The first few weeks of school are my very favorite time of the school year. A new community is forming, and we are all getting to know each other. For years I have tried to embrace the idea of starting the school year off with empty walls. I agree with the philosophy of giving kids the message that we’ll create the space together. However, I just can’t get comfortable with completely empty walls.
I certainly don’t want to “decorate” the classroom. I want the things in the room to be more than decoration. I love a happy, colorful room, but I also want everything in the classroom to have a purpose connected to learning. I am intentional about the things students see when they enter the classroom for the first time. I know that soon charts, student work, and student thinking will fill the walls. But for now, I want displays that grab the attention of students.
Like a museum, I want the room to be filled with invitations and possibilities, with something for everyone. When students first walk in the room, I want them to find something so interesting that they are dying to come back the next day.
When I fill the room with interesting invitations, I learn so much about students. I see which displays interest them, and which ones they ignore. I observe whether they like to explore the walls alone or with others. I overhear conversations about the displays in the room. I notice the strengths and interests each child brings to the community.
I have found that I don’t need to spend hours and hours on walls and displays in the room. Instead, as I plan for the learning that will happen during the first few weeks of school, I look for resources to display on the walls of the classroom.
I am thinking about the message that each part of the room communicates. I want students to know their interests matter, and they will be active learners with opportunities for discovery throughout the year. Thinking matters, and learning is energizing. I often add an item or two at the last minute, but this is my current thinking on what the kids will see when they walk into the classroom for the first time.
I want students to know that we will look at words in ways beyond just spelling. I begin the year celebrating, noticing, and playing with words. Games like BananaGrams will be available for children, along with pages of Bananagrams for Kids that have word riddles to solve with the game.
Invitations for word play appear on the walls. So much word play is accessible to students in jokes and riddles. I often buy two copies of paperback books so that I can pull them apart and create a wall display with the pages. Posting jokes or pages from joke books on the walls is one way to get kids thinking about words in a new way.
I like to pull and display pages from Puniddles by Bruce McMillan and What Do You Call a Rhyming Riddle? A Hinky Pinky! by 5th Grade Students at St. Joseph Montessori — both books that focus on words and word play. I have discovered many invitations for thinking about words in I Love Words by Francoize Boucher. A few of these ideas can be enlarged or redesigned as an interactive wall display.
A board with the question “Have you read these books?” or “Do you know these book characters?” that invites students to stop and take a look is a good hook, and a favorite of mine for launching the year. Looking at familiar and unfamiliar characters around this question will start conversations, and invite kids into the many sections of the classroom library. The library takes up a huge portion of the room, so I don’t feel that I need to dedicate too much more wall space to book displays.
My classroom has a very long blackboard along one wall. I am thrilled because it is magnetic. A wall-length magnetic board has so many possibilities. For the fall, I plan to use the space to post interesting bits of texts and images for students to read and chat about. Jokes, pages from how-to books, graphs, and surveys will give kids lots to explore.
During math workshop and other times during the first few weeks of school, we’ll be learning to play several of the games that support mathematical thinking. I plan to have several games with instructions set up and available for students to play. I have also enlarged a few of the games so they can be played on the magnetic blackboard. Giant versions of games like Sumoku by Blue Orange will invite kids to play and strategize collaboratively.
I want the invitations around the three computers to go beyond game playing. Sure, we’ll play games, but I want them to know we’ll also be creating things with the technology available. I’ve always posted websites above my computers, printing off home pages of websites I’ll want the students to visit early in the year. A quick sign that says, “Websites Worth Visiting” with the homepage displays of Wonderopolis and Dogonews is a great invitation to check them out. Having a QR code as part of each of these posters meets several goals. It gets their hands on technology, and it lets them see different ways to get to the same site.
One of our technology specialists, Rhonda Luetje, described something she does called Copy Cat — she shares an image created in a program such as Pages and challenges students to use the tools of the program to create the same image. I love this idea and the message it gives students about creation, problem-solving and technology. I plan to have invitational signs next to one or two of the computers that share an image, and invite students to try to recreate it with the program on the screen. It will be a perfect opportunity to observe how students approach technology and challenges.
Another posting near the computers will be an invitation to use the program, Garage Band. This will be a program we use throughout the year and one I want them to play with early on. As a way into this program, I’ll house a basket of “books that are fun to read aloud” near the computers with an invitation to try to record their readings with Garage Band. I’ll also display a pair of foam boards that invite children to play with sound/dialogue while using Garage Band entitled, “How would these characters say this?”
To learn to live our lives as digital writers, we will be working on several websites. All of these will link from our district created-classroom website. To help families find the site, I will have business cards with a QR code to our site available for them to take home after a visit to the classroom.
In math and science we learn to collect and analyze data. I know the conversations will be good ones, and I start those conversations by asking questions for students to answer. I will post these questions around the room, and revisit them during those first few weeks of school in order to build the math and science understanding of the first unit.
Building toys are great learning tools, and I incorporate them often in math and science work. Invitations come through pairing the K’Nex structures, for example, with “copy cat” photos. Near the Marbleworks, I might ask students questions such as, “Can you create a self-standing track that takes exactly 15 seconds for the marble to travel from top to bottom?” I will likely include a few videos links with how-to instructions for building various structures with Legos.
The walls and displays in my classroom early in the year are invitations, just like those in a museum — to explore, try something new, or reconnect with favorite characters and pastimes. There are opportunities for individuals to think alone, and many invitations to converse with others. Which invitations students respond to will tell me a great deal about who they are, what they enjoy, and how they approach a challenge. I can’t wait to hear the chatter throughout the classroom during those first few days of school. I know that these conversations will give us lots to build on as we create a new community.