Category Archives: Classroom Environment

How to Let Your Students Set Up Their Own Classroom

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).

The ‘before’ shot.

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.

We used a Y-chart to organise thinking.

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.

Breaking it down into the important stuff.

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.

An example of a group’s classroom design. Their book cave idea made it into the design created later that day.

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.

Hot-dotting to find a favourite layout.

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.

Last year’s hotdogs.

This year’s reading cave is very popular. It drives me crazy because it’s not how I would have made it, but the grade loves it and they use the space really well, so it stays! The shelves now display the books we are focusing on currently, and one of the kids brought in a succulent to put on top to make the book area ‘feel more relaxing’. 

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.

The ‘after’ shot.

Why I Hate Classroom Themes

At the beginning of each school year, my Pinterest feed fills up with tons of pictures that fall under the heading of “Classroom Inspiration”. Teacher friends will send pictures of their freshly decorated rooms to each other with questions about where to put the book corner. Ikea experiences a massive spike in sales of those giant canopy leaves and Officeworks sell out of laminating pockets.

Thousands of teachers begin creating themes for their rooms. Jungle theme. Space theme. Harry Potter theme. Garden theme. The list goes on. Sometimes I wonder if some teachers might have been better suited to being window dressers.

This website lists hundreds of classroom theme examples!

Similar to classroom themes, many teachers will spend days and days before the students arrive setting up every aspect of the classroom, plastering their walls, floors and ceiling with posters and decorations. I’ve been there, and I’ve dragged my mum with me.

There was a time when I thought this was a cute idea, a nice thing to do for students by teachers who were willing to spend their time, money and energy creating an amazing-looking space ready for day one. I myself must have spent hundreds of dollars and hours on my classroom in my first year, spending my nights laminating and my weekends at Ikea or scouring Pinterest for ways to make it look more “enchanting” (I remember this being the word I wanted to describe my first ever classroom for my preps).

But every year I chuck out a bit more stuff. Every year I find more things I made or bought that were never looked at or used. Every year I notice the way the kids don’t notice it all.  Every year I’ve learned more about how kids learn best, and surprise, surprise, hand-painted Hogwarts Express mural across an entire wall, little owls hanging from the ceiling above every table, with pencils carved into wand shapes aren’t on the list, no matter how magical or enchanting they may be.

THE ROLE OF THE TEACHER

A list of teacher-reported conditions that promote learning, provided by Will Richardson.

So what does the classroom need in it? After listening to Will Richardson’s presentation ‘Old School to Bold School’, I was challenged to list the things I believe contribute most powerfully to student learning. He shared a list of responses he’d heard over and over again from teachers. You can read this below. Most likely if you were asked to write a list yours would look similar to this because we know these are the things that matter.

As I started to consider how I might set up my new room this year, I was reminded of this presentation and the things that matter most in learning environment.

Einstein famously said “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Obviously, this is not only about the physical environment, but we cannot deny that the physical environment has a huge impact on the way students act and interact in their school day. So, if we believe the role of the teacher to be to create the conditions for learning, or to model how to learn best, we must ask ourselves…

How do classroom themes or decorations contribute to learning?

How can I ensure that all aspects of the classroom contribute to learning?

What are our classrooms if not spaces for learning?

Teachers should curate their space and resources extremely carefully so that the room works in harmony with how we know students learn best. This should be our only focus.

Would you decorate your kitchen with mermaids, shells, blue crepe paper hanging from the ceiling and deck chairs and expect to cook better? No? Then it is unlikely that decorating your classroom with an ‘Under the Sea’ theme will make your students learn better.

Take steps in setting up your room that will directly facilitate student learning, for example:

  • ensure there is a mix of individual reflection areas and table banks for group work
  • ensure an attractive, easy-to-access, visible display of a variety of texts for students to browse and choose from
  • put resources and equipment (like stationery or games) within reach of the students that use it, rather than locking it away in a cupboard (to only be bestowed with the teacher’s permission).

STUDENT OWNERSHIP

Some teachers will argue that decorating the space makes it more fun or inviting. That might be so, but is there the risk that the purpose of the classroom space is lost in amongst all the shells and vines? When a student walks into a room that is themed or extremely decorated for the first time, they might be wowed and feel like they are in a fun classroom, and that’s great. But what happens when the fun wears off and there’s just a lot of clutter, a lot of teacher-owned items and not a lot of items or space where students feel true connection and control? How can they take ownership in a space so clearly owned by another?

Kath Murdoch, in The Power of Inquiry (2015), say that ‘setting the room up before the students arrive actually deprives them of an important opportunity to develop a sense of shared ownership of, and commitment to, their environment’.

I remember how one of my university tutors, Narelle Lemon, was talking to my uni class about setting up classroom communities. As we listened, horrified, she explained how at the start of each year, she would welcome her new class into an empty classroom with bare walls, the chairs stacked in the corner and the tables all pushed up against the wall.

At the time I was speechless with disbelief. Now I’m completely on board.

I really believe that an important part of classrooms is student ownership in the space and culture. This requires the (oftentimes challenging) feat of teachers loosening their grip and giving some measure of control to students over the space they work in. So another question comes to mind…

What is the balance between creating an inviting space and letting students have ownership?

This question has been on my mind for a few years now and I’ve been dipping my toes in, slowly relinquishing more and more control to my students over their learning space. Unsurprisingly, the ground hasn’t yet fallen out from under me.

At the beginning of the 2017 school year, I will be diving in and experimenting with setting up (almost) nothing at all in my classroom and working with the grade to collectively and carefully make decisions about our space. Watch this space for a follow-up post to see how this goes, both pedagogically and logistically.

‘Creating an inviting classroom means reflecting comfort and productivity throughout the daily routine’ (Fountas and Pinnell, 2001. p89). Considering that, I think some of the keys to creating an inviting and practical space will be:

  • Guiding students to create areas that are important to how the class will work, e.g. a classroom library or meeting space on the floor.
  • Having good quality furnishings and items (throw away the dirty old floor rugs and the sad looking cushions) that students can choose from to set up and furbish.
  • Making sure that students have the resources and freedom to own the space aesthetically, to add their personal touch (for example, last year one of my students brought in some little cupcake cushions that adorned our book corner and made it cheery, another time a lamp was brought in for a dark corner).
  • Creating zones or different areas for different purposes. Read more about ways you can do this here.

This post is not to discourage teachers from the effort they put in or discredit that work. I think most people agree that teachers give their heart and souls to their job, and sometimes this looks like dreaming up and creating a beautiful classroom space for their students to walk into on the first day. But is this the best way to expend our effort? Think back to that earlier list. These are the things that truly make a difference to student learning, so it’s time to re-direct that effort towards the things that make the most difference, the things that really matter.

 


References

Fountas, I. & Pinnell, G. (2001). Guiding readers and writers (1st ed., p. 89). Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann.

Murdoch, K. (2015). The Power of Inquiry (1st ed., p. 33). Northcote: Seastar Education.

Richardson, W. (2016). Old School to Bold School. Presentation, Bastow Institute.