Something is different in Kimberlee Derry’s classroom at Lovinggood Middle School. Instead of rows of desks, the room has bean bag chairs piled about.
Derry introduced bean bags as a way to deal with a cramped classroom at the start of the 2012-13 school year and to improve learning. She said studies show that traditional chairs put 75 percent of a student’s body weight on four square inches of bone, which can lead to discomfort, weariness and frequent changes in posture.
“Research shows that alternative learning environments can be good for children,” she said.
After the parent-teacher-student association effort to raise money for the bean bags fell short, Derry’s own students earned the money to pay for them through a coffee fundraiser.
Since the 25 bean bag chairs were brought in at the start of the second semester, Derry said test scores in her language arts and social studies classes have improved by several points.
The children in Derry’s seventh- grade advanced social studies class seem to enjoy the change.
“It’s more fun and comfortable,” said Chyna Hester, 13. “I wish I could come to the class more often. I like doing my work because I’m not trapped at a desk.”
Along with bean bags, the classroom has a few saucer chairs and a love seat, in case that suits the student better. But if kids aren’t making the grade, they have to sit at a more traditional table in the corner of the room. Derry said that out of all her classes, only two students are on “bean bag restriction,” which requires an average grade of 80 to avoid. And if the class is working on group projects, the other group members have to go join the student who lags behind in the corner, regardless of what their grades are.
“I feel like if I treat them like I treat my own children, we earn a mutual respect,” Derry said. “It’s not the grade that matters — it’s the process of learning. I’m teaching them character. I’m teaching them honor.”
The alternative environment doesn’t end with the bean bag chairs and clipboards that the kids write on. Derry plays classical music while the students work, and allows them to use smart phones or other mobile devices to listen to their own music or conduct research.
Even the assignments in Derry’s classes at the west Cobb school aren’t what you might typically see. On Friday, small groups of students were designing their own board games about Africa, an area they are learning about. They write their own questions, then will play another group’s game when they are finished.
“She makes the process fun, while we’re still learning,” said William Christophersen, 13.
Robby Ames, 12, said the kids get to talk to their friends, but they keep the conversation school related.
“It’s really creative here,” he said.