The Other 60 Percent

Students stand, balance and bounce to learn

boys at standing table
Fifth-graders working at a café table in Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in the Cherry Creek school district.

Visitors to teacher Lisa Puckett’s classroom at Black Forest Hills Elementary School in Aurora sometimes tell her, “It’s like a jungle gym in here.”

They’ll see her fifth-graders leaning against chest-high café tables, sitting on bean bag chairs, or balancing on yoga balls, peg-leg stools or wider-based “hokki” stools. In fact, there is so much unconventional seating in her room, one of her students is assigned the job of “equipment manager” to make sure everyone has a fair shot at using the most sought-after items.

Puckett is part of a small but enthusiastic group of educators who believe that kids, especially the restless, high-energy kind, shouldn’t have to spend their school days sitting still with their knees tucked under desks. Instead, these teachers and administrators feel student should be allowed, and even encouraged to stand, bounce, shift, twist and wiggle.

“They’re constantly in motion …and we try to make them sit still,” said Puckett. “It’s like putting a cork in a bottle of soda you just shook up.”

For some kids, the inevitable explosion manifests as increasingly off-task behavior, from fidgeting and arm-flapping to falling out of chairs. Kelley King, a master trainer for the Gurian Institute, which provides training on brain-based differences between boys and girls, said she always suggests standing desks and other alternative seating when she conducts professional development sessions for schools.

“If it helps kids be more productive, it makes the teacher’s job easier,” she said.

While Puckett, who is fortunate to have the space of two adjoining classrooms, offers her 27 students more than a dozen unconventional work stations and seating options, many teachers typically offer just a few. Sometimes space constraints play into the decision and sometimes there are fewer students who seem to need alternatives.

And while some schools have invested in relatively pricey standing desks, other teachers are implementing alternative seating arrangements using tools they already have in their classrooms, like podiums, laptop stands or counter space.

A look at the research

While there isn’t a large body of research on the effects of alternative seating in classrooms, there are some studies on the positive effects of standing desks and, more generally, the benefits of moving around while completing challenging tasks.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that first-graders with standing desks chose to stand about two-thirds of the time and burned 17 percent more calories than classmates in traditional seated classrooms. Overweight and obese students burned 32 percent more calories while using standing desks than seated students. In addition, teachers surveyed in the study noted that students using the standing desks were more alert and attentive and demonstrated less disruptive behavior.

King, who has conducted Gurian Institute training in Colorado districts including St. Vrain Valley, Garfield and Cherry Creek, said the potential for reducing obesity is a plus, but her real focus is on closing gender gaps and ensuring quality learning.

A 2009 study published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology demonstrated that children, especially those with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, tend to move around more when they are using working memory to solve problems. The upshot is that fidgety behavior in children may look like distraction but can actually facilitate the learning process by helping them maintain focus.

Girls standing in Lisa Puckett's classroom in the Cherry Creek school district.
Girls standing to work in Lisa Puckett’s classroom.

Changing norms

Since most current teachers, principals and parents grew up with traditional four-legged school desks and chairs, accepting alternative furnishings — not to mention new ideas about acceptable classroom behavior — can be difficult.

Suzie Johnston, Director of Elementary Special Education and Behavior Development Programs for Cherry Creek Schools, embraced a variety of alternative seating when she was principal of Buffalo Trails Elementary School and went through Gurian Institute training with the rest of her staff. Soon, students were using one-legged stools, counter-height tables, or sitting on the floor with clipboards.

But she’s heard teachers say, “Oh, I’m afraid to do that because I’ll have chaos.”

The key, Johnston said, is establishing rules and putting forth a sustained effort, “because at first kids will be silly with it.”

Teachers who have made the switch are typically passionate about the positive changes they have seen in their students, especially boys. They talk about longer attention spans, less disruptive behavior and higher quality work, particularly in subjects like writing.

Puckett describes her experience using unconventional seating as “wildly successful.”

“I will always continue to do it,” she said.

It’s so much a part of her classroom culture, she said, that a number of parents have purchased peg leg stools for their kids to use at school. Others have sent in yoga balls or “trampoline chairs.”

Desha Bierbaum, principal of Wamsley Elementary in Rifle, said some parents worry that their child will feel singled out if they stand at a desk, or use another fidget-channeling outlet like chewing on a straw or kneading Sticky Tack in their hand. When those fears arise, she invites parents in so they can see how common such interventions are throughout the building and how they impact children.

Students using hokki stools in Lisa Puckett's classroom.
Students using hokki stools in Lisa Puckett’s classroom.

One dad started out adamantly opposed to any alternatives, but Bierbaum said, “Seeing his child able to focus, he was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

Students themselves have similar revelations, she said.

“Once they realize, ‘I can get my work done and I won’t get in trouble’…then they will definitely ask to go to that standing desk.”

Like other educators who have added standing options, Bierbaum said Wamsley started out using what was readily available and free: counter space and regular desks that had been raised to their highest level.

In 2009, Bierbaum purchased actual standing desks using special education funds as well as general school funds. The desks were around $300 each.

“You kind of have to have this paradigm shift,” Bierbaum said. “It’s OK for them to stand. If they’re learning what does it matter?”

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”

Raised Voices

Balloons, hearts, and ‘die-ins’: How Colorado students marked National Walkout Day

Students gather at the Colorado State Capitol to protest gun violence. (Melanie Asmar)

Thousands of students across Colorado poured out of their schools Wednesday to protest gun violence and to remember 17 victims of last month’s deadly shooting in Florida. Chalkbeat’s Melanie Asmar walked with students from East High School to the Colorado State Capitol, where Gov. John Hickenlooper and Speaker of the House Cristanta Duran urged them to remain politically active.

The protests took different forms at other schools – and not everyone wanted the event to be political. There were balloon releases, voter registration drives, and public “die-ins” at major intersections. And in one Denver area school district, a surge of threats cast a pall over events.

Here’s a look at #NationalWalkoutDay from around the region.

Students at Skinner Middle School in northwest Denver marched in silent solidarity.

In Colorado, teenagers can register to vote before their 18th birthday.

At schools in the Adams 12 district north of Denver, a big uptick in threats the night before – and a warning letter from the superintendent – led many students to skip school altogether.

Students at McAuliffe International School in northeast Denver spoke with their shirts. Instead of “Thoughts & Prayers,” they asked for “Policy & Change.”

But their event was not all about politics. They formed a heart with their bodies and read the names of the dead.

At Jefferson Jr./Sr. High School, students promised to work to change school culture.

Many schools released balloons to honor the victims and found other ways to advocate for change.

Unlike some Colorado districts, St. Vrain didn’t officially condone the walkouts, but students at Longmont schools walked out anyway.

Students at Denver’s South High School have been vocal about gun violence. In a recent visit from U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, they rejected the idea that armed teachers would make them safer and demanded that lawmakers do more.

Students from one of Colorado’s KIPP charter schools used their bodies to send a message at a major intersection in west Denver.

Students of color in Denver reminded the public that gun violence is not limited to mass shootings.

Students aren’t just marching. They’re also writing their representatives. State Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, tweeted a picture of her inbox full of emails from students.

Colorado carries the legacy of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School, where a memorial asks urgently as ever: “How have things changed; what have we learned?”