During this back-to-school time I would like to share some thoughts I have been having about the space we create for students in our classrooms. I'll start by sharing some stories of ways I unintentionally didn't create space for my students during my first few years of teaching.
My first year of teaching was in a fifty-year-old building with carpeted floors and walls. During my last student teaching cohort meeting before graduation our instructors talked about creating a classroom environment. They suggested having a theme and taught us how to make classroom decor using an overhead projector and clipart photocopied onto transparency paper that we traced onto posters taped to the wall and then colored in using chalk and aerosol hairspray to seal the deal (if that doesn't make sense there are pictures below).
I'm sure the intent of the instructors was for us to do something fun that day, but I took it to a whole extreme and decked out my classroom in all the self-created chalked clipart decor I could make that summer. A friend and I both chose "the beach" as our themes so we swapped ideas over the summer as well. I wanted to use all of the borders and posters gifted to me by teachers and non-teachers. I even sewed pillows to go on the beach chairs and stuffed fish to hang from the ceiling. I definitely spent a fair share of time and money at the dollar store.
Looking back I'm not only embarrassed at the amount of time I spent decorating my classroom, but also at how much my students were not a part of the classroom environment.
I did have my students in mind as I decorated the classroom for them. I thought about how excited I would have been if my sixth grade teacher had made such a fun classroom. I did not, however, consider that while I loved the beach having grown up in southern California, perhaps some of my students in Utah had never even been to a beach and would not have the same fondness as I did.
Many of my students told me our classroom was fun. One told me he hated everything about it. A couple years later I moved to northern Virginia and had a more modern classroom in a brand new school. I no longer had carpeted walls where I could use the staple gun I "borrowed" from my father to create a floor-to-ceiling fabric beach mural, but I still tried to use as many of the decorations as I could.
A more veteran teacher on my team told me that there might be sensory overload for some students in my class. That was the first time I had considered that my decorations were what I wanted to have a fun classroom, but not necessarily what created an environment most conducive to learning for my students.
I am not advocating that teachers should not have classroom themes or should not include decorations that are personal to them in their classrooms. I am also not advocating that there should not be decorations in classrooms. I just invite teachers to think about how the decorations and the space in general contribute to or detract from the student learning space. I also invite mentors, coaches, and administrators to support teachers is creating the most student-friendly environments.
Recently Building Thinking Classrooms by Peter Liljedahl has been popular among book studies, conference sessions, and new things educators are trying in math class. A practice Liljedahl recommends is to consider "Where Students Work in a Thinking Classroom." He states, "One of the most enduring institutional norms that exists in mathematics classrooms is students sitting at their desks (or tables) and writing in their notebooks. This turned out to be the workspace least conducive to thinking. What emerged as optimal was to have the students standing and working on vertical non-permanent surfaces (VNPSs) such as whiteboards, blackboards, or windows. It did not matter what the surface was, as long as it was vertical and erasable (non-permanent). The fact that it was non-permanent promoted more risk taking, and the fact that it was vertical prevented students from disengaging. ... having students work ... on VNPSs had a massive impact on transforming previously passive learning spaces into active thinking spaces where students think" (Liljedahl, 2023).
When I set up my first and second classrooms I didn't know about the research behind vertical non-permanent surfaces. I look at the first picture in this post of my brand new empty classroom and I see spaces where students could have been working had I known better. I look at the large carpeted walls from my first classroom and see even more space students could have used to engage in thinking had I created blank surfaces rather than balloons, rockets, and sea creatures.
I believe there does need to be room in classrooms to display interests, hold anchor or reference charts, and show off student work such as art pieces or final projects. But, what if most of the space or even just a little more space could be used for student work in regard to space for students to engage in thinking!
As you start your school year, I encourage you to consider the following:
Questions for thought?
Do students see themselves and their interests in the classroom?
Are the displays contributing to or detracting from learning?
Is there blank or empty space to allow room for creation?
Is there space for students to get up and work together?
Is there something you have already set up that you might want to change as the year progresses?
The purpose of classrooms is to engage students in thinking and learning.
Liljedahl, P. (n.d.). 14 Practices. Building Thinking Classrooms. Accessed 2023. https://buildingthinkingclassrooms.com/14-practices/