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The Big 10: Extreme Classroom Makeover, Part 1

By Lindsey Petlak on August 28, 2013
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

In my 10 years as an educator, I’ve taught in four different school districts and four schools. The classrooms have been both mammoth and miniscule, new and old, and well maintained and dilapidated. Even when I stayed in the same school for four years, I had to change classrooms three times. Needless to say, I know how you feel as you prep your room for the new school year. And I’ve learned a lot about how to set up a stellar room without losing my mind. So, follow these steps to "Keep Calm and Carry On!"

1. Imagine the Possibilities

For the past three years, I’ve worked in an amazing school that was built during the mid-20th century. As with any older building (especially a school filled with hundreds of children), it has its fair share of “weathering.” When my husband walked into my “new” room, I thought he was going to be sick! Summer camp had just ended, all of the bulletin boards were covered with tarps, and what was underneath needed to be removed. The room was coated in kid grime, old tape, and adhesive residue, and the walls desperately needed a coat of paint. It was over 85 degrees in the room, and the previous teacher had not moved out her items yet because she was still on vacation. This was going to be a much bigger and more difficult job than we anticipated!

Despite the gloom and doom, I was thrilled. This room was huge compared to the smaller rooms in the previous, more newly-built schools I have taught in. Due to its age, the design had unique features. I saw endless possibilities within this space and can honestly say that it is my favorite classroom to date for many reasons.

Whether you are changing schools, classrooms, or just revamping your current room, open your eyes and imagine the possibilities. Pretend you’re on an HGTV show where they transform frighteningly awful spaces into somewhere you would love to live. If you can do that, your space can become terrific.

2. Start With a Clean Slate

Take it from someone who spent NINE non-air conditioned HOURS (yes, I kept track) scraping old tape off shelving in my current room...it’s worth the time and elbow grease to start the year with a spotless space. Prior to putting up bulletin boards, setting up your furniture layout, and certainly before children come storming through your doors, I recommend this list of tasks to start the year spic and span:

  • Remove all tape and any other adhesive residue. I use a paint scraper and Goo Gone.

  • Declutter old papers and broken or unused items.

  • Clean grime from walls, desks, tables, chairs, cabinets and shelves, counter tops, and handles. I recommend Mr. Clean Magic Erasers.

  • Ask a custodian to repair and paint walls, or do it yourself (with permission, of course).


3. Lay On a Base Coat

In order to make your classroom displays and student work pop, you need a simple “base coat” to work with. Through my study of the philosophies of Susan Kovalik and The Center for Effective Learning, I have realized that keeping the background color and border paper of every bulletin board consistent has a major impact on your room.  

Everything you put on those boards throughout the year will stand out and be easier to see if the background and borders of your display are not distracting. The boards in your room will have a unified appearance, and students will not be over-stimulated by flashy colors or busy patterns. Currently, I have sky blue fabric (I HIGHLY recommend investing in fabric for multi-year use) and plain black border paper on all of my bulletin boards. Sounds boring? Not at all. Try it and you’ll see!

4. Keep Function Foremost

My favorite part of room setup is the decorating. However, I realize function is of foremost importance. I like to have my cake and eat it, too, so I strive to weave function and style together seamlessly.

  • Designate sections of your room for specific subject areas or functions, such as the reading nook, writing station, or math center.

  • Make your bulletin boards purposeful and interactive, if possible.

  • De-clutter: if it’s not integral for student or teacher use, get rid of it.

  • Whether you believe in feng shui or not, the flow of your room is vital. Students should be able to move freely, so set up your furniture in a way to facilitate flow.

5. Start Styling

Whether you’re decorating your room based on colors, patterns, or a theme, weave that style throughout. I used to have cute, but mismatched décor throughout my classroom. I would also slave over changing my décor numerous times throughout the year. C-R-A-Z-Y. Establishing a year-long theme in my classroom and weaving those design elements throughout my entire space, has rocked my world in the best ways possible!

  • Let’s face it, we often spend more time in our classrooms than our own homes and so do our students! Create a place that’s warm, inviting, and reflects YOU.

  • Minimize student over-stimulation from mismatched décor.

  • Setting up foundational décor one time rather than numerous times throughout the year allowed me to focus more attention on curriculum and student management.

  • Since I use a theme in my room (Retro Road Trip), leaving the same base décor up all year provides a more immersive student experience.

  • Incorporate student artwork to provide a sense of ownership.

SNEAK PEEK: Check out my in-progress classroom makeover slideshow, and stay tuned for Part 2 (Tips 6-10), showcasing the full reveal and VIDEO TOUR of my completed classroom makeover!

*2013-2014 Extreme Classroom Makeover "Sneak Peek" Slideshow

Want to see what my finished classroom makeover looked like last year? Check out my 2012-2013 extreme classroom makeover slideshow for more ideas.

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Any child who steps foot in your room is lucky and will forever be changed. Inspiration starts in your classroom. jeftini apartmani beograd

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Just rereading this one--such great ideas for classroom environment in this post! thanks

What great tips and I loved the slide show:)

For those of you following our comments and banter......Meredith, Heidi, and Yanett just happen to be 3 of the very best educators I have ever had the privilege to work with. They also happen to be amazing friends. All 3 of these ladies are from different ventures in my life, different backgrounds, schools, grade levels, etc. They are each passionate about what they do, super creative and brilliant, have inspired and educated me on how to be a better teacher, and forever touched my life after being their colleague. Sadly I don't work directly with them any more, but we are still close both in the education realm and personally. Thank you ladies....for everything!

I think the exact same can be said for you! You had many years under your belt when I met you on the other side of that collapsible wall. Nothing can top you :) XOXO

Thank you for being you! Woot Woot!

The amazing Mrs. Petlak!! Of course you would have an article on here. Any child who steps foot in your room is lucky and will forever be changed. Inspiration starts in your classroom. I learned so much from you and will always continue to. Xoxo. Have a great year making even more memories with the luckiest kids in the world.

Meredith--you are too kind. My personal and professional lives were forever changed the day you moved into the room on the other side of my collapsable classroom wall! You know how much I admire and respect you, and I don't know how you juggle it all being a mom of 3 young kids! While we never got the chance to be teammates, I know we are forever linked as teacher-mates and good friends. Keep reading, miss you much, and hope to see you soon.

Bravo, Mrs. Petlak! Your style and flair have been out-of-this-world since your novice days as a teacher. I am honored to have been a faculty member with you and applaud your creativity, organization, and ability to make a classroom a place fostering community, curiosity, and lifelong learning. Kudos....blast off, lucky students!

I almost skipped over your Pin, but then something caught my eye, I clicked on the link and realized it was classroom! I heart you and your fabulous classroom! I miss you and I hope you have a great school year! Love ya, all the way from Texas!

Howdy, my Texas buddy! Thanks for reading and supporting the post. More tips and some funny details to come.....keep reading, and keep being such an awesome teacher. I miss you, too, so our classes should Skype back and forth when we're studying the regions and cultures of the US in 4th grade this year! Hugs!

I can't wait! I love all of your ideas. You help me become a better teacher. I spoke to Jenna about being pin pals as well! Let me know when 4th grade travels to the south! XOXO

This is terrific--9 hours of removing tape is horrible but the rest of it sounds exciting! I look forward to following your posts all year.

Thanks so much! Yes....9 hours of scraping was grueling....but worth it in the end! It really is exciting, and even more rewarding since it has taken so much work and has changed every year for the last 3 years (since I've taught 3 grades in 3 years). More photos to come showing what the different spaces in my room are designated for, as well as deeper information on truly implementing a year-long theme...beyond the decor! Keep following!

Hi Lindsey,
Great first post! I really enjoyed reading all of your tips, and I'm looking forward to part two next week! ~Genia

Thanks, Genia! I loved your post, too. Hope you're having a great year so far and that all is well!

Your room is looking good and I can't wait to see the last 5 tips next week!

Thanks, Brian! Great job on your post, too. It brought me back to my days of teaching those sweet Kg. kiddos. I can't wait to read more and team up for some SE region projects.

Thanks so much for the well-wishes and congratulations on my first post! Check back next week for helpful...and HILARIOUS...tips #6-10 (including being fabulously frugal and dealing with disaster striking). More pictures and fab finds to come!


Congrats! This is excellent! I love your pictures and your theme. A wide variety of useful tips and a beautiful slideshow.

Thank you for sharing!


Thanks, Kriscia! I just read your post and it's awesome, too! Loved your pics, layout, and can't wait to keep reading next week.

Lindsey - you did a wonderful job setting up your classroom and getting it all ready. I can't wait to find out all about your students this year. ~Allie

Thanks, Allie! Keep an eye out for a cross-reference to your blog in my next post! One of my tips is on being fabulously frugal...and since you're the queen of classroom bargains, I'm linking readers back to you for more info!

Hi Lindsey,

Happy first post! I loved reading your tips. I agree with the importance of function. You have so many useful tips. Thank you for sharing all of your brilliant ideas.

Have a fantastic week,

Erin Klein

Thanks, Erin! I LOVED your post and felt like Susan Kovalik was totally speaking through you and your room. I especially loved your BEFORE pic--YIKES! Can't wait to read more throughout the year.

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