The arrangement of chairs, desks, and tables in any classroom is important in establishing the learning climate. Depending on how a class will be run, there are several options when it comes to setting up chairs and tables or desks. The days of rows of chairs all facing the front of the classroom, where a teacher stands and lectures the class is a thing of the past. Best educational practices tell us that lecturing students and running a teacher-centered learning environment is the least effective way to teach. The ideal setup will facilitate your desired student interactions, and will also allow you unimpeded access to every student at all times; you never want a table or cluster of desks between you and a student. You should be able to walk on up to any student at any time to offer assistance with work, or to prevent or stop unwanted behaviors.
Setting up a music classroom presents some additional challenges. Because students in a music class are likely to be engaged in any of a variety of learning activities, the seating arrangement must be at times flexible to accommodate open space activities like dancing and expressive movement, singing and instrument playing activities, which may include space for both instruments and music stands, and writing activities, such as responding to music or notating music. Sometimes you will want writing surfaces, other times, you will want the space occupied by tables or desks to be cleared away for dance or movement. Ideally, the music room is large enough to allow for separate spaces for desks or tables and movement/dance. If this is not possible, furniture that can quickly be moved by students can provide this flexibility. I have found that over the course of a year, I prefer chairs only. When I have something for students to write, I give them a clipboard with either plain, lined composition, or music staff paper attached. When collecting work, I collect the papers and have a student helper collect the clipboards. If I need more open space, the students can easily move their chairs to the periphery of the room, without having to move heavier desks or tables. Chairs only also makes setting up for my next class easy, again because I only have to move chairs in the configuration I will be using next.
That brings me to setting up the chairs themselves. Chairs in clusters (with or without tables or desks) encourages group work, collaboration, and a student-centered environment, but also unwanted talking. Chairs in rows encourages focusing attention on one area of the room toward which all are facing, and discourages unwanted talking, but discourages student to student collaboration and a student-centered environment. Both arrangements can put furniture between the teacher and some students, making classroom management more difficult. Other configurations are possible, such as one or more semi-circles, but they are essentially variations on the cluster or the row.
I have tried many arrangements over the years, and have found that two ways of handling the cluster and the row work best for me. For the cluster, I take care in how I assign students to each cluster. I make sure that a high achieving student and a low achieving student, are in each cluster, and then filled out with students whose
achievement level is close to the mean. This way, the high achiever can help the low achiever, and the others can work well together. As the achievement levels change, so do the groupings. Grouping students this way frequently ends up separating close friends, but this objection from students is worth enduring. Eventually, the quality of work usually improves using this system. The clusters are 4-6 students each. I also make sure that there is at least 2 boys and 2 girls in each cluster, so that neither a boy or girl is the only boy or girl in the group.
The other arrangement that works well is to set up rows with an aisle between every two chairs. This gives me pairs of chairs down the row. It gives me easy access to every student all the time. I can stand anywhere in the room and always be right next to at least one student, usually two, one on each side of me. For group work, the students can easily turn their chairs so that one pair of students joins one or two other pairs of students to form a group. With this in mind, I make my seating chart to result in the same kind of groups as with the clusters.
Some of you, either by choice or necessity, teach with no chairs at all. I choose to teach my Prekindergarten and Kindergarten classes with no chairs. In this case, I seat the children in a circle on my carpeted floor. Students who socially have difficulty succeeding when sitting next to each other are moved to other locations in the circle; to a location where they are 3 or 4 children apart. This way, they are not next to each other and also cannot see each other. Students who will be off task if next to each other will also often be off task if they can make eye contact on opposite sides of a circle. The children have assigned spots for each class. After we have gotten up and about for a movement activity, they must return to sitting next to the same people they were sitting next to before, unless I move them. I have not taught a class of 5th grade or middle school students without chairs, but I have noticed they don’t mind getting into a seated circle on the floor to play a singing game, or to do performance group work such as clapping patterns or rhythm band type activities.
If the class at any level is returning to a circle on the floor after an activity for which they were elsewhere, I seat myself in a different location in the circle. I also teach some from in the circle, becoming an equal participant in the activity, and sometimes standing outside the circle either teaching or observing. From a classroom management perspective, it is always good to move frequently so that you gain close proximity to students in different parts of the room throughout the lesson. This also allows you to build relationships with your students when you are participating with them, and also reinforce your position as teacher when you are giving instruction.