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Busy bodies, busy minds - Teachers take on active classrooms

Nisswa first-grader Lucas Cline rocks his stool while talking to his teacher Lisa Miller this week. They allow a student to remain in one spot while still being able to fidget and move in their seat. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video1 / 5
Nisswa first-grade teacher Lisa Miller talks with Jacob Paumen, who is perched on his high chair, in the classroom last week. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch Video2 / 5
Nisswa first-grader Abigail Ryan answers a question while sitting atop her yellow cube in Lisa Miller's first-grade class last week. A student in the background sits in a rocking chair in their Nisswa Elementary School classroom. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video3 / 5
Nisswa first-grader Abigail Ryan sits atop her yellow cube while a student in the background sits in a rocking chair in their Nisswa Elementary School classroom last week. The seating is designed to let students use their energy and teachers report a decrease in behavioral issues. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video4 / 5
Nisswa first-grader Abigail Ryan answers a question while sitting atop her yellow cube in Lisa Miller's first-grade class this week. A student in the background resides in a rocking chair in their Nisswa Elementary School classroom. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Video5 / 5

Instead of trying to restrain the boundless energy of their young students, local elementary school teachers are instead letting those students bounce, twist and rock in their seats.

Flexible seating options are starting to take hold in elementary schools in Brainerd Public Schools, thanks to different community partners, notably Crow Wing Energized.

One of the priorities for Crow Wing Energized is to establish healthy habits at a young age, said Jackie Thurlow, community specialist for Crow Wing Energized. It's harder to change habits as we age, she said, so establishing good habits at an early age is crucial.

"Then it just becomes second nature, it becomes part of the social norm," Thurlow said.

A recent Crow Wing Energized grant cycle targeted Brainerd Public Schools, Thurlow said. Anyone who wanted to apply for a community grant could, she said, and many teachers and principals submitted applications. The grants focused on healthy eating and active living, with flexible seating playing a large role in the classroom. Grants were closed in May, so teachers were able to acquire flexible seating options for the current academic year.

Flexible seating options include exercise balls, stools, rocking chairs and more. They allow a student to remain in one spot while still being able to fidget and move in their seat, Thurlow said. There's also tables which can be used while either sitting in a chair or standing.

The goal for Crow Wing Energized is to provide resources on active classrooms to all schools in the county, Thurlow said. Even if Crow Wing Energized can't provide grants to each school, it's important to make the schools aware of flexible seating options, she said.

Thurlow was able to visit her former second-grade teacher's class and see how the flexible seating options were working.

"I watched the kids unknowingly sitting there and rocking in the rockers, or moving around on the Hokki stools," Thurlow said. "Just being very attentive and listening."

Flexible seating is going to become more of the social norm as more people try it and start to realize the benefits, Thurlow said. Teachers who may have been reticent at first have started to see more productive students and have become converts, she said.

Nisswa

There are two classrooms at Nisswa Elementary School completely outfitted with flexible seating tables and seating options. Active classrooms are a passion for principal Molly Raske, who believes students should move throughout the day and not just during recess or gym time. It's important for students to learn to listen to their bodies, she said, and flexible seating helps them learn that skill.

"Flexible seats really give us the option to have students learn best wherever they're at," Raske said. "And not have the equipment get in the way of their learning."

Raske worked with Accent Furniture to outfit the two active classrooms in the school, as well as provide a few flexible seating options for other classrooms. The district funded one active classroom as a trial, she said. The school's parent-teacher organization saw the impact it had and funded a second active classroom. The classrooms are in first and second grade.

Lisa Miller's first-grade classroom features a variety of standing and seated desks, along with seating options like Hokki stools, rockers and a soft cube students can sit on. The tables can be arranged so students can sit in a group or by themselves.

Desks in the active classrooms can be used while either standing or sitting. They can also be arranged to seat multiple students or to allow a student to work at their own desk.

"We are trying to get flexible seating in every classroom in Nisswa, so that every child has the opportunity to learn in a way that they learn best," Raske said.

Students aren't assigned to a desk or seat, Raske said. Instead, they're taught how to properly use each seating option so they can learn what works best for them. Students can sit, stand, lie down, work together or on their own throughout the day, depending on what they're working on.

"In the beginning, I thought this was just furniture," Raske said. "And really, it was just a stepping stone into an entire philosophy shift within the school."

The philosophy entails teaching students to listen to their bodies so they can determine what seating option will work for them at that particular time, Raske said. Students are learners in control of their learning, she said, and they need to make the right choices in order to excel.

"The best part about an active classroom is that we teach that philosophy," Raske said. "And then secondly, that students are allowed the choice, so they have power in their day."

The school has seen a decrease in behavioral issues with the active classrooms, Raske said. Because students can find a different spot in the room, they can choose to move away from a student who could distract them or cause them to get in trouble, she said. Having two active classrooms in two different grade levels means the school can compare behavioral data.

"You can see a significant difference between the classrooms that have full, active classrooms and those that we're starting to be able to implement flexible seating," Raske said.

Some teachers have been able to add a few flexible seating options to their classrooms, Raske said. Others have made alterations to existing furniture, like cutting table legs so students can sit on cushion instead of a chair. Tables have also been raised up so students can stand at them instead of sit.

"You can see it's a philosophy shift when teachers are doing it on their own, with or without funds," Raske said.

Most of the teachers in the school now prefer active classrooms, Raske said. Because of this, she's trying to phase out the older furniture for flexible seating as older furniture needs to be updated. Active classrooms are more expensive per classroom, but to Raske, the benefits outweigh the greater costs. It cost about $8,700 to outfit one active classroom at Nisswa, she said.

"I'm not going to buy standard furniture when I want to be trying this initiative anyway," Raske said.

Riverside

Flexible seating options had taken hold at Riverside Elementary School before second-grade teachers Megan Christenson and Lori Hodge wrote a Crow Wing Energized grant last spring to keep moving ahead with the idea. They both started looking into flexible seating a couple years ago. Christenson started by adding exercise bands to the front legs of chairs to create bounce bands, so students could bounce, rest, or kick their feet against something while they sat.

"My class doesn't have name tags, so they have no assigned seats," Christenson said. "So they come in every morning and pick where they're going to sit, and then they can change as the day goes on."

Students in Hodge's class wanted to stand while they wrote, so she got a standing table for them. Students can pick the spot they feel most comfortable in to work, whether it's standing, sitting, or under a table. When students are working independently, Hodge makes sure each student has their own personal space.

"I just find kids are more productive," Hodge said.

Hodge rotates the available flexible seating options around her classroom, so each student gets a chance to use one. Kids can keep using it that day as long as they're working, she said. If not, she'll take it away from them that day, which she's only had to do once or twice.

"If they can't work with it, then obviously it's not being productive for them," Hodge said.

Students in Christenson's class can save a flexible seating spot. If disagreements arise from that, she tells the students either they can solve it themselves, or she can do it.

"It really has helped them work on those problem-solving skills," Christenson said.

At parent-teacher conferences, parents got a chance to see and learn about the flexible seating options their kids had been using, Christenson said. Some parents sat in the seats during the conference, while one mother asked if she could get a flexible seat for her workplace.

Teachers are starting to prefer active classrooms because students are more comfortable, collaborative and productive, Christenson said.

"We're encouraging that collaboration, we're encouraging that talking, productive talking," Christenson said.

Jena Downs' third-grade classroom features about 10 different seating options for students. Teachers are recommended to have at least three different seating arrangements, Christenson said. Some kids like having a desk and a sense of ownership over their space, Downs said, but more prefer the choice an active classroom offers.

"They take ownership of their learning and they collaborate more," Downs said. "The learning that's happening is on a deeper level."

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and Brainerd School Board. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he interned for Sun Newspapers in Osseo and later worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer.

 
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