Rethinking Student Desks

In an excellent post on his blog, New York math teacher Gary Rubinstein noted the curious timing of both billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’ four-network variety show calling for America to “rethink” high school and US ed sec Betsy DeVos’ “Rethink Schools” tour only days later.

It seems that Jobs and DeVos are hoping that a fresh slogan will prompt the American public to demand that students sit less in desks, especially desks configured to face a teacher desk at the front of the classroom.

I have a confession to make: I have 28 student desks in my classroom, and all are situated toward facing my stool (which I often use and my students sometimes use), my podium (which I sometimes use and my students sometimes use), and my desk (which is my private space and is off limits to my students).

Jobs and DeVos would disapprove. According to them, mine is the classroom of the past.

Rubinstein takes issue with their billionaire discontent and instead notes that this configuration has been around for so long because it is efficient.

I agree. Let me add that my desks are not cemented to the floor and that students are free to move their desks to suit the task at hand, which may or may not involve a component that requires students to focus upon my speaking to them en masse.

Even so, I have been thinking about DeVos’ September 12, 2017, remarks to faculty and students at Woods Learning Center in Casper, Wyoming:

…I’m issuing a bold challenge this week: it’s time to rethink school.
For far too many kids, this year’s first day back to school looks and feels a lot like last year’s first day back to school. And the year before that. And the generation before that. And the generation before that!
That means your parent’s parent’s parents!
Most students are starting a new school year that is all too familiar. Desks lined up in rows. Their teacher standing in front of the room, framed by a blackboard. They dive into a curriculum written for the “average” student. They follow the same schedule, the same routine—just waiting to be saved by the bell.

As DeVos continues, one senses that she believes desks in rows preclude education being “organized around the needs of students.” Of course, if rows of desks were the result of a pervasive voucher program, then they would be parent-empowered rows of desks, and that would surely vindicate that desk configuration.

I was in my desks-in-rows classroom today, even though it is a Saturday, because I needed to input grades in my computer in order to begin next week without being swamped. Last weekend, much of this past week, and some of this weekend I have spent and will spend time grading essays.

I teach English. Time-consuming essay grading is part of my responsibility to my students, just as it was 100 years ago (minus the computerized grade input).

I also spent hours meeting with each student individually to discuss each student’s grade on that essay assignment and to strategize improvements for the next essay, which will be even longer and more complex. I’m not sure if such consultation happened 100 years ago. I do know that my father (born 99 years ago) and my aunt (born 108 years ago) finished school at the eighth grade, which was common in the 1920s-1930s in New Orleans.

Indeed, the amount of time and effort it takes for me to grade a set of essays for my 141 high school seniors does have me siding with DeVos to rethink schools.

Specifically, I have been thinking about a 2013 open letter that I posted to Fordham Institute president emeritus, Chester Finn, in response to his “rethinking high schools.”

Rethinking schools isn’t so “2017” after all.

In my open letter, I proposed ridding public education of those rows of desks in favor of a table that seats 12 students (ideally, though it seems at Exeter the number sometimes creeps up to 14) and one teacher. Such tables (only one per classroom) are known as Harkness tables, named for Edward Harkness.

Yes, Betsy, I would willingly surrender my 28 student desks for one Harkness table.

A wonderful byproduct of this desk-surrendering plan would be the reduced class size that would, in turn, cut my essay-grading burden by more than half.

We are on our way to solving multiple problems.

In my 2013 post, I called my plan the Exeter Plan, named for Finn’s multi-generational, exclusive private school alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, which started using the Harkness method in 1930.

(DeVos would surely forgive the multi-generational aspect of Finn attendance at a school with the same seating configuration across those generations since the school is a private school, which she prefers above all.)

Still, there are some complications, not the least of which is what would become of the students who don’t secure a seat at the table. That’s one of those old-fashioned hang-ups of traditional public schools: They have an obligation to educate all students– the public. They’ve been doing so for generations, just as private schools have been operating via selective admissions for generations.

However, money can solve that space problem, just as it did for Exeter Academy:

…the Harkness Table™ gets its name from a wealthy philanthropist by the name of Edward Harkness. He was a graduate of historic Saint Paul’s School Concord, New Hampshire. In 1930 he gave $5,840,000 (approximately $60,000,000 in 2015 dollars) to Phillips Exeter Academy with the stated purpose, among other things, of changing the way students were taught. About one third of Edward Harkness’ gift was used for the tables and necessary alterations to the classrooms in which they were installed. The rest was used for a host of other projects at Exeter including the addition of new teachers and halving the class size. [Emphasis added.]

(For more details on Exeter’s conversion to Harkness, see page 7 of this Rutgers Law Record.)

So, in order for my school to get rid of my desks in favor of the Harkness method, all it needs is millions of dollars to purchase tables, renovate classrooms, and hire additional teachers.

Of course, Louisiana has 486 non-private high schools, so let’s ball park the cost at $29 billion to Harkness the entire state at the high-school level.

No more rows of desks in the public high schools of the entire Pelican State.

I’ve rethought it, Betsy:

Count me in.


Originally posted 09-23-17 at


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