The Desk Is A Barrier | Hooray for Monday

May 16, 2022

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students. 

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Imagine a classroom in which students greet their teacher at the door, enter the room, grab a mat and take a seat in a circle on the floor, then engage in a warm-up that involves clapping or jumping or stretching – every day, in every class period.

You may be imagining an early childhood classroom, but these are middle schoolers – 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. “I give them time to arrive in the space,” explains Chiara Monticelli, an Italian language teacher at Hardy Middle School in Washington, DC, who encourages her students to chat with one another at the beginning of class and believes connection and vulnerability are at the heart of meaningful learning. I had the opportunity to speak with Chiara this week about her classroom, in which students spend more time up on their feet than sitting still. Chiara’s middle schoolers know the routine, and get into action, literally, as soon as they enter the classroom. “I find that moving together…creates the communal space,” Chiara says. When her students begin each class in a circle, engaging in an activity that requires them to take turns leading and following one another, they get into the habit of looking at and listening, not only to their teacher, but also to one another.


I asked Chiara how she knows kids are learning, and what she would do if someone, say a parent, were to challenge her unusual approach. Her reply was simple, “I would call up their child and start having a conversation in Italian.” Chiara also makes a point of showcasing her students’ learning. For example, right now the walls outside her classroom are covered with students’ superhero projects, which demonstrate their growing knowledge and understanding of descriptive words.

Chiara has a reputation for being “an unusual teacher,” and parents say their children love her class. In fact, she was recognized as the 2021 DCPS World Languages Teacher of the Year. Chiara knows her students “are the best advertisement ever” for her approach. “Now everyone wants to be in Italian class!”

Classrooms like Chiara’s are indeed unusual. In fact, as I wrote in a recent letter to the editor in The Washington Post, sitting still is such a big part of what we expect kids to do that it is often considered one of the most important skills children need to master in order to succeed in school!

But, as we thoughtful educators know, learning increases and discipline problems decrease when students are actively engaged — not only intellectually, but also physically. Teaching the whole child includes the body.

In classrooms like Chiara’s, where physical movement is key, students don’t get to hide behind their desks. Neither do teachers. Chiara points out, “the desk is a barrier between the teacher and the students, and also between the students and the other students…the circle puts you in a vulnerable space.” She’s found this setup makes her students more willing to speak in Italian, even when they aren’t sure about the vocabulary or the accent. They don’t mind messing up or looking silly because they’re in the habit of being vulnerable with each other all the time.

What remains when we clear space in our classrooms? What do structure, routine, and clear expectations look like when desks and chairs aren’t in the picture? What would happen if teachers and students expected to be active, physically and intellectually, all day long? Read on for ideas on how to make this a reality…


Six Ways To Bring Movement Into Your Teaching

Check out this #Inspired2Learn activity called “How Vigorous Is My Heart?” in which students observe the difference between their resting and active heart and breath rates. This activity also involves math, as students chart their heart rate during various activities. 

Math: For anyone with a smartphone, look at the apps that track your steps. When are you most active during the day? When are you least active? (There are endless opportunities here to work on graphing, prediction, and other math skills.)

Social Studies: Invite your students to research dance forms that are part of the culture and time period your class is studying (i.e. how environment and terrain influence dance styles in regions across the continent of Africa or what the pavane and galliard can teach us about social norms in Europe during the Renaissance). Of course, as part of each presentation, have students teach the class a little bit of the dance type!  

Language Arts: For poetry or any kind of writing with a meter to it, invite students to walk around the room to the meter of the piece or tap it on their desks (unless you’ve decided to eliminate desks by now!). Thank you to my friends at Folger Shakespeare Library for teaching me, years ago, that Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter has much in common with Dr. Suess’ writing. March around the room chanting, “I do not like green eggs and ham,” and it won’t be long before you’re ready for “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)

Foreign Language: Do what Chiara does. Have students travel through space like a cat, or a wolf, or a tightrope walker, while other students use the vocabulary they’re learning to describe the movements. This activity involving storytelling with hands and feet would work well in language learning too. 

Advisory / Interdisciplinary: Take a field trip around your school. Explore the architecture inside and out of the building. When was it built? Have there been additions or renovations? How can you tell which part is old and which part is new? Check out the landscaping. What kinds of plants are native to your school? Can your students be part of planting a flower bed? What about a butterfly garden? There are all kinds of math, history, social studies, language arts, fine arts, and science lessons available here.

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