The custodian took away all the desks in Sierra Gould’s class. She scoured yard sales and Goodwill stores to find milk cartons, pillows, exercise balls and folding chairs for her second-graders, who work in their laps or on the floor.
It’s an arrangement spurred by cramped space in her mobile classroom at Winterfield Elementary, but the 25-year-old teacher couldn’t be happier. She says the unorthodox furnishings encourage the kind of initiative and teamwork she wants to see when 7- and 8-year-olds learn math and science.
“I believe it’s good for the kids,” Gould says.
Gould spent her first year as a teacher in the building at the east Charlotte school, with normal desks and chairs. But growing enrollment means many of the 679 students learn in trailers, and Gould landed in one last year. The space was tighter, leaving little room for students to move around the desks and do projects. Rather than make her 7- and 8-year-olds fit the space, she got permission to remove the desks and make the space fit her kids.
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Creative classroom furniture has been trendy for years, with manufacturers marketing “balance balls” as a way to keep kids fit and engaged. Educators debate whether ditching desks leads to better learning, or whether desk-free rooms will turn out to be a passing fad, like the open classrooms of the 1970s.
In 2014, Davidson Elementary replaced traditional seating with exercise balls in 23 classrooms. Academic facilitator Katie Bower said last week that the balls remain in use, though some classes offer a mix of balls and chairs.
“The kids do love the stability balls for sure,” Bower said.
Eight-year-old Brandon Cruz, one of Gould’s students, agrees. He said he gets bored in a regular desk, while sitting on one of Gould’s orange exercise balls lets him move around and even “jump a little bit.”
Gould says the biggest demand is for two gamer chairs – black plush floor-level rockers – she bought for $6 each. Students choose where to sit, as well as which math activity or computer program they’ll use to meet that day’s learning goals. If too many kids want the same seat, they “rock it out,” doing rock-paper-scissors.
Gould says her approach to teaching draws from research, including reports on deskless classes in Finland, and from the Montessori method, which encourages individual initiative and exploration. And it helps to be flexible when dealing with the “mobile villages” that surround many CMS schools: On a recent rainy afternoon she was padding around barefoot because her shoes had gotten soaked.
Gould could end up back in a bigger classroom, but she says she’d still replace the desks.
“I love it,” she said. “I can’t imagine going back.”