I wish it was as simple as that.
The alternating gender seating arrangement probably dates back to the earliest days of coeducational primary schools. It exploits the developmental tendency of young children to prefer playmates and conversation partners of their own gender and, frequently, to be repelled to some degree by children of the other gender. Separate Dina from Denise, and put Dina next to Dean and Denise next to Dennis, and you break up two sources of classroom disruption. Standardize the arrangement across the classroom, and when it's time for students to listen to the teacher, there should be no auditory distractions at all.
In an ideal social matrix, with all boys alike and all girls alike, all problems of classroom management could be solved by this simple tool. But as I implied in the opening sentence, it's not that simple, for a lot of reasons.
First and foremost, the same-gender preference of children is a tendency, not a given. At every age, there are children whose friendships leap the gender barrier. My favorite playmate when I was in the first and second grades was a neighbor girl, and as both a parent and a teacher, I've seen many cross-gender friendships that are exceptions to the same-gender rule.
Then there's the bullying factor. Pudgy nerd that I was, I discovered in the first grade that girls were nicer to me than boys, and I chose my playmates accordingly. By the time I got to junior high, things got more complicated, but I could still say, even then, that almost all the mistreatment I experienced was at the hands of other boys. As a teacher, I've witnessed the same dynamic at play among girls: bullying is almost always a same-gender thing. When I see a kindergartner crying over someone telling him or her "I'm not your friend!" it's almost always a child of the same gender whose hurting his or her feelings, something that continues all the way into adolescence. When all a boy's tormentors are other boys, he's going to like talking to sympathetic girls, something that cuts both ways.
Socializers add another factor to this equation. Every class I teach--there are nineteen of them in my current assignment--has children who will chat unceasingly with anyone they're next to. If I'm lucky, there are only one or two, but I've got a few classes where there are a good half dozen of these overly gregarious students. Alternating gender seating is worthless in these cases. Keeping them apart from each other is essential, but in the mobile environs of the music room, a losing battle. Yesterday the noise of the conversation generated by three of these children managing to drift together during a transition drowned out the music being made by the other twenty.
Don't forget puberty, which is coming earlier in children's development. I have fourth grade students who look like and act like sixth graders: tall, developed, and showing off not just for their same-gender cohorts any more, but clearly to impress the other gender in the room. The hormones are in full bloom by fifth grade, and with them, the first powerful resistance to adult authority. No seating arrangement can eliminate this dynamic.
It's enough to make me long for the days when my biggest discipline issue was getting boys and girls to folk dance together without anyone saying "Ewwwww!"
So what do I do? I use school-wide incentive programs: thank you tickets, behavior plan clipboards, referrals. I create my own incentives for the class: children who are quiet have first choice of instruments, are my first picks to run the playtime clock which is, itself, a competitive incentive (first class to reach 100 minutes of real playing time gets a "choice day"). I pare down my lessons so there's as little lecturing and as much activity as possible. I tailor my content to student preferences (I'm doing a hip hop unit. Yes, you read that right: a hip hop unit.). I go out of my way to engage students outside of class time, getting to know them better.
A lot of these things are techniques I should be using anyway, and there's no question that teaching is more fun when the students are fully invested in the lesson. But even with all these things in place, I have classes that leave me shell-shocked at how bad a few naughty children can make things for the rest of the group, not to mention for me.
These may seem like a lot of hand-wringing over the state of education, but in fact, most of what I'm writing about has been around since the dawn of time. What's different now is that we don't beat naughty children anymore. It's not that they don't get spanked--the fear in children's eyes when I tell them I'm going to have to call home tells me there's still plenty of that going on, just not at school--but that our focus as educators has shifted to nurture. Our goal is to help the child learn to overcome whatever obstacle is causing the misbehavior. We don't always succeed, but considering the alternative--punishing children into suppressing the pain they're experiencing at home, and pretending everything's fine just so we can do our jobs more easily--I'd much rather be teaching now than fifty years ago, when you probably could've heard a pin drop in the music room (and it's carpeted!).
I'm writing this from home (something I ate last night really didn't agree with me), but still getting school emails as I write. I just had one from the school registrar letting staff members know there's a restraining order barring a father from any contact with his two sons who are in the first and second grades at Scott. These boys have frequently been difficult in the music room, impulsively grabbing and playing instruments without permission, talking when they're supposed to be listening, and engaging in other disruptive behaviors. I've done what I could to remind them, again and again, of the classroom expectations, but like many high flyers, they've got short memories when it comes to rules. Today is the first I've heard about family trauma. I know that many of the high flyers at my school are homeless, have a parent in prison, live in a foster home, are experiencing a difficult divorce, are abused, neglected, or witness substance abuse at home. I have to wonder how many of the other children disrupting my classroom have sad home lives I just don't know about.
This is why teaching is so much more than a job, or even a vocation: it's a mission. Yes, we're primarily here to teach content and skills. Much more than that, though, we create a learning community that is safe and nurturing, helping children see that anger and abuse are not the only ways to respond to challenges.
Some of the biggest hugs I get are from the children I most often have to remind of my classroom rules. And I wouldn't have it any other way.