Yesterday I finished the first week of my third year teaching. I feel like I ran a marathon. (Not that I’ve ever actually run a marathon, but you know what I mean.) Each year I’ve been surprised how tired I felt at the end of the first day. Each time I have felt like I was losing my voice, but it recovers by the second day, and by the end of the week my tiredness has hit a plateau. I seem to remember that the second week will be easier, and that I will hit my stride fairly quickly.

This year, I’m teaching two new curricula (for Algebra and Honors Geometry), and it’s only my second time teaching AP Statistics. Add to that a switch to proficiency-based diplomas and common-core standards, and I feel like a brand new teacher. Beginner’s mind, indeed!

Given all the new challenges, maybe it wasn’t wise to throw an additional twist into the mix, but I’ve done it anyway. Each day, I’ve changed the seating in each of my classrooms, randomly assigning each student to sit at one of the six tables in my classroom. I was afraid it would be awkward, that the students would resist, and that I wouldn’t be able to make my naturally disorganized self stick to the system. But I’m doing it, and I want to share how it’s going.

Last spring I read a paper by Peter Liljedahl called The Affordances of Using Visibly Random Groups in a Mathematics Classroom. The upshot of the paper is that randomly grouping students every day improved group work and student interaction in a variety of ways. The paper is worth reading. Go ahead and click through, really!

With the exception of the AP stats class, I let students sit where they chose on the first day. Then I explained to each class that I would move them randomly every day, and summarized the benefits suggested by the Liljedahl paper. Each day I would deal out shuffled playing cards (aces through sixes) to the students, and students would sit at the correspondingly numbered tables. There would be three or four students at each table, with a different arrangement every day.

Here are my impressions after the first four days.

- PLUS: Student seem to kind of like it. When I described it the first day, they looked skeptical. When I passed out cards the second day, they looked surprised that I was following through with it, but they took their cards, compared them, and took their seats. By the end of the week, the early arrivals would ask for their cards so they could sit in the right place and not have to move later. I was worried they would try to switch cards with each other, but no one seems to have thought of that yet. Or maybe they aren’t concerned enough to bother with it. All of the students, ranging from freshmen in Algebra 1 Part 1 to seniors in AP stats, seem curious about the method, and compliant. Maybe it’s more interesting to them than the typical seating arrangement.
- PLUS: So far, the classes seem more interactive than in previous years, and I’ve had few behavior problems. There are a few “live wires” in each class, as usual, but so far they haven’t been able to settle into any particularly disruptive behavior patterns. It may be that they are just slower to get comfortable, and that I’ll be dealing with more issues as they get to know all the other students better. But in this first week, the classes seem much more receptive to my expectations, and they seem to be listening to each other more closely when they ask questions or volunteer answers. They turn to look when students speak from other tables, and they direct their comments to the class as a whole, rather than just to me or to the students at their own table.
- PLUS: I am much less stressed about where I stand, which boards I write at, and which table I hand papers to first. I have always worried about favoring one part of the room, so that certain students were always far from the point of instruction. I still try to move around and use all of the whiteboards and chalkboards, but when everyone is sitting in a different place each day, it matters less. By the same token, when students go to the board to work on problems together, they don’t end up at the same board every time. I don’t know if that really matters, but I like the idea of them getting a different perspective each day.
- MINUS: It’s hard to learn their names when they move every day. I’m not very good at learning names as it is. Or faces. I think I must have some slight disability in this area, because often I can’t remember people’s faces, even when I’ve met them a few times. It’s embarrassing introducing yourself to adults and having them say, “Yes, we’ve met before at so-and-so’s house.” It’s also embarrassing sitting down next to a student in the lunch room who was just in your first geometry class and saying, “What math class are you taking this year?” Anyway, it’s harder to learn names when they aren’t sitting in the same seat each day, but I think I’m learning their faces better, and I am recognizing them in the hall more quickly than I have in previous years.

I’m curious to see how this plays out throughout the year. I have up to 24 students and 6 tables, so it works well for groups of three or four. (I had 25 on my list on the first day, and I was planning to throw in a joker and make it wild, since I didn’t have room for another table. But a student dropped, so I didn’t get to see how that would have worked.)

Have any of you tried random grouping? What is your procedure? Do you like it? Do you have any advice or things I should watch for?

This is extremely interesting to me. I do random groups every other week, just because it’s easier than giving new seats every week. But this method would be easy enough. Do you have students who need preferential seating? I can imagine you could have their card(s) at the bottom and just draw it out for them when they come. Do you have other ideas for that?

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Great question, Kathryn. I do have students with preferential seating, but I’m lucky; the way my room is set up (two rows of tables, white-/chalkboards on both walls) there really isn’t a “closest-to-teacher” seat. So what I do is try to write mostly on the boards close to them, and check frequently with them to make sure they are getting the information. If I had a less flexible room setup, I’d either put cards on the bottom for the kids with IEP/504s, or I’d arrange privately with them so they knew they would always sit in the same spots, but their seating partners would change randomly. (For example, always put Jane at table 1, and have only 3 aces in the deck I deal to the other students. It could be pretty unobtrusive, since lots of the kids come up to my desk before class to get their cards.

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I am fascinated, and reading the Peter Liljedahl article right now. Are you doing this in all of your classes? You mentioned that you didn’t start with this in AP Stats – I’m curious why not. I have a room with tables and it is very difficult to redo seating when I begin to think about all the relationships between students, which is why I love this idea.

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I am doing it in all three classes: Algebra 1 Part 1 (gradual intro to algebra 1) with 17 students, Honors Geometry with 24 students, and AP Statistics with 22 students.

I actually did the random grouping with AP Stats, but instead of briefing them first on the first day, I just met them at the door on day one with a deck of cards.

What I like best about the grouping is that it frees me from doing the conscious social engineering that I never seem to get right, and that the kids always resent. When I reseat on a less frequent basis, the students always think they are being punished for talking or something. This just establishes the expectation from the outset: This is not a place where you sit in your usual cliques and socialize. We mix it up, and we get things done.

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I have been toying with VRG and I am so grateful to have read your post. Learning names is ridiculously hard for me too and that is why I didn’t take the plunge. Kudos to you for diving in in week one! I’m hoping to start after the first unit. Thanks for your insight!

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