You know that feeling you get? That one where you finally have had enough of your summer break, take yourself into school, and look at the blank walls of your new year’s classroom, just itching to fill it with colour and decorations and a reading corner and intriguing objects and all sorts of learning? Isn’t there the slightest chance that your students might walk in on day one and feel the same way?
I wrote a blog post about the need for students to be given the opportunity to set up their own learning space, not to walk in on the first day and see that their new classroom belongs to someone else. It is imperative that students know that you, their teacher, view the room as ‘our space’, not ‘my space’.
At the beginning of this school year, I left my Grade 5’s classroom alone. This was a challenge for me because usually I enjoy preparing the space and setting it up ready for learning, but it turns out that my students can do that better than me. Here are my tips for enabling students to be part of setting up their learning space at the beginning of the year.
Leave it alone.
Leave the room as bare are you can possibly manage before students arrive. Make it neat and clean but not set up. Have resources such as books and furniture organised but not placed. You might have welcoming items such as rugs or canopies available to be set up.
Sort out your own important things, like your assessment folders or filing system. I challenge you to take up half as much room as last year with your own ‘area’. (Next year halve it again. Keep going every year until you don’t have an area).
Engage in deep discussion on what a learning space needs.
In the initial days of school, discuss together with your class what both the teacher and the individual students think a learning environment needs. Have students consider all the things they think they might do in the room, all the things they need out of the room and the ways it might be used. You’ll notice not many kids say “amazing wall display with the theme of *insert recent Disney movie here*”. Have students record the look, sound and feel of this room, using a simple Y-chart.
If you frame this conversation and your questions carefully, you will steer the conversation to a deep level. “What do you think helps you learn best in a classroom?” rather than “What do you want in your classroom?” will avoid the popular yet unrealistic dream of classroom rollercoaster or jumping castle.
Having this discussion will be essential in setting the tone for what the class believes is important in a space for learning – owned by the students, not the teacher. This is where the quiet kid gets to say “I need a space to be on my own sometimes” and the kid with difficulty hearing gets to say “I like when we sit in a circle because I can see people when they talk”. It’s when a group of students articulate for themselves that “We write better when it’s quiet” and “Table groups of six are too distracting”. It’s when the teacher explains “We need some space and materials to build and create and get messy” so that students know that this is part of learning, too.
Have students consider the spaces or zones that might be needed for various tasks or behaviours.
As students discuss and explain these ideas, list the physical materials and objects, the spaces or zones, and the arrangements mentioned.
When I did this with my class both they and I were surprised to find that lots of them had very similar ideas of what they wanted out of the ‘vibe’ of the space… there was lots of discussion about sound and atmosphere that continues to drive the way they interact in the room now.
Design the room.
Have your students work in small groups to consider all the ideas that have been presented, then draw what they think would be the optimal way to arrange the physical space. If you have engaged students in effective and realistic discussion, this should be the easy part. They simply transfer what they (and others) consider to be the important elements of a learning environment
You might like to put some parameters on this depending on your students (or your own confidence). You might start next term by just having your students decide how they could rearrange their tables or floor space.
Have each group share and justify their ideas. Allow time for questions and discussion.
Make a collective, and not final, decision.
Find a way of having students vote on the options. I find that hot-dotting works perfectly for this. Each student takes 2 or 3 dot stickers and sticks them on the options they like best. The one with the most dots becomes… NOT the winner. It becomes the first arrangement, the trial, the practise.
Make sure students understand that this is not the last way the room will look, nor will it be perfect in every way. Explain that the class will review it and make changes often, according to how the space is working for current needs and how people are working within in.
Look over the plan, make any little tweaks needed and make sure everyone can see it.
Then let them set it up. Yes, it will be loud. Yes, it will get worse before it gets better. But they will get there. I promise they will. There’s nothing like 25 kids moving furniture on the first day of school for a teamwork exercise.
Make it beautiful, inspiring and inviting.
Last year I had my students decorate their book corner. Somehow, some flying hotdogs were suggested and the idea was greeted with a cheer. They were made and even though it is honestly the strangest decoration I’ve ever seen, the kids would always have a giggle looking up at those hotdogs as they sat in the book corner. If one little decoration brings a few extra laughs a day, perfect. They probably wouldn’t have been giggling at my perfectly laminated cartoon books and Dr Seuss quote.
When I met my class this year for the first time (on day 2 of school as I unfortunately was not there on their first day in the classroom) they talked about how they felt when they walked in to their classroom the previous day (day 1 of school) for the first time. Remember, I had left it as bare as I possible could. They described it as dull, boring, plain. When I asked them how they felt about the room after they had spent time setting it up, they used words like exciting, helpful, fun. I asked whether they were happy or not that I had left it to them, and the consensus was that “every teacher should let their kids set up the room so they can get it how they like it”. So there you have it.