Three things stick out immediately when walking into Suzie Hellard’s sixth-grade classroom at Elkhorn Middle School. The lighting from the floor-lit lamps is low, it feels like a hip dorm room and the students — scattered among hightop tables, overstuffed couches and refurbished dining room sets — are quietly engrossed in their work.
Over the summer, when Hellard, who is in her 12th year of teaching for Franklin County Schools, made the move from Hearn Elementary to teach at the middle school level — something she has always wanted to do — she had a different dilemma than most: where to put her custom-made non-traditional classroom furniture.
“Teachers said, ‘Oh, they’ll tear it up or carve into it,’” Hellard said of the full set of classroom furniture she, her husband, Nolan, and her father crafted from used pallets a few summers ago. “But they haven’t. They treat it with respect.”
Though she researched whether the flexible seating options would be beneficial for middle-schoolers, she couldn’t find substantial data. So Hellard took a leap of faith and told EMS Principal Jeff Rhode that the 30 or so standard-issue classroom desks could be moved to an eighth-grade classroom in need of them.
Making the classroom feel more like home was especially important to Hellard, who quit kindergarten because she didn’t feel welcome.
“When I decided to go to school for education, my parents were shocked,” she said. “It was mainly because I thought to myself that school didn’t have to be as miserable for kids as it was for me.”
Students aren’t assigned seating in Hellard’s class. They are encouraged to sit where they feel they will be most productive. One day that may mean lying on the plush rug near the screen and another day it may be huddling with friends at the refurbished kitchen table.
“I wish more classrooms were this homey,” said 12-year-old Saree Monroe, who sometimes drops by in the mornings before class just to chill.
Many sixth-graders, including Page Barker and Sarah Suttles, said it is easier for them to learn when they are relaxed and comfortable.
Carson Doolittle, 11, and Ruby Ruwet, 12, appreciate sitting at the hightop tables so they can better see the screen Hellard uses to teach.
“It makes me taller,” Saree said, glancing down at her dangling legs.
For Dylan Cantor, being able to stand during class helps him better focus on the task at hand. “Teachers always tell you to sit down, but I prefer to stand. I learn better,” he said.
While the preteens aren’t required to stand or sit anywhere, some have preferences, but there is also no fighting over seats, as one might expect.
“I think it’s a better learning environment,” Hellard said. “They need to learn to work in an unstructured environment.”