move them, assuring them that I'm doing it because it will improve their learning.
In January, I reassign rug spots, which gives me a chance to assess students' needs again and gives everyone a change of pace. In April, we switch for a third configuration. This time around, I allow students to choose their own spots. By this time, students can make good choices about whom to work with and from whom they may need a break. It's a great way to support students as they grow into independent learners.
A "Comfortable Spot"
Another way I foster student responsibility and independence is by allowing them to choose their own spots when we gather on the rug for read-alouds, discussions of diagrams or graphs, or mini-lessons on chart paper or the overhead. They know that when I ask them to "get in a comfortable spot," it's a signal to gather close to me so they can focus on what we are doing.
The students' attentions are now on the task at hand, and they have a chance to sit next to children with whom they are developing relationships. I begin the year with a discussion of how students think they should behave in this situation, and they generate the guidelines for behavior themselves. We talk about how it's a good idea to sit next to people you know can help you concentrate.
The children know that "once you choose a spot, you stay there" (an oft-repeated classroom phrase that reminds them not to scoot around). There are a few students who gravitate toward the back because they have a hard time concentrating, so I may privately tell two or three particular students that they must sit near me. Watching where students independently choose to sit, and with whom, provides me with valuable insight into their academic and social development. It later helps me foster better habits in certain students.
Selecting Line Partners
Another seemingly inconsequential pairing that I've been able to infuse with powerful teaching is the selection of line partners. Since we walk all over the school, take a class trip each month, and sometimes go to local stores or parks, I need to know that my students can line up and travel in a secure and calm manner. I pick line partners based on the same theories of facilitating concentration and fostering new associations that I use for rug spots, as well as for ensuring ease of movement. I sometimes allow students to pick their line partners, but I always pick the partners' position in the line so I'm sure that the students who need extra support are always close to me.
I've found that paying attention to these seemingly small details early on pays big dividends in student growth and achievement throughout the year and is a boon for classroom management. The time it takes is an excellent investment in making the classroom run smoothly all year long.