Space For Independence

“For all of the opportunities to collaborate (and learn together), maybe every student also needs his/her own independent work station.” This is a comment that I heard the other day that really got me thinking. You see, we don’t have any desks in our Grade 1 classroom: there are three circular tables, a couple of smaller rectangular tables, and a guided reading table. I never considered this an issue, but this conversation really intrigued me because we also started talking about Stuart Shanker‘s work on self-regulation as part of it. Last year, I was involved in a Book Club for our Board, and we read Stuart Shanker‘s Calm, Alert, and Learning. I’ve blogged about this book many times before, and Shanker’s work has probably influenced me the most in my teaching. So I couldn’t help but pause after overhearing these words about an “independent work station” because I thought about how important this would be for students as they try to self-regulate. I began to wonder, do we need to reconsider our classroom arrangement?

It was the day after this conversation that the students began to transform our classroom into a library. I watched the students very closely both yesterday and today, as I wanted to see if they could work both independently as well as collaboratively during this process. And that’s when I noticed that they do have “independent work stations.” I think that I overlooked them initially because I had one view of what these stations should look like, and the reality was actually much different.

  • These stations are not necessarily individual desks.
  • They are also not necessarily the same for everyone.

Sometimes these work stations are comfy chairs in the middle of the classroom or in a quiet area. Sometimes these work stations are floor spaces in the corner, beside the wall, or on the carpet. Sometimes these work stations are behind the guided reading table (if it’s not being used), by the doorway, or on the little table in the book nook. Sometimes these work stations are on the big table by our Wonder Window or at one of the circular tables that are not being used. Sometimes these work stations are almost underneath a table — not quite fully under, but definitely close — because these secluded spots provide the needed quiet.

The amazing — and surprising — thing was that every student figured out when he/she needed this independent work area, and found an area that worked for his/her needs. Despite the messiness of learning — with books, papers, markers, tape, scissors, and glue everywhere — both students (and teachers 🙂 ) were able to find the “calm” they needed to work, to learn, to be. Even in the midst of a collaborative learning environment, we still need our space for independence. How do you help create these spaces for yourself and your students? 


6 thoughts on “Space For Independence

  1. Hi Aviva,
    I have tried your independent classroom environment strategies and they work. I have also tried with success the following:
    -having a student sit beside the teacher or teacher’s work space/desk.
    -student can sit on teacher stool.
    -use the ‘special chair’
    -stand or sit in community circle
    -my favourite recently….students are sitting in groups, I need to show a video clip/student work sample on screen using apple tv….so I ask the students to turn their chairs around to face the screen, the desks/tables don’t move….easy arrangement…great focus.
    When needed, rows work if testing is required.

    • Thanks for your comment, David! I’ve used many of these same strategies in the past, but I often find that many of these are teacher-directed independent work spaces. A few students may need this, but I wonder if, ideally, we have students determine when they need this space, what space it will be, and why it works best for them. What do you think? How do we transition from teacher-directed work areas to student chosen areas, and how do we scaffold this transition for those students that need it?


  2. Hello again Aviva,

    I find myself pondering this question often. Although I still have desks (that’s all we had), I arrange them in groups. At the beginning of the year, we have many opportunities to sit anywhere in the room. We talk a lot about strategies, whether it’s math or self-regulation. I always prompt them with, “Is it working? How do you know?” We also talk a lot about different people need different tools and strategies.

    I love to talk about ideas but prefer to work by myself. It helps me concentrate so I always keep this in the back of my mind when we are working in the class. I give them time to discuss ideas with partners and then I ask, “Who would like to work alone today?” It’s not always the same people. Most students enjoy working collaboratively but if someone chooses to work alone, everyone respects that. It also avoids hurt feelings if I ask this before saying, “Choose a partner.” sometimes I choose partners and that also works because they know that most of the time it is their choice if they work collaboratively or independently.

    • Thanks for the comment, Dawn! I also ask students if they’d like to work alone, and sometimes they even beat me to it by telling me that they would. It’s interesting that you note that you also like to work alone. I often feel the same way, but I also like collaboration opportunities. As teachers, there’s often discussions about “working with teams.” I think this is important, but maybe this “independent work time” is important for educators too. Maybe it’s when we make sense and personalize what we learn and share with team members. I wonder how many other teachers feel the same way. Maybe adults, like students, also need this independence (at times) — just like at times we need to choose our partners and learn to work with partners selected by others. Hmmm … more to contemplate!


  3. Hi Aviva. I love the idea that students are learning to self-regulate by figuring out which work area works best for them rather than confining students to desks. Do you give students any feedback about how they look while they are working in their chosen work space or do you have any conversations with individual students about how they are feeling in their work space (i.e., is it suiting their needs)? I find that some students need more feedback and support with recognizing how their environment makes them feel (e.g., overwhelmed, sleepy, overstimulated). We’ve started using some visual supports and strategies from the Zones of Regulation by Leah Kuypers in some schools/classrooms to help young students begin to communicate how they are feeling in order to offer them strategies to help them become more “calm, alert and ready to learn”. Although I agree with Stuart that you can’t teach self-regulation from a curriculum, I think that our tool belts need to include an arsenal of tools to teach such an important set of skills and the ideas from the Zones of Regulation could be one of those tools. I enjoy reading your blog posts, and the occasional tweet ;). You are definitely a passionate educator!

    • Thanks for the comment, Lindsay! I talk to students regularly about their choices. Sometimes they’re good at communicating how their areas work for them and/or make them feel, and sometimes they need more choices to help. I’ve never heard of the Zones of Regulation, but I’m going to check it out. I think that differentiation is good in all areas … self-regulation included. Some students will be able to reflect without supports in place, and some might need more.

      Thanks for your kind words as well! It’s always a pleasure to learn with everyone on Twitter and through blogs (posts and comments)!

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