We didn’t want to see million-dollar makeovers or overly fancy technology. When we started planning a story about classroom organization, we knew that we wanted to show real teachers with real budget constraints. So we visited two elementary schools—Town Center and Millstone River—in Plainsboro, New Jersey.
The teachers we met had gorgeous, exciting classrooms, brimming with creative solutions to common problems. They invited us in, video camera in tow, and shared their best ideas. Be sure to check out the video tours of each room.
Jen Knoblock, Town Center
The Traffic Cop
Jen Knoblock, a first-grade teacher at Town Center, organized her room for good traffic flow. The setup “allows everyone to get their materials and get to our meeting space quickly and quietly,” she says.
1 | Clear Pathways. “All the furniture is arranged along the wall so that the students can access materials easily. They know to walk one way on the paths and keep moving to avoid traffic jams.”
2 | Words to Know. “We have two word walls. These are our high-frequency words,” says Knoblock. She uses the math word wall to reinforce math vocabulary as the year progresses.
3 | Playing Favorites. One area of the library features class favorites. Students can match the sticker to the label on the box when choosing a book by their favorite author or that includes a beloved character.
4 | Special Chairs. Knoblock writes each student’s name on a clothespin. She picks one boy and one girl each day to sit in the coveted blue chairs during independent reading time.
5 | Art on Display. Each child has a paper cupcake labeled with his or her name hanging from the ceiling. Knoblock clips student work to the cupcakes, creating an ever-changing art exhibit.
6 | Jobs for All. “Students have a job for a week. At the end of the week, I remove the student at the bottom, closest to the edge. Everybody slides down one, and that student goes to the first job.”
7 | Buckets of Smiles. Knoblock designates a special area for students to share compliments. When she catches a student adding a nice note to a peer’s bucket, she gives him or her a special coupon—and lots of praise.
8 | Behavior Chart. After the first warning, a student acting out must switch his or her green cupcake to yellow. If the student must then switch to red, he or she gets time-out and parents are notified.
Lindsay Brooks, Town Center
The Super Organizer
First-grade teacher Lindsay Brooks, also at Town Center, has divided her room into different areas and meeting spaces. “We have a lot of places where we can gather,” says Brooks.
1 | Group Tables. Brooks groups desks into tables. “The kids are always working together,” she says. “They have to be team members. I love it.”
2 | Month by Month. During calendar time, Brooks goes over the day’s date and highlights any special days, such as birthdays or bookfair days.
3 | Self-Service. Students pick up their own take-home folders, finished work, and notes from the teacher. The labeled baskets keep things orderly.
4 | Gathering Spot
The meeting rug is home base. Students gather there for storytime, to see the SMART Board, and to go over the day’s plan.
Vickie Gurzau and Sven Strnad, Millstone River School
The Critter Keepers
Vickie Gurzau and Sven Strnad are fifth-grade co-teachers in an inclusion classroom at Millstone River School. Their unusual classroom contains a bearded dragon, a ball python, hissing cockroaches, and a tarantula, among other assorted creatures. “When kids hold Linda [the ball python], for the first time, they realize they can do things they used to fear or were hesitant to do,” says Strnad. “We extend that to all sorts of other lessons about life.”
Image: Dan Schultz