Real teachers share inspiration and creative tips that will help turn your classroom into a unique learning space.
6 Classroom Design Tips
Expert advice on how to take lemons and make lemon meringue pie!
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
With the end of the year approaching, that dreaded classroom checklist will be in your hands soon. My guess is that the largest job on that list is packing up the room. This usually includes directions to move all of your materials to one side of the room, cover up everything, and take things off the walls, to name a few. I actually look forward to this because it is the perfect time to think about how you would like to set up and decorate your classroom for the following school year.
I really love the space we work in each day, but it did not start out this way. With a restroom for storage, a deep sink and a water fountain both oddly placed on the middle of different walls, and four doors to work around, I had my work cut out for me. This is where I said, "Forget making lemonade. We need to make some Lemon Meringue Pie!" I don't think I would have survived without this mentality.
Here are my six tips for setting up your classroom:
Tip 1: Analyze the Room
Before you close up your classroom, photograph your entire room. Analyze each photo and classify it as "Pass" or "Fail." I take a photo of every section of my room, and then I sit down and analyze it. What looks junky? Messy? What doesn't have a touch of home to it (plants or lighting)? If I couldn't stand it in my own home, it has to be fixed. All year, I have battled with the area around the backpacks and individual book bins. This area has had several changes and will continue to be improved on until it finally works. Here is my example of a simple pass and fail in our room:
Pass! Plant, photo, and nice lighting. Minor note: one book needs to be thrown or mended. It also happens to be in the wrong spot. Summer job checklist.
I believe in having a proper spot for everything, even if it is in a hidden junk drawer. Here I can remove the bookshelf boards (underneath) to the closet, the umbrellas to the coat hanger area, and the papers to the trash. The bag of books need to be sorted ASAP. I give myself a bonus point for the plant.
Tip 2: Make First Impressions Count
When a visitor walks into your classroom, there are two views that are important: the one directly in front of you, and the one that is in the distance (usually a 60-degree angle across the room). Because of this, I push two areas. These areas would be where you want to put your larger plants, reading nooks, lamps, pillows, student work, and so on. The other two corners are not as nice, and that is okay. They are the more practical corners of the room, and we need this to function on a day-to-day basis. Computer stations, math bags, reading bins, technical gadgets, teacher materials...
What you see when you walk in the door (although this is the wrong angle).
The 60-degree angle you would see across the entrance door. Your eyes don't immediately move to the right of this photo and look at our boring computer stations. FYI: The word wall (word parts) was removed for state testing purposes.
Tip 3: Get Rid of Your Teacher Shrine
According to the Sisters, one-fourth of a classroom is taken up by teacher stuff, or what they call "The Teacher Shrine." I promise life is much better without it. Get rid of the teacher shrine and you'll have more room to work with. For me, removing the teacher desk was a given, but I am not advocating for you to do that. Just consider removing, hiding, or storing your materials. Also consider looking at how much space your teacher area takes up in the room. You are one person, working with twenty-something students. First on my list is making sure my stuff is hidden. This includes teacher manuals.
To hide teacher materials and personal belongings I am a fan of cloth, closets, and drawers: Cloth to hide open shelves, closets to store, and drawers to throw things into. Seeing those teacher manuals and SDE booklets from three years ago is not attractive. They get placed in closets, at home, or in a closed cabinet. Place personal photos around the room, next to pictures of your class and then sit back and see the improvement. Here is a photo of my teacher desk (undoctored). Every time we line up, we clean off our desk. I am expected to do the same.
My teacher desk.
I also recommend having a routine for all those teacher papers you receive. I am a fan of portable filing totes and have a routine of organizing it as it comes in. These portable filing totes can go wherever you need them to, preventing papers from piling up on your desk, table, or at home.
The blue filing tote is a major friend regarding paperwork.
I am also a fan of throwing things away. Sometimes that comes back to bite me, but it's worth it to me.
Tip 4: Create Consistent Colors and Themes
I remember how I would buy ten different cloths for bulletin boards in the hopes this would brighten up the room. Instead everything seemed to get lost in all the polka-dots, stripes, and bright colors. Now, I have a consistent black background and red border around the room. When I place something on those boards, it sticks out instead of the background. I highly recommend this step for setting up your room next year.
I also became a fan of consistent colors for other things. I have a lot of earth wood colors and greens in my room. You don't see patterns anywhere and this goes from my lamps to photo frames. I think of it like my home. I have a certain look I am going for, and even if something seems like a great steal or find it may not fit in my living room. It's the same thing for the classroom. I have become picky about what goes in our room because it is our home away from home.
This is already busy, so you can imagine how busy it would look with a crazy background. What needs to stick out? A solid color across your room helps.
Tip 5: Lighting, Lighting, Lighting Is Important
With an ounce of good weather, we are set with keeping the main lights off for the day. The secondary lights, mixed with open windows and doors, sets the tone for the room and gives it an automatic fresh look. Going back to my first tip, I analyze each section for lighting. I note "dark" areas in the room and use one of five light methods to fix it. Hanging lamps, table lamps, light stands, Christmas lights, and natural lighting. I try to cover all bases by thinking of our room in two halves.
Top Half: This would include the ceiling range. We have Christmas lights around the perimeter with some bundled up in clumps for good measure. We also have light stands that push light up, and a few hanging lights from the ceiling that push light down.
Bottom Half: This is where table lamps come into the picture, although I have some placed in higher areas. Again, I try to make sure each section of the room has at least one or two table lamps. I have also placed Christmas lights around the border of a few bulletin boards to add more light.
Note to self...line up student photo frames next year! Again, notice the pattern of threes- plants, lamps, and photos.
Tip 6: Everyone Needs a Junk Drawer, or Two, or Three!
My teaching buddy, Karen, knows about my junky little secrets. She knows. But she also knows that my room is never, ever, out of order. It's ready for a visitor at any given time. Visitors, however, are not permitted to go into my closet because it may be dangerous to their health and/or physically impossible. These are important resources, but they are not for show.
I think it is important to say that you should allow yourself to have not so neat areas, so long as they are covered up. That is the key. Cover it up! If it is not directly benefiting students, cover it up. Here are some of my examples of storage:
Oh no! Oh yes. The drawer above it is full of pencils, pens, rubber bands, tacks, paper-clips, etc.
My closet. My guided reading books are sorted in the filing cabinet by Fountas and Pinnell. They are labeled in ziplock bags. If you look closely you can see a toilet surrounded by big books, a DRA kit, running records, district materials, science materials, etc. These materials stay out of view for the year.
Students are included in this plan. Backpacks and lunch bags are out of sight, hidden behind two bookshelves. And the rule is, if it doesn't fit in your desk, take something home.
Virtual Tour of Our Room
Want a tour of our room? This classroom tour video was recorded the second week of school and includes commentary from me.
You may notice that several of our lamps and pieces of furniture are not garage sale items. These things didn't come from hours of garage sale hunting or searching on Craigslist. They came from our home. Our family went from owning a large home to a rather small, modest one (by choice). We had so much furniture we didn't know what to do with it all. Into the classroom many items found a new home. I fondly look at my Papsan chairs from Pier 1 Imports and remember reading books in the master bedroom's sitting room. I look at the lamps and remember where they were placed in my old home. I realize how lucky I am in this department.
Second, I realize some counties/districts don't allow personal furniture. I have always brought in larger items without question, even with warnings from other teachers. Fire marshals have walked through my room in three different counties, and not once have I been questioned. As a back-up precaution, I am always prepared to say "temporary." This, apparently, is the magic word for bringing in decorations.
Q & A With Angela
Q 1: I am teaching for the first time in an art-infused charter school. I was wondering what your place value song was. Also would like to know more specifics on the compensation board by the reading strategies. Thanks. –Hope
A: Congratulations on entering the teaching profession. It sounds like you are going to be working in a unique environment. How fun! So, to answer your questions, I am in a bit of a transition period going from one school to the next. However, I can answer both of your questions:
- Place value song: Rockin' The Standards. Google it. I made cards/signs for it.
- Comprehension cards come from ideas in Debby McGregor's book.
Best to you!!! Angela
Q 2: First of all, THANK YOU. You have been an inspiration to me ever since I discovered your website :) I've been teaching fourth grade for over 3 years now and my goal is really to be like you :) ... got a looong way though :) I want to copy your room layout for this coming year. Can you post more pics of your room, computer area, student desks, etc. Thanks. Take care. –Anne
A: How flattering, but I bet you will soon have people saying they want to be like you in a few years. :) Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I am in the middle of a complete re-model of my classroom. It has a totally new look. The bad news is that this is because I have moved schools so I can't really post pictures of the old classroom. BUT, I do have a video tour of the room. Here you can get a tour with audio on my room at the beginning of the year. Smiles, Angela
Q 3: I love the design of your room. Every time you post photos of your room, I have to remind myself that you are in a portable! YIKES!!! I notice that your desks are in larger groupings. Does this work well when doing paired, small group tasks, and how do you help them control the 'talking'? Just curious, as I gave up my desks years ago for tables (which I love), but will have to have desks next year (I have tables in my grade 1/2 class, but there is no budget for getting rid of my desks in grade 4/5 next year, and nobody seems to want to part with tables). What routines do you set up for 'desk work'? –Anna
A: The larger groupings are not by choice. I would take tables in a heartbeat, if I could, but I don't think we would have room for those either (come to think of it). It's odd, but I haven't had any issues or problems with the larger grouping. And since we have even groupings on each side, we usually work with our partner next to us, or move to the floor if we are working in groups. I don't think I would suggest it in any other circumstance than ours. I'm telling you — small quarters! Groups of four would be ideal, if it could fit in our room. Hope that helps! Angela