Teachers have the ability to almost completely reinvent their space year after year. As a new teacher this felt daunting, but after a few years I realized just how truly extraordinary it is. To the teachers in the midst of classroom set up: Don’t put up every bulletin board or overthink the placement of every desk, table, chair and organizer. Leave walls blank and bins unlabeled. Involving your students in classroom design is the best way to jumpstart student ownership and engagement in a new space, in a new year.
A few years ago, I decided to take the minimalist approach to my classroom design. I covered our bulletin boards with a soft gray felt, borders were images of birch bark and rocks and classroom decor was a calming blue and neutral palate. Most of the bins were left empty and walls blank. When questioned by parents, which happened more frequently than anticipated, I explained that this wasn’t MY classroom, it was OUR classroom. There were a few non-negotiables such as a classroom library area that was big enough for us to hold class meetings, a table that doubled as my work space/parking spot and a check-in space to leave important notes and make lunch choices. I use a real calendar and together we wrote important dates to come and important dates to commemorate. I did assign hallway hook spaces and classroom seats so that all students would have a place to land after arriving in a new classroom, but students spent little time at said seat during the school day.
Here are a few of the decisions we made together:
Use of bulletin boards and wall space
Configuration of furniture in the room
Supply storage solutions
Placement of mailboxes, best work bin — our place for turning in work –, iPad/device storage
Available/unavailable areas during work times
Anchor chart decisions
These decisions were typically made during our morning meeting time. Our meetings were longer on Fridays and usually involved some sort of community building experience or a feedback Friday session. We wouldn’t make decisions for everything all at once but students knew they could bring up a concern or respond to a concern brought up by a classmate or their teacher.
One of the most challenging parts of this practice was understanding why decisions were made. Students had to learn and practice responsibility, empathy and ownership over learning styles and preferences. We tried to adopt a tinker mentality and would often try things, revisit and give feedback, tinker a bit and try again. We asked a lot of reflective questions to ourselves and one another about how we felt in certain spaces or with certain decisions and how we thought others might feel as well. We also were really clear with why we were making these choices together – because we wanted everyone to be able to learn and feel taken care of in our classroom. This took time. Not all choices were completely democratic. There were times I had to step in and be the boss of the classroom and make a choice or two but that was always followed by some sort of class reflection.
Another thing that supported this process was the use of brain research in our class. After reading John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, I began introducing several rules to my students at the beginning of the year. We started with the same two each year:
Rule #3: Every brain is wired differently.
Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses.
These helped to keep things in a scientific perspective for us. It helped explain why certain students needed different options for seating or organization. It helped explain why every student needed a route to see the SMARTboard or our writing wall. Students loved learning about the science of their own brains, and it gave a more purposeful context to certain school behaviors: Eyes on the teacher isn’t just for fun.
As you look at your to-do list for the coming year take one thing off and give it to your students. Start the conversation with your class and see where it takes you.
Taylor Meredith is a Chicago-area teacher with a policy degree from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Service. Taylor received a master’s degree from Hunter College while a member of New York City Teaching Fellows. Passionate about student ownership of learning and thinking, action research, and theory of mind, she learned from the best at a public school in East Harlem, N.Y.
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