When sixth-grade teacher Gina Baragone applied for a district grant for new classroom furniture, she didn’t expected two things. First, to receive the award and, second, the impact it would have on her STEM classroom students. The furniture has helped them fly.

Before you say “yeah, right,” buckle up and stow your bag of disbelief. We’ll explain.
Cesar E. Chavez Middle School, California

Baragone teaches sixth grade at San Bernardino’s Cesar E. Chavez Middle School. It enrolls 850 students in grades 6–8. Although it’s one of 11 middle schools in the enormous San Bernardino City Unified School District, Chavez is the district’s only middle school with the IB Middle Years Programme.

In addition to ancient history, Baragone teaches design and technology electives, collectively known as IB Design Class. It’s a point of pride for the school, getting this shout-out by Principal Ernestine Hopwood on the school’s website: “One of the most exciting adventures is the change in our IB Design Class, which includes coding, robotics, and exposure to the application of 3D printing.”

But Baragone’s physical classroom space wasn’t always conducive to maximizing the STEM curriculum, nor the IB pedagogy of intellectual challenge through inquiry, action and reflection. Her classroom furniture was working against her IB learners. The same was true for her three team-teachers (four teachers are grouped to teach core classes in history, science, math and language arts.)

The classrooms were a collective graveyard of drab, outdated school furniture that defied 21st century learning essentials. Baragone had two-person, immobile desks arranged in a sort-of “T” shape. Every surface was the same height; every chair was hard and uncomfortable; beige or brown reigned. Her colleague, English and publications teacher Connie Jones, was making due with old, tethered, desk-chair combos lined up like sentries to face a whiteboard.

Landing An Innovation Grant

Baragone’s commitment to Chavez school runs deep. She’s taught there since it opened in 2005 and was born, raised, and attended school in San Bernardino. When the district advertised its annual Innovation Grant request, Baragone, with the support of Jones, went for it.

Students build robots that have to carry 50 pennies around a giant rectangular track made by tucking desks together.

Baragone and her team teachers wanted incoming sixth graders to be more engaged on all levels. And Baragone especially needed a highly flexible space for STEM and makerspace activities. New classroom furniture was a must.

“We do coding, engineering of roller coasters, 3-D printing, building and coding robots, and some art-based work, like stop-motion animation. It’s a lot of group and project work, so we need to be able to move everything at any given moment.” She also takes kids outside, which requires carting supplies.

Baragone had an equally important second goal. “Students learn the best after P.E. and that’s because their blood is flowing more … so their brains can focus better on what is being said to them. We wanted standing desks to get that blood flowing on a more consistent basis.”

To the surprise of Baragone and Jones, Chavez school won a district Innovation Grant to outfit all four sixth-grade classrooms with new furnishings.

Maximizing the Budget

To plot next steps, the school contacted Devyn Goss, director of sales and marketing with Culver-Newlin, a nearby school and office furniture dealer. CN has worked with the San Bernardino City Unified School District for over 30 years. Baragone and her team teachers were grateful for Goss’s knowledge of Smith System school furniture, especially its adjustable school desks. Baragone explained.

“Teachers typically don’t purchase classroom furniture. Two years ago, I went online and typed in ‘sit-to-stand desk.’ There wasn’t much, except one that you had to unscrew to adjust. When we saw the Smith System’s furniture, we were sold.”

Goss added, “Once we knew they had a grant and a very cool plan, we really wanted to help them maximize their budget.” Goss made the numbers work; Smith System would outfit all four classrooms by fall 2018.

Full STEM Ahead: Selecting Furniture

Having a highly flexible, collaborative space with active seating was paramount for Baragone’s design class. She wanted everything on wheels, except the chairs. “Our sixth graders can be really squirrely. Rocking in chairs is o.k. Rolling is not.” Goss had solutions.

• Seating: Stools and Chairs

Though chairs with wheels were a no-go, Goss proposed seating options that would still be “active,” forcing the students to engage their core muscles and get the “wiggles” out, without disrupting others. She also wanted to offer more personalized seating to empower each student to figure out how he or she learned best.

Like her colleagues, Baragone ordered a 50-50 mix of Smith’s Oodle stools and multi-position Flavors Noodles chairs. Oodle features stackable, cylinder-shaped components, each 17 inches in diameter and 6.5 inches high. Students can use a component individually or stack them higher as stools. Additionally, students can adjust Oodle to allow 10 degrees of multi-directional rocking motion.

The Flavors Noodle Chair has a patented suspension below its seat pan that allows a slight tilt in all directions. It’s a more comfortable “sit” than other classroom chairs, with support and flex that promotes better breathing to improve concentration.

• Surfaces: Tables and Desks

Baragone chose four standing-height Planner Studio classroom tables with a hearty butcher-block surface. The tables’ heavy-duty, steel frame and leg system (with casters) make them well suited to a variety of subjects, including STEM learning, maker labs, art and more.

For variety, she added 20 adjustable-height UXL Sit Stand Student desks on wheels. Their unique adjustable column lets students easily float the surface from 26 inches to 42 inches with the press of a lever. Baragone added, “We tell students they can adjust their desk anytime during period, as long as it’s not a major distraction. It’s not a big deal.”

• Teacher Tools: Lecterns, Desks, Storage

As her students do immersive project work, Baragone wanted fast, easy access to answer questions. Her mobile lectern and teacher desk give her that freedom.

“I push the lectern around a lot. I like to wander as I teach, and I make sure I’m in a new spot every morning, usually around the middle of the classroom.” To keep her design materials (she has a lot) organized, she also selected mobile Cascade classroom storage units and Utility Carts.

Using the Furniture to Race, Roll … and Fly

During one project students built robots that had to carry 50 pennies around a giant rectangular track made by tucking desks together.

Fall 2019 marked the one-year anniversary of the new furniture’s arrival. Has it influenced learning for IB Design Class students?

“Oh, yes! The furniture helps us do some pretty cool things. The wheels and shapes make it so easy to change configurations and everything still works. We have fun with different set-ups.” Here are some of the “pretty cool things” Baragone’s students are up to:

• Coding Robots – Students build robots that have to carry 50 pennies around a giant rectangular track made by tucking desks together.

• The Silk Road – In this cross-curricular unit, students roll the furniture outside (it’s California, after all), and then create a trading route on the open classroom floor. They build carts to carry and trade goods along their journey.

• Ball Races – To understand acceleration, the students use planks to make a track for a ball to run down. Last year, Baragone’s students got particularly clever, using the new classroom furniture for a competitive advantage. Students lowered their adjustable desks little by little, similar to steps, and built tracks through the stepped desks.

• Taking Flight – Another group in last year’s design class was making a green screen video. To simulate flying, they took the multi-colored Oodles apart, put the individual green sections in front of the matching green screen – and voila! When the students “plank-posed” on top of the Oodle and rocked about, it looked like they were, you got it, flying.

Added Benefit: Awake, Engaged Students

“I have a lot less problems with kids being sleepy and putting their heads down. If they’re antsy, they can wiggle back and forth on an Oodle. They do what they need to do to stay engaged.”

Baragone’s initial statement that better blood flow creates more engaged students has also proven true. Students are excited to be in the refurbished sixth-grade classrooms, and she’s seen a boost in learning readiness.

“I have a lot less problems with kids being sleepy and putting their heads down. If they’re antsy, they can wiggle back and forth on an Oodle. They do what they need to do to stay engaged.”

As they start their second academic year in their fresh-faced classrooms, Baragone and her colleagues love their new classroom furniture. Apparently, so do last year’s sixth-grade students (now seventh-graders).

“Those original sixth-grade students have moved on, but they come back to visit the furniture and say, ‘We miss Oodles. We miss being able to stand.’”

We think that’s pretty cool.

Stay Tuned: Chavez Middle School’s Innovation Grant included activity tracker watches for its sixth-grade students. During the 2018-2019 academic year, the P.E. teacher will work with students to compare their movement and heartrate data to students using primarily traditional classroom furniture. The results should be interesting.