The Nuts and Bolts of Classroom Organization

By Victoria Jasztal on August 11, 2009

The awaited few weeks before school have arrived, and you are debating over what you want to do in the way of classroom design and your management plan for the new school year. Perhaps during the summer, you came up with incredible ideas for what you want to do in your classroom this coming year. You may have headed to the thrift store in mid-July and found a table you can fix up for peer conferencing, or you purchased a comfortable rug for your reader’s and writer’s workshop area that you absolutely cannot wait to use. A trusted colleague may have assisted you in making significant decisions about your classroom management plan, or you decided for the first time to categorize the books in your classroom library in bins.

Quite a bit may be on your plate right now, but the greatest thing to know in this time is that you are certainly not alone.

That being said, I am going to make some sensible suggestions that may guide you in the right direction as you plan for this coming school year.

Suggestion #1- Arrange your classroom furniture in a way that will make it easy for the teacher and students to move from one place to another. 

Walkways are important because you want to be able to move around your classroom with ease. You should never feel as if your classroom is cluttered, even if you have the smallest of classrooms. Fred Jones, author of Tools for Teaching, has written a great deal about ensuring as “obstacle-free” a setup as possible. It is important to start with the middle front of your classroom. If your desk or a technology cart is housed there permanently, it may be hindering you from bringing student desks forward. Your goal is to lay out your walkways so that you can get to each of your students in the fewest steps possible when walking around your classroom and meeting with students. Regularly efficient patterns for a walkway contain a “loop” in the middle of the room. You do not want to be on one side of the classroom while you need to get to a student on the opposite side of the classroom. 

Two things that I am doing this year to ensure ample space in my classroom is moving computers against the right side of the front wall and getting rid of my teacher desk. I am arranging my students in groups from the very beginning. Having nearly twenty-five students can be challenging, so I want to make certain the groups are spaced out and students can easily walk to the classroom library, restroom, or storage areas without tripping over other students’ items or asking students to push in their chairs. Each group will have their own set of plastic organizational drawers to ensure even better organizational skills.

Suggestion #2- Consider organization when you set up your classroom.  

Everything should have its rightful “home” in your classroom, from the Monopoly game you purchased at Goodwill to your growing collection of Newbery books to the fraction bars you have not used in a few years. You also need to keep teacher supplies in a handy location. Best yet, you want to ensure your personal area does not get cluttered with unnecessary papers or items. The point I am trying to make is that an excellent organizational plan decreases stress and time that you need to look for certain items, particularly during instruction. Standing at the front of the classroom during a math lesson and toiling over which set of drawers you placed your protractors in can be incredibly frustrating. This feeling of confusion and grief can be eliminated if you devise an organizational system where you know the location of everything. 

Having said that, I am far from being a saint in this area. I have been in that dreaded position before where I do not know where a specific item is located in my classroom. Perhaps it was poor planning on my behalf or simply not knowing what could best hold my supplies. Yet I knew when I needed to change. Here are a few quick tips, though these suggestions certainly are not a “quick fix”-

Plastic drawers come in a variety of sizes. I have a set of plastic drawers at each of my five groups that hold math manipulatives because my classroom instruction is 90% hands-on. I want students to be able to make the quickest transition possible in getting the manipulatives they need. Plastic drawers can also hold items for centers that you may not want to make visible at all times.  Labeling items is important. The Dymo Letra Tag Plus has one of the best purchases I have ever made.  Sorting out items like post-its, highlighters and index cards may seem like a tedious task while you are doing it, but it will save you a lot of money later. You may originally think you are short on a school supply, but when you realize you have it in abundance, you realize purchasing more of the same item is unnecessary. Color-coding items can also be important, as you may want to designate specific items for a certain group of students or you want to categorize your centers.

Suggestion #3- Consider where you want to set up your classroom library and how you are going to organize your books before anything else. 

I am going to dedicate an entire entry to setting up your library in the very near future, but it is important to think of how much space you need to accommodate it. Also think of how you are going to organize the area- whether you want to organize the books in categorized bins and how many bookshelves you will need to accommodate your collection. Organizing your books in bins really shows you and your students what you have in your book collection, making it easier for them to locate books. I would certainly want to see more books about the Titanic after reading one book about it!

Suggestion #4- If you teach mini-lessons for reader’s and writer’s workshop, you need a place for your students to meet.

A great meeting area, in my opinion, consists of an easel for holding chart paper, a comfortable teacher chair, and anything that can make the meeting area comfortable for your students. In my case, I have five pillows, a combination of rugs that accommodates most of my students, a “couch” constructed of milk crates, and a leather ottoman. More will come in the near future about mini-lessons as well.

Suggestion #5- If you have a classroom theme, think of how you want to incorporate it.

For the past three years, my classroom has had a travel-related theme, and this year is not going to be any different. I have a hand-painted wooden sign marked "Jasztalville", postcard displays from across the United States, and a United States interactive bulletin board where students place tacks for places they have “visited” by reading books. Sometimes teachers develop themes through-and-through, and sometimes they are just a small component of the classroom. There are many websites about developing themes out there that you can certainly visit. The next post for today, “The Teacher as an Interior Designer”, is going to focus more on themes and décor, which can make your classroom an even more exciting place to learn.

Suggestion #6- I almost forgot to mention this, but consider regulations set forth by your custodial staff and fire marshal. 

Let’s just be blunt here- Do not head to the store to purchase novelty lights for your classroom if they may pose a fire hazard. You also need to know what kind of rug is acceptable in your classroom if you are purchasing one for your meeting area. Needless to say, you do not want to drag a 12-foot long rug back to the store. Speaking from experience, it is not a pleasant situation.

Seeing that the school year is approaching quickly for many teachers across the nation, I hope both posts today will assist you in setting up an amazing classroom.

Here is a slideshow that focuses on classroom organization and decor for the 2009-2010 school year-

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Visit My Photos - 39 Pics
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Classroom 2009-2010

(In my photo album, you may see an awesome quote on my wall that states- "Life is not a dress rehearsal." When Stacey, grades 6-8 advisor, talked about having that quote in her classroom video, I really liked it. I plan on finding a few other quotes as well to put on my walls.)

Comments

You have many great ideas! I am currently in school working towards getting my degree in Speech Language Pathology and hope to work in a school setting someday! Many of your tips and ideas may come in very handy someday!

... Thank you! Do you have any questions where I can perhaps offer advice? :) - Victoria

A friend visited the Scholastic site....she visited many places and pages. She saw a post where a teacher was talikng about answer "stems" for students to use when they say...someone has my answer already...was that your site? Do you know what page to refer me to? Do you have any ideas to use in that scenario? Thanks for any and all help.

Katie

... It could have been me, but there of course are others who have resources like it. I know I have made a sheet with "answer stems", but I do not know if I have uploaded it to the Internet. I focus on transition words to write extended responses to literature, phrases like "My prediction about __________ was true because _______", and help my students to reword parts of questions for clarity.

You can search http://www.teachingvision.org/resources - or hopefully the right person will respond to this because there may be a really good resource out there I am missing. Perhaps check the Mosaic of Thought Readinglady.com Listserv (Google it, because it is a specific address), because the resource you are seeking may very well be from that site. I go there often.

Also-This is not it, but this gets ideas in students' minds for journaling about reading- http://teachingvision.org/resources/readingjournalentries.pdf

I love what teachers have to say about Organizing. I tend to gravitate towards shows that help us organize any part of the home and our classroom is no different. Thanks for sharing. I, too, value my label maker!

Sandra- Thank you! The label maker has been used MORE THAN EVER this year! - Victoria

Great ideas- please, though, fix the spelling error on the drawer label: stationery, not stationary. thanks

Thank you for pointing out the error. I 99.9% of the time do not make spelling errors and often realize ones that others make. However, at times we do not realize we have made an error, particularly when we are setting up our classrooms for hours on end. Well appreciated. - Victoria

Hey Victoria, I teach multiple subjects and will have the kids all day long. I know that the room is narrow and there is storage behind the white boards. That is something I have never had, white boards. I can never write in a straight line on those. How do you do it and is there any advice on how to not have to get new white board markers every week? I digress, I have only had one year in my career, and this will be my 30th, where I have had less that 30 students. I work closely with 3 other colleagues but we keep the kids all day except for 1/2 hour for ELD. We are trying to not have that too. We are fighting to teach English grammar at that time. I won't be able to even see my room until the 24th of August. I saw that you leveled your library books. How do you do that? I have over 2000 books for my kids in my classroom but I have never leveled them. Also is there a trick to finding all those boxes to put the books in cheaply. I have a kid in college and am a single mom. Money is scarce right now. Thanks for listening. Marta

Marta- Thanks for the clarification. I honestly could not imagine having so many students, but I bet you are a tremendous teacher. I do not level my library books; I categorize them (into genres, types of stories, author, etc.). Perhaps I can show you some pictures of how I have leveled them in the near future. I want students to be able to locate a type of book that interests them and at least start building interest in reading that way. I don't level the books because I desire for students to be exposed to a variety of genres. I put the books in the plastic shoe boxes you can purchase at Wal-Mart for about $1.00 or $2.00. I already had many of them in my classroom before this year.

I probably get new white board markers every month... I just write like I did on the chalkboard in my first year of teaching five years ago.

I wish you the best this year. Wednesday, I have a question for everyone because I have noticed an area where my students need to improve (even before having our first day next week). I was analyzing data this afternoon.

Victoria

Victoria,

I have found many of your ideas very helpful. I am interested in knowing how you sorted the books in your classroom library. I can see that you value literature like I do. I want to sort the books in my classroom to make them more accessible to my kids, many of whom have few books at home. Any ideas?

I teach in special ed grades 1-3 in an urban Milwaukee school. Because I teach struggling readers, I believe I need to take extra steps to get them excited about books and about the world of information and fun that reading makes available so that they are more motivated to learn to read.

Thanks for your suggestions.

Candee

I categorize by genres and subjects, some more specific than others. World War I and II actually got its own box this year for chapter books. Since I've had a few questions about my classroom library, I may mention something on Wednesday about it as I address reader's workshop. -Victoria

Your room is so nice! I am moving into a newly built classroom that I have never seen. I won't be able to see it until a week before school starts. I am a veteran teacher but have been teaching at the same school for all of that time. I am very apprehensive and have been promised 35-40 fifth grade students this coming year. Any suggestions?

Hi, Marta!

Okay... I'll need your answer on this to offer further advice. Will you have 35-40 students in a self-contained room, all day long? Or do you switch, and are these two separate classes? Do you teach all subjects or just one subject? I have never had more than 25 students, so I may need a little more information to respond to your question. It's definitely getting me to think!

Your room will likely be beautiful- a lot of newer rooms have great storage. Mine for the most part does, though it is an older room.

Victoria

Wow, thanks for all of the help Victoria!

I teach in rural Montana in third grade (I am THE third grade teacher in my school!). It is exciting but a little intimidating because it is also my first year teaching. I love all of the help you have provided so far and I can't wait to continue to see what you have to offer throughout the year.

If you have any information that could potentially lead into a post about your writer's workshop and reading workshop that would be fantastic! I am generally interested in accountability of the mini-lessons with students. How do you track whether they are using those mini-lessons or not and how to do monitor what students are doing while you are conferencing or working with a small group?

That is a little off topic for organization but I would love to hear your insight. Thank you again!

Lindsey

Hello again!

I agree it's intimidating to be the ONLY third grade teacher in your school! I thought our school was small, but we're pretty average and growing every year. There are going to be seven teachers on our team this year. However, I am the only advanced teacher and I have to invent my own wheel, though I am content with inventing my wheel. :-D

My first year teaching, I came in pretty confident, but I didn't do workshops. I don't think I knew about them yet, and I didn't focus on the data/accountability as much as I could have. I guess the advice I can give you is to see where your students possess strengths and areas in which they can become stronger. Before my third year teaching, I learned about Beth Newingham's website and http://www.learner.org. On Learner.org, videos are shown of veteran teachers in the midst of their lessons! I am a great visual learner, so I learned even better that way than just reading a book and trying to get the gist of it.

I see how the class is using mini-lessons by reading their writing. I can see if they are utilizing onomatopoeia or not, for example. I don't require them to use specific skills, but I require that they at least use skills in their writing. They also use post-its in reading class as they read novels and have to journal using the specific vocabulary, like prediction, for example.

Hopefully I offered some decent advice!

Victoria

Hi Victoria! Your classroom looks amazing. I just got into my classroom to start organizing so you are definitely going to be my inspiration for that aspect! :)

I loved the pictures you posted and I had a couple questions. First of all, what do you post on the "Word Highway"? Also, what do you post on the "Daily Data" bulletin board?

Thank you for all of your help and I look forward to reading your blog this year!

Lindsey

Hi, Lindsey!

Where and which grade do you teach? I like knowing who comes to visit... if I find any resources specifically for your grade level, I'd love to share them with you.

Daily Data is something I am starting this year. Our class (our grade, actually) is going to have a weekly poll. On Monday, the class will vote on a question- example- What is your favorite zoo animal out of these choices? Then the students will have a picture of themselves with a magnetic backing on it so they can move their picture next to their choice. On Tuesday, we will display data in a different way- bar graph, pie graph, line plot, whatever works well in displaying the results for the question of the week. On Wednesday, students will write a 3-2-1 journal entry- 3 observations about the data, 2 inferences, and 1 variable that could be changed. Other activities will be completed throughout the week there.

As for Word Highway, I will have pieces of whiteboard (shower board cut into strips from Lowe's) up there, one marked SCIENCE, one marked MATH, one marked HISTORY, and the other marked READING. Students will then see what the current words are easily while they are sitting at the listening/SRA center in the corral below.

I hope this helped, Lindsey. I would love to see your classroom, also!

Regards, Victoria

(This is Victoria again- this is another private message I received today.)

NJTeacher82- Good Morning! Your classroom looks amazing. I noticed you use towers (carts) near each group. I am thinking of using them this year. What do you put in each drawer? Thanks!

Hello!

I have had this question more than once in the past few days. I use the drawers for holding math manipulatives (in the top two drawers) and math books (in the bottom drawer). Since we have a hands-on math program, we don't use the books all the time, but they are held in the bottom drawer for quick reference. Soon, the manipulatives will be organized for each group neatly so students will always know where they are for their explorations.

Have a good day! Victoria

(This is Victoria. I got this message today privately and would love to share my answer with everyone.)

From Robert-

WOW! what a lot of time went into your classroom- I would love to be in it. I had a few questions if you don't mind... I was wondering what you use the mailbox for and how you pick your student of the week -- do they do anything special that week??

Hi... I'm Robert Purpura and I teach 4th grade in Quincy, MA -- the areas I focus on are science and social studies to all three 4th grade classes as well as Reading to my homeroom... we have three 4th grade teachers in our team, one teaches math to all 3 classes and Reading to her homeroom and the other teaches writing to all 3 classes and Reading to his homeroom. we work on 3 one hour block schedules for our main focus area. Depending on the week I teach 3 days of one subject and 2 days of the other. Would love to hear any fun activities you do that I could add to my classroom.

Have a great school year.

Robert,

The personal black mailbox is used for mailing pen pal letters, mainly. The student mailboxes are used for returning papers and sending out newsletters/ announcements to the students. My Student of the Week is actually chosen by demonstrating great qualities (respect, responsibility, etc.) throughout the week prior to being chosen, but I was wondering if anyone suggests another option for choosing the S.O.T.W.

Thank You, Victoria

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