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Flexible seating about more than just comfort for VAHS literature class

Hilary Brown’s literature and language classroom at Vista High School is taking the rigidity of seating charts and wooden desks and turning it upside down. In some cases, literally.

The philosophy is known as flexible seating with the idea, according to education author Diana Oblinger, that learning spaces convey an image about teaching and learning. “Space can either enable, or inhibit, learning,” Oblinger wrote.

For Brown, who is in her first year at Vista, it is all about making her students feel at ease, which has led to increased productivity.

“I want students to have a comfortable learning environment,” Brown said. “The best comment I can get from students is that this doesn’t feel like a classroom. That’s what I want.”

The comfort level in Brown’s classroom is obvious as soon as you walk in the door. There are more options for workspaces than there are students.

“I thought it was a little unusual at first. Normally, we have assigned seats and have to be at a desk,” VHS senior Bryan Lange said. “But we have options in this class. If I’m not comfortable where I’m at, it’s going to make things a whole lot harder to learn.”

And that’s the ultimate goal for Brown: helping students remain achievement driven, while maintaining what she referred to as a “student-centered” classroom.

“My students are coming from really unique backgrounds, so I’m creating a space where everyone’s story is equally important and creating that space where there’s a feeling of everyone’s experiences are valid equally to mine,” Brown said. “That has to do with how the room is set up and has to do with instruction.

“How can I present this writing or present this literature with my students’ experiences in mind and open up a space where the things they’ve been through and where they are coming from is going to add to our learning and not distract from it and not seem like a burden.”

Still, that doesn’t mean students get to take an easy path. Her literature class studies the same set of texts used throughout Yuma Union High School District and has delved into some college-level reading.

“It’s not, ‘We’re at Vista, so we have to make this easier,’” she said. “This is what’s going on at the other campuses, but we have to move at a faster pace, so in some ways it’s more challenging.”

VHS has 90-minute classes and a varied schedule that starts and ends slightly later in the day than the other five campuses in the District. School staff has long prided themselves on offering unique ways for students to choose education as a pathway towards a brighter future.

“I’ve been impressed by how mature the students are here because a lot of them are on their own or they’re already taking care of someone else,” Brown said. “They work. They’re responsible for themselves, so a lot of them have really important, pressing, urgent reasons to care about their education. It’s an honor to teach them.”

Knowing that students were, in effect, choosing to remain in school, Brown said it was important to offer something unique. Flexible seating was part of that, and so was building connections with students. 

“It was cool because we didn’t have seating charts and we can just sit wherever we want,” VHS junior Adrian Valencia said. “[It was comfortable] because of just how she acted. We always feel welcome.”

Brown added: “If students are choosing alternative education, I want them to be able to walk into my room and see that this is different.

“[Seating is] first-come, first-served. There are some kids that will sit in the same spot every day and there are others, depending on how they feel that day, will move every day. But that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

Students in VHS literature class.

Eric Patten