Step outside your classroom door and look back in, as if for the first time. What do you see? Do you want to come back inside? Or do you want to run and hide? If you’re inclined to run, force yourself back. Grab your notebook and divide a page into thirds. In the first column, draw or write about what you like about your classroom environment. What seems to be working?
In the next one, do the same with what bothers you most. What’s getting in the way of teaching and learning? And in the last column, write or draw what you’d like to see when you step inside. Do the same from a child’s point of view. Get at their eye level and see things as they see them. Now what do you see?
First impressions count. Classroom environments vary, but they need to always be welcoming places—interesting places that beckon kids and teachers to actively participate in the pursuit of knowledge. Places that invite curiosity, exploration, collaboration, and conversation. Places that make us want to come in and stay, day after day after day.
Next, consider asking a colleague—someone in the field you trust, but probably not a close friend—to step inside your room. Ask this person to take a few minutes to look around (with or without kids present), and then ask them the following kinds of questions . . .
- What do you know I value?
- What do you know about what I believe about teaching and learning? What’s the evidence?
- What do you know about the kids in this room?
Any thoughtful person who spends even a small amount of time in our classrooms should be able to respond to these questions. If they can’t, or if they say something that seems to us totally off the mark, it should give us pause. We have to wonder what it is about the environment that’s sending mixed signals or no signals at all. Just as we must define our beliefs and align our practices, we must create classroom environments that reflect and support them.
One way to begin is to ask yourself questions like these:
- Will I need a meeting area? Why? How will I/we use it? Can it be used for more than one purpose? Where will it go?
- Do I need areas for pairs and small groups of kids to work together? How will they be used? How many will I need? How will I define these spaces?
- What about kids’ desks or tables? How will they be configured? Why this way?
- Where will kids keep their books, notebooks, pencils, paper, backpacks, and so on?
- Do I want writing, math, science, and social studies areas? Why? What will be their purpose? Will kids go there to work, or is the space for organization and accessibility of materials? Where will these areas be in the room?
- What about books? Do I want them in one area, or throughout the room? Why? Who will organize them, and how?
- Computers? How many do I have? How many do I need? Do they all work? How will they be used?
- What about my desk? Do I need it? How will I use it? Where will it go?
There are no right or wrong answers. What matters most is that you take some time to be thoughtful about questions like these and decide for yourself what will make the most sense for you and the students you teach. The decisions you make will reflect what you believe about teaching and learning. Here is how I answered one of these questions while planning at the start of the year, and how my answer affected my classroom design.
Do we need a meeting area? Yes. It’s the one place in the room we can all come together, and children and I use it in a variety of purposeful ways throughout the day, including opportunities for . . .
- explicit teaching, modeling, and teacher/student demonstrations, often within the context of shared reading, read alouds, think alouds, and interactive read alouds
- classroom discussions, turning and talking in twos and threes, getting eye-to-eye and knee-to-knee for focused discussion
- kids and teachers to reflect, share, and teach each other what they’ve learned about themselves as readers, writers, mathematicians, and scientists that day
- partner and small-group work, conferring, and independent practice, when we’re not using it in the above ways
The meeting area needs be large enough so that everyone can fit inside comfortably. Mine was in a corner of the room, defined by two walls, low sets of bookshelves, tubs of books labeled in a variety of ways for easy access, a chair, a rug, a lamp, and that yellow cabinet with red trim. A bulletin board for anchor charts and student work lined one wall, and books and a whiteboard (for the morning message and announcements) were propped onto the chalkboard ledge.
A small basket filled with things I/we might need was on the floor by my chair—things like dry-erase and permanent markers, Sharpies, Vis-à-Vis pens, sticky notes in different sizes, scissors, tape, a stapler, a small bottle of glue, and a class set of sharpened pencils. Clipboards and small dry-erase boards were kept in a small crate in this area, too—I tried to keep everything we might need at any time close by.
Sometimes we think about meeting areas as something for primary classrooms only. I disagree. In my work now, I often work with teachers and kids in the intermediate grades. There’s something about bringing kids together, often with clipboards and pencils in hand, and asking them to listen to or read a short, thought-provoking piece of text, write a response, and turn and talk with each other about both the content and the processes they used to make meaning. It forces the matter—the message is that this is what we’re about, this is how it sounds, this is what we do.
There’s an intimacy in coming together, asking questions, thinking about big ideas, and synthesizing new learning that’s less likely to happen when kids are at their seats. Whether it’s during reading, math, writing, social studies, or science, a meeting area can be the perfect place for modeling, thinking aloud, conversation, and demonstration, no matter what the subject or grade. I guarantee it—you create it, they will come!
Once you’ve thought about questions like these, and you’re clear about the areas you want and need, you can think about physical space and room arrangement. One of the best ways to begin is to move as many of the desks, tables, chairs, boxes, and crates as you can out into the hall or at least over to one side of the room. Take some time to look objectively at the space you have; take a look at your notebook entries, and think carefully about the kinds of spaces you’ll need and where it makes the most sense for them to go.
Sometimes it’s fun to work with a colleague—you can help each other move furniture and think together about how best to create environments that are based on and support what you believe about teaching and learning.