TORRINGTON – There are two things that stick out about Heather Rutz’s third grade classroom. First, it’s quiet – oddly quiet for a group of 17 children. That may be because each of the students is eagerly reading, absorbed in their books or computers.
But it’s where they are reading that makes for the second noteworthy feature: they’re everywhere.
A half dozen kids sit on the floor. Three are sitting at a low table, one of them on a red wobbly stool and the others on upside down crates with cushions affixed to the top.
In the middle of the room is a wooden kitchen table with matching padded chairs.
Close to the door, children are at standing desks, only they sit on high chairs and swing their feet against a horizontal bar fastened to the desk.
At Rutz’s own desk is a blue exercise ball, the only one in the classroom.
Rutz said that when she started teaching at Trail Elementary School, “none of this was in here. It was all desks and all green chairs.”
The plastic green chairs, instantly recognizable to anyone who ever attended a public school, are stacked in the rear, untouched.
She described how her students received their seating assignments from the multitude of options.
“Every Friday, I pull their name out of a jar, essentially. And whoever goes first gets to choose where they sit,” she said. “And they know that they have to sit somewhere where they will be successful.”
Some students work better at the low tables, some prefer the standing desks, and a couple of children prefer the traditional one-person desk.
Rutz acquired the furniture over three years. Some of it came from other teachers. Her parents made the crate chairs nine years ago when she began teaching. And a handful of stools and chairs came from DonorsChoose.org.
DonorsChoose is a crowdfunding site founded in 2000 that allows individuals to give money to teachers directly for classroom projects. On Sept. 25, Rutz created her own crowdfunding campaign titled “HELP! We Can’t Sit Still”.
“Flexible seating allows students to take charge of their learning and make the choices that best work for them,” she wrote. “Making sure students are comfortable is an essential component in motivating them. I have noticed amazing differences in my students when they are given a choice in their seating.”
Rutz would like to add to her existing seating options with her online campaign. Through DonorsChoose, she is requesting stools, wobble chairs, and “comfy floor seats,” totalling $1,008.
The flexible seating movement in education promotes the idea that students learn best in different physical environments, and that classrooms should offer options that fit each child.
The online teacher resource Education World reviewed multiple studies on the effectiveness of flexible seating. The benefits included increased physical activity leading to brain development, and one study showed an increase in math test scores.
In 2017, a group of five researchers from the University of Michigan began to examine for the first time not only whether layout matters, but also whether teachers change their own instruction in flexible classrooms in ways that benefit their students’ learning. The results of that research will not be available until 2020.
Other studies have found no benefit to flexible seating. There is no evidence, however, that any harm comes from the arrangement.
Rutz explained that in her experience, the benefits of flexible seating come down to student choice and physical movement.
“Kids love to choose,” Rutz said. “Even if you give them two right answers, they like to have that choice. And then the movement. Sitting at a desk versus being able to just do this, going back and forth,” she mimicked the foot swinging that kids at the standing desk could perform. “It seems to help quite a few of them to focus and not be so off task. They can fidget without being a distraction to others.”
At nearby Trail Elementary School, special education teacher Abby Bruch successfully completed her own DonorsChoose campaign for flexible seating. Bean bag chairs, large pillows, and standing workspaces are scheduled for delivery within two weeks.
“Kids just learn in so many different ways and if you think about it, ourselves as learners in our adult lives, there are things that we prefer,” she said. “When we’re reading a book, you probably have a favorite space in your own home where you relax. Or if you need something where you need to be more focused, this is what you do.”
Bruch was unaware of Rutz’s simultaneous campaign. (“Really? I did not know that! That’s cool,” she said.) Both teachers said that in their own education, they had never experienced flexible seating. Nor had their teacher training covered the subject.
“It’s just now come to the forefront, really, that a lot of teachers are using it and how is it effective,” Rutz said.
Bruch’s $723.64 fundraiser took one month to complete. She said that the flexible seating spaces are intended more for social-emotional learning than for academic learning.
“It’s so important for our kids when they are struggling with behavior and emotion that when they’re through with feeling that way, that you just reconnect with them before they leave here,” she explained. “This space really will be more of the flex comfy seating where it’s a calm-down space.”
Bruch has noticed an increase in children with mental health concerns from when she began teaching 14 years ago, and sees the layout of her classroom and the adjoining “sensory room” as a tool for addressing those needs.
On the wall are posters describing “zones of regulation,” a color-coded method for assessing how emotional or physically escalated students become. Being in a green zone - or in a state of calmness - is most conducive to learning.
Children might come into her classroom if they are in a yellow zone, “and they need some type of sensory break to either get them going or to bring them back to a green level,” she said. Weighted blankets and music timed to 60 beats per minute are some of the existing tools the special education teachers use for regulating zones.
Smith System, a classroom furniture manufacturer, cites sensory input and comfort in explaining the benefits of flexible seating, claiming a benefit for students with attention deficit disorder.
Opponents of flexible classrooms cite disputes that can occur between students over preferred seating locations. Rutz acknowledges that some teachers may find the arrangement difficult to manage, which is why she has devised what she believes to be a fair seating assignment system with pulling names from the jar.
“They know if they don’t choose that appropriately, I get to choose for them,” she cautioned.
Contributions from near and far
Rutz has turned to DonorsChoose on multiple occasions, most recently for a cabinet full of Chromebook computers. Recipient teachers, as a condition for using the purchased items, take pictures of the donations in use and send thank you notes to their donors. Rutz said that her students just finished writing thank yous for the Chromebooks.
She estimated that in total, she has received $7,000 in products from the crowdfunding site.
“I think people are more willing to donate for technology because that’s what our world is coming to,” she said, adding that the computers took one week to fully fund, whereas furniture took much longer.
GCSD did not respond to a query asking how many of its teachers have turned to DonorChoose campaigns. However, a review of meeting minutes of the board of trustees since November 2017 shows seven instances of the district accepting Chromebooks from crowdfunding effortsm.
One donor to both teachers’ campaigns was Katherine Patrick, the chair of the GCSD Board of Trustees and a former educator herself. Patrick said that she always donates to local DonorsChoose campaigns.
“Sometimes cash donations are in order. I’m mercifully in a position to be able to contribute,” she said. “Teachers recognizing a need or a resource that they’d like to pursue will always resonate with me.”
Bruch received additional money from a kindergarten teacher in her building as well as from Chris and Crystal Sacca, billionaire venture capitalists. Chris Sacca, who appeared on Shark Tank, has promoted DonorsChoose on his Twitter account, volunteering to match hundreds of thousands of dollars from followers.
“Keep working hard this year. We are so proud of you!” the Saccas - whom Bruch does not personally know - write to her after donating to her campaign. Rutz disclosed that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had supported her past campaigns. Neither teacher promoted their flexible space fundraisers on social media.
“For little things that I absolutely felt that I needed, in the past our school board and school district have done a really great job providing those things,” Bruch said. “But in the last couple years, we just had to be really careful about that.”
She cited the Wyoming legislature’s 2018 decision to cap special education reimbursements to school districts. Previously, the state paid for 100 percent of expenditures. But now, GCSD pays for growth in spending from its own general fund.
At the time, Sen. Hank Cole (R-Cody) said that “we have some duplication of resources that are used when it comes to dealing with special education. How we share resources - that’s just one area where I think we can find some efficiencies.”
Bruch added that she has confidence that GCSD would fund any initiative that she felt was crucial to her students’ learning. Flexible seating, however, did not fall into that category.
“I don’t know that I could’ve said I absolutely need this. Would it benefit the learning of kids? Absolutely, it would,” she said. “But when it’s a large amount of money like that, you don’t typically ask for that. It’s something that you really have to be mindful and thoughtful of what you’re asking.”