Above, Angeles Mesa teacher Amanda Tooley offers a variety of workspace options for her fifth-grade students.

by Justin Frank,
Local District West

Walking into fifth grade teacher Amanda Tooley’s classroom will challenge any notions of what a classroom is supposed to look like. There are no rows or columns of desks facing a whiteboard at the front of the room. There is no wooden teacher’s desk with an apple on it.

Instead, the Angeles Mesa DREAMS Magnet classroom is adorned with throw rugs, couches, plush chairs, coffee tables, exercise balls, high tables and chairs and low desks — not to mention a seemingly endless number of books organized by genre, all beneath the warm glow of various table lamps and hanging lights.

The room’s appearance is less like a traditional classroom and more akin to an IKEA showroom or tech company campus in the Silicon Valley.

The concept that inspired Tooley’s classroom is flexible seating, the idea of providing students with ‘novelty, voice, and choice.’ The learning environment is meant to be fluid and amenable to students’ varied learning styles, allowing them to try different work spaces and find which works best for them as individuals.

“The core idea of flexible seating is making a place where learners feel comfortable,” said Tooley, who is in her fourth year as a teacher and in her first at Angeles Mesa. “They take on the responsibility to choose where they learn.”

Tooley acquired furniture from various places, including Craigslist, garage sales and even her own home. The latest additions – two plush green chairs – came from a senior housing facility in her neighborhood.

“Of course everyone wants to sit on the new chairs,” she said. “We have to make sure to rotate, so everyone has a chance to try everything available.”

Angeles Mesa principal Emily Williams first saw flexible seating while visiting UCLA Lab School, after which she began to research the concept, influenced by companies like Google, which aims to provide work and learning spaces that feel homey and comfortable rather than institutional.

Williams says inviting Tooley to work at her school was a natural choice, given her experience with flexible seating at her previous job in the Apple Valley School District.

“Her former principal told me that she’s ‘a little outside the box,’” she said. “So, I said, ‘Perfect. That’s just what I want.’”

The concept made a lasting impression on parents and family members during Back-to-School Night.

“Of course they all took out their phones to take pictures,” Williams said. “They all said, ‘wow’ and that they wished they had had this type of learning environment when they were in school.”

Tooley says where the concept will go in the future in her classroom really depends on the students.

“When next year’s students come in I’ll see what they want and do my best to make it happen,” she said.

The concept has already gained so much popularity that Williams has asked Tooley’s help in incorporating the practice in more classrooms at Angeles Mesa.

“Having Tooley on our team has helped immensely,” she said. “She is really helping the whole staff put this together. We can do this.”

According to Williams, flexible seating aligns perfectly with the goals of the school’s magnet program.

“The DREAMS Magnet and its focus on design thinking are built on empathy,” she said. “When you think about a student being able to find the space that works for them, it channels the creativity of not only students but the teachers and everyone involved.”

The flexible seating classroom has inspired students to attend school regularly and sometimes even arrive to school early.

“A regular class can be boring,” said fifth-grader Shemara McConico. “But, Mrs. Tooley’s room is definitely not. We get to learn and have fun at the same time.”