I remember a friend going through teacher training for a particular chain of ESL Academies one summer. This chain had recognized the potential of untrained but willing and young native speakers, interested in living abroad for a period of time but needing some type of work to sustain themselves. In order to produce a consistent product and make sure clients were satisfied, the chain developed a methodology and curriculum that was attractive, easy to teach to both teachers and students and a good value for their money.
The training program was pretty intensive. My friend had already taught ESL for a number of years, was quite experienced and always open to further training and new ideas. We debated his daily classes and practice sessions each evening. One theme that I found interesting was classroom layout. Not the consideration of classroom layout itself, that was something I had always considered important; rather that the theme had been analysed and taught in this training course.
This Academy had outlined different layouts for the classroom (and they are, indeed, finite!) and explained the particular use of each one. Although some of their “method” rubbed me the wrong way for being way too marketable and not necessarily in the best interest of ESL teaching, the ideas presented about class layout did seem valid and actually coincided with what I had discovered myself.
Rows of desks
Probably the least effective for the type of class I gave. Uggh, rows of seats, students looking at the back of the head of the student in front. Teacher in front of the board lecturing, students noting stuff on paper. Sounds like grade-school language arts class.
On the other hand, when discipline was an issue, when there were 25 10-year-olds, when an important concept had to be explained and understood, I never hesitated to become Mrs Stilch for a while. Just a little while. Just a bit. It’s good for the hidden authority figure inside every teacher.
The round table
This one is fine for a group of four or five. Especially kids, again, because they kind of need something to hang onto to keep from jumping out of their seats and floating about the room, as is their nature. Also quite useful in adult situations where one or more of the adults is a little hard to control (read: talkative). The circle makes all participants equal, makes it easy to give each student his/her turn in practice sessions, even discussion periods.
The horseshoe table
For groups a bit larger, also the T-shaped configuration. One long table with students along the sides and a table crossed to make a T where the teacher spreads out all his/her books and papers. Teacher is set apart as an authority and students can see one another and participate in a particular order.
The semi-circle of chairs
Tables pushed back against the walls. Students sitting in a wide, open semi-circle. Teacher sitting (or standing, though sitting is better, rising to use the board when necessary) in the open end. Everyone can see everyone else. There’s room to stand or use the center area for everybody. It’s easy to mix and match students. There’s no table to anchor to and focus is removed from note-taking to paying attention and actively participating. This was my favorite and most-used configuration of the classroom.
Choosing the configuration
As I repeat about “methods”, I shall repeat about classroom configuration. No one is the perfect one. Each has its strength in giving physical, visible structure to the material shared or practiced in any given class.
Further reading: Basic Class Structure: The Class Activity