By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
Over the course of a day’s instruction at Alexandria Country Day School, it is rare for teachers to deliver a lesson in lecture format, talking about a topic as students frantically take down notes to study later.
Instead, through the use of group work, joint projects and one-on-one time with teachers in classes of no more than 16, students are more active in the learning process, and have been provided with new desks to help support that activity and maintain focus, even as heads begin to droop in the difficult post-lunch hours.
ACDS recently received an anonymous $3 million gift, and designated the money to help spruce up the campus, including the workspace inside the classrooms. And now, students in fifth through eighth grade have the use of adjustable desks, which can be utilized in sitting or standing positions over the course of a school day.
“There’s been a lot written in the last few years about the negative effects of sitting,” said Head of School Scott Baytosh. “We know that kids traditionally sit for very long periods of time, and we really had an opportunity here to get ahead of the curve with that research in mind, so we started to look at furnishings that were more ergonomically responsive.”
What the school came up with were second-generation LearnFit standing desks manufactured by Ergotron. The desks can be adjusted as easily and quietly as a standard office chair, and are accompanied by lightweight plastic stools that encourage good sitting posture. Throughout the course of a day, Baytosh said he can walk the corridors, look into classrooms and see some students sitting and other standing to work, without disruption to others.
“What we find in that dynamic is that teachers spent a little bit of time at the beginning of the year talking it through with kids, setting some parameters, but the desks work such that you can transition from sitting to standing with really zero interruption,” he said. “There’s a little lever on the desk and you move from a stool to standing up. They have to be mindful of the kids around them, that’s something we’ve talked to them about.
“They have to be aware of their surroundings, they can’t be moving in front of somebody so they can’t see the board or not able to work with them in a group.”
Just a few weeks into the new school year, Baytosh said that after some initial growing pains as students and teachers became used to the new arrangement, things have gone very smoothly and have already started to show results. He said with the desks being on wheels, they are conducive to different kinds of activities and class structures, in addition to offering students the option to sit or stand.
“What we anticipated, and what I think we’re beginning to see, is that in fact, the ability to stand increases focus and attention,” Baytosh said. “When you’re sitting, you tend to collapse in on yourself and it can be hard to maintain your energy. But when you’re standing, you have a little more blood flow, a little more oxygen flowing around. You tend to be more engaged. I think the teachers are seeing that.
“If they’ve just come off a hard PE period and need to sit, they can sit, but if they’re getting into the legs of the day after lunch, they can stand.”
In addition to standing desks in the middle school grades, the lower school was provided with new stools designed by Hokki, which are ergonomically designed to strengthen students’ core muscles and encourage better posture.
Baytosh said that standing desks were unlikely to be introduced across all grades due to their size, but the idea of improving the posture of the youngest students is something that has permeated other schools in Alexandria.
At Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, second grade teacher Jan Olmstead pioneered the use of fitness balls as an alternative to standard seats for her students, with the seats also available for those who want them. Having used them in a variety of locations across the U.S. and Europe for the last two decades, Olmstead said the benefits are apparent in class.
“Rather than expecting [students] to sit still and do their work, they can be in one location and continue to do their work, be engaged in their work, but at the same time they’re moving,” she said. “For example, they might be sitting on the ball, and when they sit they have to have both feet flat on the ball for stability but they can still bounce up and down on the ball. They do it as they need it.
“Sometimes they’ll be still for a while and other times they’ll be moving. They can also rock back and forth on the ball, they can rock side to side on the ball or they can move in a circular motion, clockwise and counter clockwise.”
With more and more research suggesting that alternative ways to sit in class can be beneficial to students, the use of standing desks, fitness balls and other methods may well grow further across the city and the country as time goes on.