ballew classroom

Thoughts on a Flexible Classroom

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Last night, I posted a few pictures of my chair-less classroom and had lots of questions about my setup. In response, this is a post about flexible classrooms, particularly flexible seating. I say that up front because I want to back up a bit so that you know where I’m coming from, but I promise I’ll get there. Bear with me, will you?

I distinctly remember preparing for job interviews ten (really? TEN?) years ago and thinking about what I would say when asked about my strengths and weaknesses. They always ask about your strengths and weaknesses, don’t they? I wanted to be prepared so as not to fumble for things. The word I kept coming back to was flexible. It was very important to me that I communicated my flexibility, because I lean quite a bit towards a Type A personality. I like things to be neat and organized and to look beautiful. I didn’t want this aspect of my personality to make me come off as too rigid, because I knew even then that no teacher can survive without being flexible.

Fast forward to 2016, and I find myself continuing to deepen my understanding of what it means to be flexible. I believe that for flexibility to be transformative, we must make plans but not marry them. We must come to terms with the fact that the idea we have – no matter how perfect it may seem – is only one of many possibilities. It is so easy to fall into the trap of “This worked last year, so it’s the best plan for this year,” or “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” or even “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

These are commonly used phrases, but what if everyone relied on this mentality? What if, for example, Steve Jobs had looked at a cell phone and said, “It ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.” He wouldn’t have been wrong. There was nothing broken about my Nokia brick phone in 2002 or even my bag phone in 1997. But it certainly wasn’t much compared to what innovators like Steve Jobs believed it could be. It was he, after all, who said, “The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.”

I’m in the business of changing the world. We all are, aren’t we? My classroom is such a tiny part of the world, but it matters. So, I am changing my classroom because I can’t change the whole world in a day. I’m fully embracing flexible seating in a way that I never have before.

Last year, as I began experimenting with different seating options, I was amazed at how much more productive students were when they were in charge of choosing a spot that let them do their best work. I have always allowed freedom when reading or writing independently. Why did I think they needed to be sitting in desks and chairs for everything else? Why can’t students choose their seat for the entire day? What might happen if their seat wasn’t a seat at all, but a pillow, or a yoga ball, or a space with room to stand and move? At the end of the day, I couldn’t come up with enough reasons NOT to try this out, so here we are!

My classroom currently has five different seating styles plus unlimited spots on the floor or counters (a student favorite!). Students may choose from a yoga/stability ball, a one-legged stool, a standing table, a pillow seat at a desk with no legs, or a camping style chair with a lap desk. Here is a view of my classroom from the door that shows all of the furniture-based seating options. (I have added two more yoga balls at the pair of desks in the back since taking this picture.)


I only have a few ideas in my head about how we will manage the seating. The rest will be decided as a class. Here is what I know for sure:

  1. All students will choose a new type of seat each day until everyone has an idea of which one suits them best. I am asking students to try each kind before choosing a favorite because I imagine that many of them will be surprised by how much they do/do not like a certain choice.
  2. All students have choice, but I reserve the right to help you make a better one. If someone chooses a seat that causes them to do anything but their best work, I will move them. This is not to punish them, but to emphasize that the whole point of flexible seating is to increase your comfort and productivity, not to bounce all over the room. This right to move you extends to any adult, especially substitute teachers.
  3. Students will make their choice at the start of class, and stay put for the day. The novelty factor is huge here, but I want to keep learning at the focus of my classroom, not swapping seats.

I have high expectations for my students’ performance. Flexible seating doesn’t change that. It enhances it. Engagement is increased when we are comfortable. Focus improves when the seat meets our needs. How many times have you been forced to sit through a training on an uncomfortable chair? It’s all I can think about after a while!

As a bonus, here are a few other things that are an integral part of my classroom setup.

Community Supplies: I am a zealot for community supplies. I love how sharing behaviors are reinforced, I love that I can easily and quickly get supplies like scissors or glue sticks passed out AFTER giving directions so that students are digging in their supply bags for too many minutes, and okay fine, I LOVE HOW BEAUTIFUL THEY ARE, OKAY??


Scissors and Glue Sticks, plus crayons, thin and bold markers, and colored pencils sorted by color


Blank Bulletin Boards: For all of the ways I love to decorate my classroom, my favorite kinds of bulletin boards will always be blank slate bulletin boards. We will fill these together with anchor charts, student work, or any other evidence of the learning that happens in our room.



Strong Organizational Systems: Whether it’s a system for make up work (as seen above on the left side of the white board), for students leaving the room, for assigning jobs, or even for making sense of the chaos that is teacher cabinets, organization matters. The particular system being used is irrelevant – no one system is going to work for everyone – but having strong organizational systems in place makes every minute of the day run more smoothly.


Classroom Jobs


One of my cabinets


Students move their number over when they leave the room for any reason.


Drawers to organize weekly lessons and ideas by day and by subject

 Finally, here is the video I shared that led to this post. If you see something else in my room and have a question, just comment below! Most importantly, know that I am sending only the most positive vibes your way as you begin a new year!



A lot of work. And a lot of good. 

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For a variety of reasons, both within my control and outside of it, this has been an especially long week. I’d almost argue that I’ve lived ten days since Monday. Almost. 
The trouble with weeks that are particularly long and exhausting is that we spend so much time counting down to the weekend and wishing the hours away, it’s easy to miss all of the goodness that fills those long hours. But the goodness is there. When you spend your day with children, there is ALWAYS something good. 

So on this Friday evening, as I tuck away the week behind me, I’m wrapping it up in all of the goodness that happened. One particular conversation with a student makes a perfect example. I’m beginning a book study of “The Teacher You Want to Be” with my friend Rachel, and I was marking off the first section one day this week. One of my boys was working nearby, and the conversation with him went something like this:

Student: Is that the vocabulary teacher book? Are you checking the answers?

: No, this is a different kind of teacher book. It’s the kind you read to help you become a better teacher. 

Student (completely serious): Ugh. Throw that junk in the trash! You’re already a really great teacher!

JB: (Whilst trying to keep my heart from melting right out of my chest) Well, I’m glad you feel that way, but the only way to be a really great teacher is to never stop learning.

Student: (turning to walk away) Hmph. That sounds like a lot of work. 

Indeed it is, man. It is A LOT of work. Like a panic-inducing, mind-numbing, never-ending mountain of work that we teachers attempt to climb every single day. Some days, we even have to start at the bottom more than once. But every once in a while, for the most fleeting and miraculous of moments, we make it to the top of that mountain. Whatever you do, friends, don’t forget to savor those moments. Stop and enjoy the view, for the work returns and the climb must begin anew tomorrow. Teaching is a lot of work. But it’s also a whole lot of awesome. 



Why I Can’t Just Be Fired

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Earlier today, in the throes of spelling-induced temper tantrum, a student asked me, “Why can’t you just be fired?!?”

(Allow me to take a brief sidebar here to thank God for giving me a pretty stellar filter. It sometimes takes a long time for words to make it from my brain to my mouth, and today, that was a good thing. Today, that quite possibly saved my job.)

I responded with something along the lines of “Because I do my work, and people who do their work do not get fired.” (Don’t let the punctuation fool you. Those were my words, but I was not that calm.) I was, for a moment, annoyed at the tantrum. I’d had enough of the whining. Then I pulled some empathy out of my back pocket (I always keep a little there for emergencies) and put myself in this little guy’s shoes. I get it, dude. I know that frustrated feeling. And honestly, I see your point. Firing me would have, in that moment, given me just as much relief as it would’ve given you. Thanks for thinking of me.

And now that I’ve had some time to reflect on the day (and the week, and the longest February in recorded history), I have a few thoughts about why I can’t “just be fired” – and why you can’t either.

Teaching is hard, y’all. We all know it. I’ve written about it before. It’s brutal, butt-kicking work, and it’s not the teaching part. It’s the other stuff. The stuff we can’t fix but really, really want to anyway. The stuff we think about when sleep eludes us at 3am. It. is. hard. So why do we do it? Why does anyone with an ounce of love for themselves sign up for this job? And why do we stay? Why can’t we just be fired?

Because we’re needed. I’m needed. You are SO needed. Great teachers are leaving the field at an alarming rate. 40 to 50 percent of teachers will leave teaching in their first five years. (9.5% of those are gone before they even make it through the first one.) Studies have confirmed this, but none that I’ve found have really put a finger on why. It’s definitely not due to a lack of talent or ambition, and it’s not always a lack of training or support. I think maybe it’s because you don’t know how very needed you are. And THAT, my friends, keeps me up at night. Because if not you, who? Who will do this extremely important work of training up future generations to carry on a functioning society?

I was filling half-empty water bottles with glitter glue earlier this week and thought, “I have two college degrees, and this is what I’m doing with them?” I have friends who’ve told me about similar feelings when they cut out piles and piles of laminated items or staple blank booklets together for writing workshop. Certainly, anyone can do this. Why does it need to be me? How about I go do something that lets me sleep at night and leave my laminated stack for someone else? I pass a billboard every day that says, “Want to teach? When can you start?” Let that guy come staple these booklets together. Can he start tomorrow?

The minutia is what wears us down, what sends us running for the hills, but I’m here to tell you that it’s not enough for you to just be fired. It’s not enough for you to throw in the towel. It’s enough to make you crazy, but please, please, don’t let it be enough to make you leave. As February comes to a close, take a minute to remind yourself of the reasons why you came here, and for the love, please remind yourself of all of the reasons to stay.

Seconds after today’s temper tantrum ended, that same student FINALLY finished his work and said, “Hmm. I thought I was bad at this, but I guess I’m not.”

Ditto, buddy. Ditto.

I’m still here!

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Oh. My. Stars. Nine months, you guys. It’s been nine months since I updated my website. That is ridiculous, and while I completely understand that my excuses will help no one, I will offer a few updates on my life by way of explanation. First of all, there’s a technical hurdle. I build my site with iWeb, which has been dropped completely by Apple and is only accessible on my desktop computer, which rarely gets any love since I sprung for a MacBook. So updating often is a challenge because I just don’t spend much time at all on that computer. (Come on, who wants to be held down to one location by a desktop?!?) 😉

On a more personal note, 2013 was a trying year in a lot of ways, but some persistent medical issues forced everything else in my life to take a back seat. Honestly, to say that this blog was in the back seat is only really accurate if you imagine that I’m driving a school bus. I haven’t even logged on to look at stats, which was once a daily occurrence, in several months.

Many days, just doing my job was an act of survival, so this poor blog just didn’t make the cut. But still, you came. You looked at pictures, you downloaded anchor charts, you saved prompt cards, you pinned to Pinterest, you emailed me even when I couldn’t gather a response. You came because you too are trying to survive in a job that gets harder every day. I am so thankful for teachers like you (yes – you!) who are so committed to learning and refining the craft of teaching that you seek out inspiration from every corner of the internet. Whatever brought you to my little corner, thank you. Thank you for seeking out more information on your own free time, which I know is an absolutely precious commodity that is in too little supply in your life. Thank you for working your tail off every. single. day. If you’re heading back to work tomorrow like I am, know that I am wishing only the best for your classroom this year.

I am doing well from a medical perspective, so I am committed to posting more often. However, I am posting this from my MacBook, which doesn’t solve the iWeb problem. So for now, I’ll leave you with a big batch of unorganized anchor charts. I promise I will get them on the site in a more organized fashion some day!

What else have I promised you that fell through the cracks? What are you wishing you could find on this site? Let me know, and your wish might just come true!

In 2014, may you be blessed and be a blessing.


So long, summer…

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It doesn’t matter how many hours I’ve worked since June; today is my last official day of summer, and I can’t help but think of the things I’ll miss about it. If you’re not a teacher (or someone who loves a teacher), you won’t understand. That’s okay. I’m not asking you to understand. (But in the interest of full disclosure, I do kind of want to punch you in the throat when you raise a condescending eyebrow and say, “It must be nice to have summers off.”)
I’ll miss my empty DVR, my well-loved spot on the couch, and my ultra-flexible lunchtime. My heart sank a little as I put away my suitcase – leisurely travel is a summer-only luxury. I’ll miss beautifully unimportant adult conversations that don’t include any acronyms, levels, or scores, and I’ll miss the freedom to uni-task. Mostly, though, I’ll miss the feeling of being at least moderately-rested most of the time.

For as much as I’ll miss about these lovely summer days, I’m filled with eager anticipation for what’s to come. There is no time brimming with as much hope and possibility as the beginning of a new school year. It’s a fresh start (a tabula rasa, if you will) for everyone – students, teachers, parents, and everyone who loves them. And who doesn’t love a do-over? I’m excited to take another stab at changing the world this year. But for today, I will happily watch some mindless television, take an hour and a half to eat lunch (at a restaurant!) with a friend I don’t see enough, and stay up later than I should for no reason at all.

So long, Summer of 2013. Thanks for the memories.


Teaching is hard.

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I shared these thoughts tonight on Facebook, and they seemed to resonate with my teacher friends. Maybe they’ll be a blessing to you as well…

When we say that teaching is hard, please don’t misunderstand us. We’re not talking about the mountains of paperwork or never-ending to-do list. It’s not the meetings or the parent conferences, or even the curriculum. We can handle the lesson plans, and we can go entire days without a bathroom break if need be. That’s not really what we’re referring to either. We say that teaching is hard because year after year after year, 25ish families put their precious angels in our care, and we begin a race to be enough. Smart enough, sweet enough, tough enough, flexible enough – we are one person trying to stretch and grow enough in order to meet the very different needs of every single student. Every year, we love them like they are our own and give everything we have so that they can successfully leave us behind. They make us laugh, cry, jump for joy, and bang our heads against the wall. They are our greatest pride and our overwhelming responsibility. We work long into the night and, yes, all summer long. Those precious faces are why we say teaching is hard. And why we can’t imagine doing anything else.

I keep looking at the faces of those precious babies in Connecticut, and I just pray their teachers know that they were far more than enough.

Pinterest Madness

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I should probably be in less shock by now, but I absolutely am not. I have been in love with Pinterest for many months, but I mostly use it to find recipes and crafty inspirations. (I love anything with glitter and a hot glue gun.)

Last week, some of my charts were pinned, and traffic on my site exploded. To cope with this, I finally took the personal domain plunge and installed a traffic tracker so that I could see how Pinterest was really affecting the traffic around here.

The data that tracker has collected in the last week has left me completely dumbfounded. I’ve had visitors from 49 of the 50 states (Rhode Island is still holding out), Washington DC, Puerto Rico, every province in Canada, Costa Rica, Honduras, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Belgium, Serbia, Qatar, Peru, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, Croatia, and the United Arab Emirates!

I can’t help but feel like I’m being virtually punk’d….

Update: Rhode Island finally came around! France, Finland, Brazil, Albania, Venezuela, Thailand, Ukraine, Korea, Mexico, Azerbaijan, Taiwan, Ireland, Romania, Turkey, Denmark, Bermuda, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Malaysia, Greece, the Dominican Republic, the Cayman Islands, Morocco, Hungary, Kuwait, Belarus, Portugal, Moldova, Japan, Colombia, South Africa, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Guatemala, Estonia, the Czech Republic, the Dutch Antilles, Pakistan, the Bahamas, Belize, Uganda, Montenegro, El Salvador, Aruba, Sudan, Jordan, New Caledonia, Sweden, Trinidad & Tobago, Bangladesh, Paraguay, Guam, Latvia, Bulgaria, Israel, Djibouti, Ecuador, Chile, Norway, Kenya, St. Kitts & Nevis, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Papua New Guinea, Austria, Niger, Lebanon, Russia, Slovenia, Palestine, Bahrain, Botswana, Macedonia, Panama, the Virgin Islands, Samoa, Jamaica, Malta, Yemen, Oman, Uruguay, Lithuania, Mauritius, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Barbados, Senegal, Iceland, Cambodia, and Nigeria also stopped by. I need a stronger word than dumbfounded…