What a difference a chair makes — LCHS 7/8 teacher modifies classroom into flexible learning space

What a difference a chair makes — LCHS 7/8 teacher modifies classroom into flexible learning space
La Cañada High School eighth-grade teacher Joanne Park-Smith sits on a yoga ball chair in her history class on Thursday. Park-Smith is trying out a new "flexible seating" arrangement made possible by an innovation grant from the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation. (Raul Roa / La Cañada Valley Sun)

La Cañada High School 7/8 teacher Joanne Park-Smith likes to keep things fresh in her eighth-grade history class, and so challenges herself to come up with new goals each school year.

This year’s project — redesigning her classroom’s layout and furniture with input from her students — began with some preliminary research and the purchase of a few “wobble” stools that help young people concentrate by allowing them to move and fidget as they perch.


“The ideal student is told to sit there and work quietly, but to foster a more relaxed student they need to move,” Park-Smith said. “Here, they can have a break while they’re at their seat and get some energy out while they’re sitting.”

Momentum and interest among the eighth-graders in improving their seating arrangement has grown since the introduction of the chairs. With help from a $5,000 innovation mini-grant from the La Cañada Educational Foundation this fall, Park-Smith was able to purchase additional pieces of furniture and make modifications to tables and work spaces.


Now, students can select from traditional desks and chairs, couches, floor-level rocking gaming chairs and other movement-based and inflatable ball seats. Tables have been adjusted to complement the new seats and on a recent classroom visit, students were experimenting with natural light. Regular survey data helps Park-Smith track what’s working and what isn’t.

“I was skeptical at first when she said we were going to have a bunch of couches and you could sit wherever you want,” said 13-year-old Kyra Aitelli. “It sounded like a good idea in theory, but she followed it through and it worked.”

Park-Smith’s modified classroom is catching the attention of La Cañada Unified officials as the district envisions the new instructional spaces it will build with more than $100 million of assistance from the Measure LCF school bond.

LCUSD chief technology officer Jamie Lewsadder assisted Park-Smith in the transformation, taking her to see newly renovated elementary school spaces and joining her and her colleagues at a Stanford University classroom-design thinking conference.

Madeline Burroughs sits low to the ground on a gaming chair while working on her class project on Thursday.
Madeline Burroughs sits low to the ground on a gaming chair while working on her class project on Thursday. (Raul Roa / La Cañada Valley Sun)

Next month, Lewsadder hopes to commit a portion of the first $30-million series of Measure LCF bond money to create opportunities for about 10 teachers across grade levels to apply for their own redesign projects. Those model classrooms would get more LCUSD teachers thinking about how to move forward with the district’s sweeping facilities master plan.

“I don’t want them to just go shopping. It’s about more than a shopping list — it’s about our core values,” Lewsadder said. “I really want to have spaces we can spend some time in and learn from.”

Park-Smith’s class is already beginning to see positive changes. She used to lecture every day, and now does so just once a week because students seem to enjoy group work more.

“They’re working, but they’re relaxed too and are able to collaborate better. I think it fosters communication,” the teacher said.

Benjamin Aydin, 14, said the new classroom is much more interesting and comfortable than it was before the changes.

“At first we had wobble chairs and it rotated. Once everything came in, we got a new room — it’s fun,” he said of his first period class. “You can wake up and adjust to the day.”

“And when you sit with your friends, you won’t be afraid to ask questions,” said classmate Kevin Lerian, 13. “It’s better.”