Marine on St. Croix elementary teacher Abby Brown came up with the idea for stand-up work stations that allow kids to move freely.
Abby Brown has been a teacher at Marine Elementary School in Marine on St. Croix for 20 years, so she's seen her share of fidgeting, and snoozing, and "when will it be recess?" eye-rolling. It's hard for a kid to be still, yet for -- what, centuries? -- we've made sitting still a prerequisite for getting an education.
Then a few years ago, Brown learned that the Mayo Clinic was exploring a "chairless school" to encourage movement and fight obesity. While not ready to go quite that far, Brown began thinking of ways to change her classroom and use kids' natural inclination to move to their advantage.
With the aid of imagination, experience, foundation grants and a small office furniture company in Centuria, Wis., Brown came up with what she calls a stand-up workstation, but what officially is called the AlphaBetter standing desk.
Now her students can stand or perch on a stool throughout the day. A swinging footrest fulfills the impulse to fidget, which seems to improve their ability to focus.
"Seems" is the operative word right now, but Brown and others are seeking certainty for a range of outcomes that might flow from simply having students stand up while learning.
Brown has a grant from the Education Minnesota Foundation to study the relationship between movement and academic achievement. Beth Lewis of the University of Minnesota's School of Kinesiology is tracking students' movement to determine how many more calories are burned by those at stand-up desks than at traditional desks. She hopes to have results by the end of this school year. "It's really a new area of research," she said.
Future studies may track how the desks help students with attention deficit disorder, or ease the age-old issue of maintaining discipline.
Sixth-grader Raissa Rottach already has noticed one change: "It's made my handwriting better," she said. She likes feeling as if she has more room "and you don't have to sit all stuffy."
The American classroom has changed in so many ways -- and yet remained so fixed in others.
Concern over obesity now drives some innovations, with some schools replacing chairs with exercise balls to keep kids moving. Brown first considered using drafting tables, but found them too wobbly and too big. At the school custodian's suggestion, she contacted Sunway, the Wisconsin office furniture company.
"I pestered them -- I mean, was persistent -- until we came up with something that worked and would last," she said. And, while the obesity issue was part of this, Sunway founder Tim Skiba soon began looking for outcomes "that are a little bigger than that."
"I'm looking for kids listening better, being attentive," he said. "It all kind of starts with the basics. My goal was to say, hey, we're doing this in the business world with height-adjusted furniture. Let's get our kids on the same page now."
About six area schools are trying the desks; Marine Elementary has them in several classrooms. Skiba said the average stand-up desk costs $210, a little more than regular desks, but he expects that anticipated academic and behavioral advantages will make that difference worthwhile.
Stand up, wake up
At Marine, this is some students' second year with the stand-up stations. Clayton McGinley, among the tallest kids in Brown's sixth-grade class, said that switching "was kind of a big adjustment, but a good adjustment. They're pretty cool."
New student Claire Wagner said she likes the new experience of standing up. "You can swing your leg, or stand up whenever you want," she said. "Sometimes it wakes you up to stand up."
Bingo. The alertness factor is what Brown, as a teacher, most enjoys. "It's natural that if you're standing or moving, there's more oxygen uptake," she said, adding that researchers are working with college students to track exact proportions of stand-up vs. seated.
The improvement that some students have seen in their handwriting was unexpected, but welcome, "because neat handwriting has a direct effect on their self-esteem," Brown said.
Looking over the classroom, students were standing, sitting or perched, with feet working as gentle pendulums on the swinging bar. Brown said her only rule is that no one sits throughout the whole day.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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