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A Student's Workspace Part 2

#specialeducation #middleschool #motivation #languagearts #inclusion #executiveprocessing


In Part 1 I discussed my inspiration and rationale for providing a special education student with a functional workspace. In short, I gave a student with severe executive processing issues my teacher desk and chair as a base-of-operations to remedy some of his typical stumbling-blocks. My goal was to provide a large, well-stocked and pre-organized workspace that would preempt Devon’s inability to locate his supplies and begin tasks, and I hoped to provide additional opportunities for movement. Here’s the link: https://www.picklesandbooks.com/blog/a-student-s-workspace


I gave Devon a survey to complete to prepare the workspace. Here’s a snip of the survey:





I then set up the workspace to reflect his responses and I stocked his supplies. Notice that my desk has about three times the surface area of a typical student desk. Devon also has use of my rolling chair which is significantly more comfortable and larger than student seating.


My desk is about three times the size of a student desk.

I was surprised to find that Devon was reluctant to sit in the new space on the first day of the trial; he lurked in the corner near my filing cabinet and protested that he preferred his old desk. Devon also shows signs of oppositional defiance, so I knew that he was need some coaxing to try out the new digs.


To be honest, the first week was rough. No plan survives first contact with the opposition, as the military adage goes. Devon spent the first few days avoiding work and making a general mess of the space. He somehow left a thick layer of mud on the floor, despite there being no rain, and there were graphite marks and marker stains on the desktop. I didn’t observe Devon intentionally marking the desk, but he was observed by my substitute on the day of my absence cracking magic marker housings and cutting off the tips with a pair of scissors.

This warranted a discussion about how the use of the new space was a privilege and a unique opportunity that he wasn’t likely to get elsewhere in middle school.


During the second week, Devon’s productivity increased. I no longer had to wrestle with him to locate his supplies and begin work. I can’t understate how huge this was for me in terms of classroom management; I could now spend time engaging and motivating the other inclusion students who were in need. Devon completed six out of ten sentence diagramming warm-ups by the end of the second week whereas he was averaging one out of ten warm-ups in the previous marking period.


When we switched warm-up activities from grammar to reading comprehension, his level of productivity held. He also began to complete more classroom assignments and turn them in, although there were other factors in play not related to the workspace (notably, the efforts of my cooperating special education teacher).


Devon’s affect changed noticeably as well—he smiled more and was more animated than usual. I didn’t mind if he occasionally spun around in my chair on the condition that it didn’t distract other students and that he re-engage with a verbal prompt.


The next several weeks of the marking period were unpredictable, as was his usual pattern, with periods of decreased (back to base level) performance interwoven with increased output. Then there was a marked change. Devon’s affect went flat and he stopped working altogether.


I asked Devon to complete a workspace check-in form to gauge his assessment of the workspace and it took two days for him to respond to six of the seven items. The questions and his verbatim responses follow:


1. What do you like about your new workspace? i like nothing about this workspace it’s huge


2. What would you change about the workspace? Why would you make this change? The size i’m used to small spaces


3. Have any of your work habits changed in the new workspace? If so, how? none


4. Is it easier, more difficult, or about the same to get started on tasks? the same


5. On a scale of 1 to 5, how do you rate your level of comfort? (5 is the most comfortable) 3


6. Has your level of focus changed since moving to the new workspace? If so, how? no


7. Do you have any comments, questions, or concerns about the workspace? [no response]


We clearly had different perceptions of the experiment and I felt deflated having had such high hopes. Regardless, he continued to sit at “the big desk” as it came to be called and I continued to monitor his progress for the remainder of the marking period. Devon’s grade point average increased significantly despite a plateau from the previous marking period but he requested a move back to a traditional desk at the start of the new quarter, which I obliged.


The first day back in a student desk, Devon approached me and stated: “I don’t have a pen or a notebook…”


My takeaway

It’s complicated. Despite some disappointment, I remined myself of what I wrote in part one:

It is important to remember that each person’s work process is unique and deeply personal as it takes into account habits and behaviors, brain function, emotional responses, motivation, psychological functioning, dysfunction, disability, and etc. As such, there are no hard-and-fast-rules for getting things accomplished.


I do believe that there are other students out there who would benefit from having teachers who implement outside-the-box strategies to engage special education students, even if it means a little sacrifice.


For inspiration, consider the artistic process, a continuum of planning, problem solving, decision-making, collaboration, reflection, evaluation, and refinement, of potential immense benefit to everyone from individuals to organizations, and especially students.