Teachers work in a state of limited supplies. So naturally, teachers will hold on to old materials "just in case." The results are a classroom overstuffed with teaching materials that may no longer be of use. This may even overwhelm your students. You can declutter by removing a few items each day from your classroom. This simple act can lighten the classroom and provide your students a break from overstimulation. This first phase can be cathartic and it costs nothing to remove things from your classroom.
At the same time, you are removing items from your classroom you can watch your students while they work. Pay attention to movement especially. If students are fidgeting in their desks or moving around the room without purpose you may want to consider changing up student desks to allow them to stand and work. In my classroom I have standing desks and I have noticed that the amount of times I have asked students to be seated has been reduced. Without changing anything in your room you can offer students a chance to work on the floor in the hallway or outside. This gives you a chance to observe, while employing student choice, what kind of learning environments they like best.
After students have had a chance to experiment with different types of seating, survey the class in a way that will offer you feedback into the best learning environment for the group of students you work with. Based on student feedback you can begin to make changes in your classroom to improve the overall learning community. We spend a lot of time setting the room up in August but October and later months might be the best time to work with students in the design of their classroom.
The placement of student desks matters a lot. If student desks are facing the front of the classroom and there is nothing happening in that area of the room this is likely not going to have much of an impact on student learning. Student desks should be facing each other. These new areas of student work should also not all be facing the same direction. Students are more likely to be engaged in the work of a small group when their attention is always on the group. Having students in groups but all facing the same direction can lead to off task behavior. I call this the "decentralizing" of the classroom. Part of this to me is ditching your teacher desk to increase overall working space for students.
Sometimes students can't accomplish the kind of learning we require because the classroom set up is desks in rows or all in groups. If, for example, we want students to have a deep understanding of something, students need an area where they are somewhat alone and not surrounded by many students. Students will find a space in the hallway, lay down on the floor or rug area, or even crawl under a desk to block everything out. Creating these types of learning spaces will be crucial for the makerspace culture emerging into many classrooms.
Josh Arnold teaches civics education in Hillsborough County Florida. He is a blogger who writes about all things in the education world and a National Board-Certified Teacher.