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Flexible learning: Mixing math and reading with stability balls and scoop rockers

Courtesy of Tom Deris
By the end of September, the tables on wheels will pale in comparison to the stability ball chairs, wobbly stools, scoop rockers and colorful mini-rugs that they can choose to sit on while doing their school work.

When third-graders enter Tom Deris’ classroom this year, they’ll find a pretty standard setup: pods of tables and chairs. Upon a closer examination, they’ll begin to notice a few key differences. They won’t find any nametags taped to the table tops. But they will find wheels on the table legs.

Those who were in this same classroom last year, with Deris as their second-grade teacher, will likely fill their new classmates in on some of the hidden seating items that will be introduced during the coming days. By the end of September, the tables on wheels will pale in comparison to the stability ball chairs, wobbly stools, scoop rockers and colorful mini-rugs that they can choose to sit on while doing their school work.

All of these sensory seats are part of Deris’ years-long adoption of a flexible learning strategy. It’s one part physical, as in incorporating furniture that students can easily rearrange and channel their fidgety energy into.

It’s also one part philosophical. As a teacher, Deris has committed to adopting a more flexible mindset when it comes to seating arrangements. After he’s delivered instruction on new material to the whole group, he encourages students to choose for themselves how they want to do their work. Some will gather around a table to work collaboratively. Others will spread out across the classroom, and into the hallway where Deris has set up a lounge area with a couch, to work alone.

Design — and 'rethinking how you teach'

This marks Deris’ seventh year experimenting with flexible learning at Glendale Elementary in the Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools district. He stays with each cohort of students for two years, starting in second grade and following them into third grade. He’s finally reached a place where he feels his room is well-equipped. Now it’s just a matter of adjusting the rules each year — based on how well the students do with their newfound seating freedom — and working with his colleagues who have begun to show an interest in exploring flexible learning in their own classrooms.

Tom Deris
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
This marks Tom Deris’ seventh year experimenting with flexible learning at Glendale Elementary in the Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools district.

“It’s classroom design and it’s rethinking how you teach,” he said. “I started with the furniture and the teaching came naturally.”

Deris has been working as an educator in the district for the past 16 years. He began working as a special education secretary, then transitioned to a classroom paraprofessional for about five years before pursuing his teaching license.

Education as collaboration

Looking back on his own educational experience, he says he always had an interest in breaking from the mold of the traditional classroom setup. He struggled during his elementary- and middle-school years in the Burnsville district, he says. But he began to thrive after enrolling in the Perpich Center for Arts Education, a state school focused on arts education, to complete his junior and senior years. This experience inspired him to bring a similar teaching philosophy to his own classroom someday.

“Everything was taught through an art lens. Everything was also this flexible space, these moveable learning opportunities,” he said, reflecting on his years at the Perpich Center. “It wasn’t a sit and get. It was collaboration.”

One classroom has a new set of stationary bike pedals
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
One classroom has a new set of stationary bike pedals pushed against a wall with windows, where students can sit on a chair and exert some energy while they read.

It wasn’t until he was working as a paraprofessional at Glendale Elementary that he became interested in rethinking classroom design. He saw a teacher pull a mini-bookcase away from the wall, out into the classroom, to serve as a makeshift standing desk for a couple of students who were struggling to concentrate on their work while seated. That simple adjustment was all it took to get him thinking, he said.

Guidelines for seating items

With the support of several grants — through both the Laker Educational Foundation and DonorsChoose.org — Deris’ room is outfitted with a wide assortment of supply bins, non-stationary seating items, Google Chromebooks and a Lego wall. He goes over guidelines for each seating item so students know how to fidget or recline in a productive manner. He also holds classroom meetings with all of his students to decide on table configurations.

Some years, his kids show they can’t handle much freedom, he says. And not all students are huge fans of the flexible learning style — especially those who were looking forward to getting their own desk, Deris says. But for the most part, he’s found that this approach leads to building strong teacher-student relations.

“It all comes down to relationships, probably more so than in a traditional classroom because they have to trust me and I have to trust them,” he said.

Tom Deris’s room
Courtesy of Tom Deris
With the support of several grants, Tom Deris’ room is outfitted with a wide assortment of supply bins, non-stationary seating items, Google Chromebooks and a Lego wall.

As interest spreads amongst his colleagues, Deris says he’s been approached a number of times for tips over the summer. A quick tour of neighboring classrooms — still in the midst of being set up before students start next week — reveals how inspiration is taking hold nearby. One classroom has a new set of stationary bike pedals pushed against a wall with windows, where students can sit on a chair and exert some energy while they read. Another classroom has a deconstructed table that’s being outfitted to sit lower to the ground, so students can sit around it on pillows or cushions. And the scoop rockers are popping up in classrooms across the building.

Jennifer Molitor, the new principal at Glendale Elementary, is a big supporter of flexible learning. When she worked as a teacher — and later a principal — in the Faribault Public Schools district, she had already begun experimenting with things like bouncy ball chairs, stand-up desks and beanbag chairs, she said.

“I think students today are not your traditional students,” she said. “And for them to have ways to be able to sit or stand or lay, just to be successful, that’s how they learn today.”

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