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Northland teachers fill classrooms with alternative seating for better focus, behaviors

Hermantown first graders Laila Chandler (left) and Isabella Nguyen read a book together while seated in their scoop rockers. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 5
From left: Kennedi Roelike, Alaina James and Dakota Olson sit at lap desks while drawing turkeys using the outlines of their hands during class recently at Hermantown Elementary School. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Students in Joe Borak's first-grade class at Hermantown Elementary School sit on the floor in their individual scooped seats while working on an exercise on iPads recently. Hermantown is one of many area schools using flexible seating in an attempt to make paying attention easier. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Hermantown first grader Brody Crace (left) gets comfortable while working on his paper. Fellow students prefer an inflatable balance ball (left) and a pedestal seat. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Students in a first-grade class at Hermantown Elementary sit on different styles of seats while working on a lesson at a table. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

There are only a few desks in Cindy Nelson's first-grade class at Hermantown Elementary School, and they're not lined up in rows.

Kids pick from those, along with scoop rockers, wobbly stools, cushions for lap desks and kneeling tables, beanbags, yoga balls and mats and camp chairs. Those are their seats to read or do their work. Nelson started out small a couple of years ago with alternative seating in her class, and this year went all in.

"A lot of the kids have trouble focusing, and this allows them to wiggle and move and be more themselves," she said. "Even though they are 6 and 7 years old, they are here for a large part of their day. This has to be a happy and comfortable place for them."

"It feels like a cushion," said first grader Aiden McShane, a student at Hermantown Elementary. (Bob King)Nelson is part of a growing trend of educators using "flexible" seating in class; something teachers in schools across the Northland are trying. While not new, the use of flexible seating has grown locally in the last decade, said Ariri Onchwari, an associate professor who studies active learning in the University of Minnesota Duluth's education department.

"It's a critical way of engaging children," she said, "especially the young ones. At home they are running around, sitting on the couch, sitting under a table, on their beds. It provides them an environment that is more homey, and gives a better transition to school."

Piedmont Elementary second-grade teacher Kari Solarz has stability balls, ice-fishing stools and benches and loungers among her offerings.

Because the length of recess typically isn't enough for many kids, bouncing on a chair helps get some movement in, she said, along with its benefit of helping to keep kids on task.

"Kids are talking about it," she said. "Kids are saying they want that teacher or that teacher because 'they have the chairs.' "

Another Piedmont teacher, Justin Chumich, is studying flexible seating for his master's degree thesis. There isn't a lot of research behind the idea, he said, but so far he's finding that it helps decrease negative behaviors in his classroom. Flexible seating allows kids to spread out across the room; kids choose where they want to sit.

When kids have choice and comfort, he said, "it doesn't feel like an actual classroom with lines of desks. That changes the kids' perspective or views of what they think school is."

Nelson said the idea of choice is empowering to young students, and gives them a sense of control. If someone is having a "meltdown," they can grab a beanbag and "chill out," she said.

"We are trying to create students who are problem solvers," and this concept helps do that, she said.

Jackson Poole, a Hermantown first grader, tucks himself into a chair while working on an exercise. (Bob King)Cost is an obstacle for some teachers, who are already using a lot of their own money for classroom supplies. Some use the crowdfunding site Donors Choose and some write grants.

"The biggest obstacle is the financial part," Chumich said. "Most of the seating I purchased, I bought myself."

Other challenges include maintaining a low noise level, the lack of a desk for each kids' belongings, and ensuring students learn how to use the chairs and the rules regarding their use at the beginning of the year.

It takes longer at the start of the year to sort out where each child keeps their things, said Hermantown first-grade teacher Joe Borak, but the benefits outweigh those issues.

"At this age, they don't have the stamina to sit still that long," he said. "This gives them the freedom to work on their academics without even really noticing it."

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