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Concord’s new schools feature efficient, unusual desks

  • Cody Hampson (right) and Matthew Drewes raise their hands to answer a math question in Luanne Snow's second grade class at Abbot-Downing School; Tuesday evening, November 20, 2012. The classrooms feature trapezoidal desks that can be arranged a number of ways depending on the class. <br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor Staff)

    Cody Hampson (right) and Matthew Drewes raise their hands to answer a math question in Luanne Snow's second grade class at Abbot-Downing School; Tuesday evening, November 20, 2012. The classrooms feature trapezoidal desks that can be arranged a number of ways depending on the class.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Fourth-grader Sadie Fay works on a Thanksgiving project with classmates after finishing her math work early; Tuesday, November 20, 2012.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor Staff)

    Fourth-grader Sadie Fay works on a Thanksgiving project with classmates after finishing her math work early; Tuesday, November 20, 2012.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor Staff) Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »

  • Cody Hampson (right) and Matthew Drewes raise their hands to answer a math question in Luanne Snow's second grade class at Abbot-Downing School; Tuesday evening, November 20, 2012. The classrooms feature trapezoidal desks that can be arranged a number of ways depending on the class. <br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor Staff)
  • Fourth-grader Sadie Fay works on a Thanksgiving project with classmates after finishing her math work early; Tuesday, November 20, 2012.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor Staff)

Some face each other in small groups at the new Concord elementary schools. Others wiggle in a crooked line. Some make up a semicircle. Others stand alone.

No, not the students at recess. The desks in the classrooms.

They resemble the desks you probably grew up with – tan-colored tops, an indented slot for a pen and a wire bin for books and other miscellany. But they’re shaped like trapezoids, not rectangles. And it’s allowing teachers to switch things up.

“We just changed it yesterday,” Casey Ireland said Tuesday morning of her fourth-graders’ desk arrangement. “We had groups, and groups weren’t working.”

Ireland asked her 20-or-so students to raise their hands if they preferred their side-by-side lines facing the board.

Almost all the hands went up.

Some teachers and students are still adjusting, but Abbot-Downing Principal Deb McNeish said the new design has allowed for a more efficient and effective use of space.

“It facilitates the teacher getting around the classroom easily and touching base with any child that they need to very quickly,” she said. “Whether it’s positive or negative.”

The desks are widest where the students sit and grow narrower by roughly a foot at the other end.

McNeish and others said the desks’ angles fit better into circles and just about any other shape that’s conducive to watching a teacher at the head

of the class or working with a partner.

“You couldn’t have a horseshoe with a rectangle,” McNeish said after visiting a classroom where most of the students were at desks arranged into horseshoes and a few were working independently.

Walk through Abbot-Downing, for example, and you’ll see desks in rows both parallel and perpendicular to the board, groups that form a rhombus and semicircles.

Fifth-grade teacher Kathleen Sullivan said she’s tried about half a dozen configurations so far. On Tuesday, her desks were in a few long rows facing the board. Most of the desks didn’t exactly line up with one another, giving the lines a wave-like appearance.

Slightly staggering the desks makes it a little harder for students to be distracted by a neighbor but still allows them to work together when necessary. The configuration is also a more effective use of space, Sullivan said.

“I don’t think they could fit in a straight line,” she said.

It’s been a little frustrating, she said, to abandon the clear lines that rectangles allowed.

Officials said the district considered a range of new desks last year as they were finishing the new schools, which the district borrowed $55 million to complete. McNeish said some of the desks were “just plumb weird.”

They wanted to do something innovative, MeNeish said, and these desks were a good fit. It seems they might be a better fit for the younger students than the older ones, though.

The desk tops have enough space for some papers, a pencil case and a water bottle. For younger students, that’s plenty. For some older students, that’s not always enough space for what they need. Moreover, because the bins under the desk also lack right-angled corners, it can be difficult for students to fit all their materials inside. That’s less of a problem for the younger students than the older ones who have clunkier text books. So far, some students use bins assigned to them to store excess material.

But, McNeish said, the smaller bins have big benefits.

“The old closed desks, the regular desks, things could live in there for quite awhile,” she said. “Mold, mildew, leftover lunches.”

Much has been made of the new schools’ break-out areas, use of natural light, advanced acoustics and electronic whiteboards. But, McNeish says, the desks have done their part to allow teachers more flexibility.

“It makes for a very friendly room,” she said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @MAKConnors )

Legacy Comments8

There are several concerns with the new desks. As someone who facilitates meeting, conferences, business reviews and events regularly, this is not effective from a design standpoint. The audience attention factor needs to be considered. In the picture above, there are sets with their back to the front of the room, this has been proven to reduce attention in any gathering, meeting, learning opportunity, etc. Breaking a room into groups is good for competition but overall it segments children and what happens is that they form alliances. It happens in businesses as well. If rotated frequently, it does provide some relief from that. The configuration also makes it difficult for any facilitator to focus on addressing the audience, eye contact, attention, etc. Finally, corporate events with round tables, which would roughly translate to something like this are not as effective as those events with tables facing the front of the room. Just saying. These desks look nice but it might be an experiment gone bad.

Old man #1; Desks! In my day we sat on a floor cover in broken ink bottles, bits of rusty barbed wire and packs of feral guinea pigs - and and thought ourselves lucky! Old man #2: You had a floor?!....

Funny joke. But it is true that schools could do more with less.

No where in this article did I see that these desks cost any more than any other shape. They needed to buy desks, and they chose these. The question isn't if these desks will improve desk scores, but why is it considered newsworthy?

What happened to the old desks???

This article would have been more illuminating if Reporter Connors asked the school administrators how learning is facilitated by seating younger students in a circle, rather than eliciting non sequiturs like the old style desks accumulated trash or other vapid responses like the new desks are "more effective use of space" or that the new desks allow the teachers to quickly touch base with any student (as if the old rectangular desks really impeded teacher access to any student). Instead, if Reporter Connors dug a bit deeper she might have found out the reason for these desk might have been to try out the pod system of teaching which places students into small clusters for the purpose of group learning. And if this - teaching via the pod system - is the real reason for this change I have to wonder how this really helps a student in the long run to be an independent thinker and problem solver, instead of a follower that mouths the "learning" and dogma of groupthink.

Well there ya go. New desks will make kids smarter. If not, then down the road we can expect calls for adding a spa to the building in case the students need a time out from all the stress of learning. This is like widening the sidewalks downtown. Same deal.

I expect to see some great results now that we have trapezoid desks.

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