A Non-Traditional Approach

If you walk into Ashley Luhrs’ classroom at the Frisco ISD’s Nelson Middle School, you might initially be a little confused. We are used to seeing desks with plastic chairs arranged neatly in groups (or straight rows, depending on how long it has been since you were in school), but Ms. Luhrs’ class has bean bag chairs, yoga balls with resistance bands by the few desks still in the room, high tables with stools, couches, a kitchen table with chairs and even a mini-trampoline.

In this room, Ms. Luhrs teaches eighth grade English (better known to middle school parents as “ILA”). She has spent her entire teaching career with the FISD. “The only way I know is the Frisco way,” she adds. Over the years, she has been with two middle schools and Wakeland High School before being one of the opening teachers at Nelson Middle School.

Her room started out as an experiment and has turned into much more. Students and parents agree that the experiment has paid off and continues to reap rewards no one expected.

How did this all start? Like many other problem-solvers, Ms. Luhrs started by looking for solutions for her son in kindergarten last year. He was having challenges, and while the teachers they were working with were nothing short of amazing, it was hard for them. “I could not get my teacher brain to synch with my mom brain,” she said. She is proud to announce that her son is doing much better now, but it was a lesson in learning for her. He needed a non-traditional space to learn so things sunk in.

Once they figured out how to approach things in a new way at home, Ms. Luhrs wondered if the benefits would translate to her middle school classroom. She started small, with flexible seating. It gave her students the freedom to choose between sitting on the floor, on a yoga ball or in the typical desk.

Before the start of the current school year, Ms. Luhrs received her class roster. She noticed there were larger numbers of students with learning challenges, like ADHD, and she knew she had to try something. She started with three yoga balls and a few bean bag chairs. “The kids thought they were at Disney World,” she said.

Her class takes place at the end of the school day, when her students are already mentally drained and their bodies are tired of being still. She saw the engagement and thought it was helping. Soon, she started getting calls from her students’ parents telling her how much they loved her class. They wanted to know what she was doing. When she explained, their immediate response was, “What else do you need?”

From there, she moved to an entirely flexible classroom. There were several evenings spent doing research on the approach, and what she found was disappointing. “Elementary schools embrace this, but we expect them to just adapt in middle school,” she says. Ms. Luhrs found several resources, but all were geared toward the elementary level, so she adjusted them to fit her students and classroom.

Individually, Ms. Luhrs started looking through online garage sales and actual garage sales to find deals that would work for her class. Then parents donated in a big way. Before she knew it, Ms. Luhrs had handed over her seating chart completely. It became a collective effort to learn how each student best learns. Instead of calling someone out for not paying attention, Ms. Luhrs now notices when students are distracted or antsy and asks, “Is this your best learning position right now?” Students then must defend or agree and then move. It is rare that a student argues, so they move and re-engage. It sheds the security blanket of sitting with friends, as well, so they are more focused on learning.

If you wonder how it might be working, at the time of the interview, her class of eighth graders were busy reading “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a complex, classic piece of literature. Ms. Luhrs says, “Everyone is engaged, even the students who this is their first attempt at reading classical literature.” She also noted that she rarely receives late work, and when she does, her students do not make excuses for it — they own their mistake and work to improve.

By winter break, Ms. Luhrs’ classroom needed some organization. She spent several hours creating different sections for her room, sorting through all the things she found or purchased and what her students’ parents donated. Based on some of her research, she found that some kids like to be higher off the ground, some lower, some need to stand, some need to fidget while they sit and more. It turned into a big reveal when her students came back from their break. They blacked out the windows and doors and showed everyone all at once to make it a big event, since many students are not thrilled to be back at school after two weeks off.

Ms. Luhrs’ principal, Mitzi Garner, has been very supportive. After seeing the early success, Ms. Luhrs has gifted some of her excess to other teachers and they are discussing turning an entire department into flexible classroom space.

As enthusiastic as Ms. Luhrs is, she understands that this is not for everyone. “I have heard things like, ‘it is just a trend,’” she shares. Her response is that the rest of the world has changed drastically in the past 100 years, while learning environments have mostly stayed the same. Some teachers are uncomfortable with the idea, specifically having to give up the seating chart and their basis for managing a classroom. “It has made me a better teacher and helped me learn more about my students,” she responds. There is also a funding concern. While she bargain hunted, others can apply for grants or get the PTA involved to help. 

Finally, the question of STAAR testing comes up, where students are usually placed in rows of desks. She reached out to the testing coordinator locally and the only required stipulation is that students cannot see each other’s papers and must be supervised. They are gathering data in upcoming testing to see if flexible classes help students with their test scores. “I do not know how I would go back,” Ms. Luhrs says. She understands that desk storage can present a problem, and that some will choose to stick with traditional methods, but for her, the results are well worth it. She has seen a ten-point improvement across the board for her on level and Pre-AP students. Her overall class average went from a low B to a low A, which means that students who have never passed before are now passing and students who hated reading before are now enjoying it. While she is clearly a teacher with passion, she says the difference cannot all be her. The classroom setting is benefitting everyone. If that is not enough to make you curious, she says she has zero behavior problems.

Ms. Luhrs has started to receive calls from across the country. Other teachers are asking her how to do what she is doing. At the end of the day, she is being more vulnerable with her students and that has led to her students being more open with her. She wants to do everything she can to create 21st century learners to grow up to be 21st century adults and leaders.

Christi Redfearn is a wife, mom and Aggie in search of that perfect lap time in her weekend race car.