I’ve always been one of those people who has a tough time really wrapping my head around the new school year until the physical space of our classroom is ready. That may be the residue of years of Augusts in my mom’s 4th grade classroom, watching her think and craft and organize in the most enthusiastic ways. It could be a little of my penchant for tidy spaces. But, most likely, it’s because I know the actual work of teaching is so unpredictable, so kinetic, so messy, that having our classroom space ready gives me a sense of calm.
Space is important. It’s not everything. It doesn’t have to define us (I know so many of you teach in spaces that are difficult to work with), but the way we use the space we have can reflect what we believe about teaching and learning. In fact, it does reflect what we believe. It’s the first message anyone gets about what learning will look like in this classroom. And I know this matters to you. In a recent “Ask Sarah” column, I answered a reader’s question about what an ideal classroom can look like.
With this belief that we can use the outward organization of our classrooms to represent our inward values about teaching and learning, and the help of the inspired collection of resources within Teaching Channel’s new Setting Up Your Classroom Deep Dive, I offer some challenges!
- Change the desks. First, ask yourself where your desk is in the classroom. What does it’s placement in the room suggest about where the learning takes place? Is it in the front of the room? The back of the room? Off to the side? Then, ask yourself the same thing about your students’ desks. I know it feels secure to have them in rows, all facing the front, but that’s also a powerful message about the way they’re going to learn in this classroom. What about a large circle? What about putting them in a horseshoe shape? What about “pods” of them? Most importantly, think about what the desks say about what you value in learning.
- Take something down. I know, I know. This is tough. But think about it. Whose classroom is this? If you start the school year with every wall and space covered with your summer’s hard work, where will your students’ work go? How will they see their learning reflected back to them? So think of it like a canvas and clear a wall.
- Replace one of those “quote posters.” Don’t feel bad, we all have them! You know the ones with nice reminders about treating others kindly, or doing your best all of the time. Yes, we need to treat others kindly and we want our students to do their best. But I’ve challenged myself to ask if a poster is really going to get that message across. Instead, I asked how can I teach something about doing your best with my wall space. That’s when I created our “Wall of Distinction,” where I highlight the stories of former students who have epitomized different learning dispositions.
- Create a place to make learning public. Learning isn’t the kind of thing we can compartmentalize, even though we do it out of habit so often in education. We can use our classrooms not as places that are static, but as living records of the learning that’s happening. Maybe you have an ongoing list of everything you’ve learned, maybe there’s a wall of epiphanies, or quotes from students you want everyone to remember. I tried these “doors of learning” last year and loved them! I can’t wait to see what you’ll come up with.
Here’s what you do to take on the challenge: Take a risk. Make a change. Snap a picture. Tweet it to @SarahWessling and @TeachingChannel using the hashtag #layoutchallenge and let’s see what we can learn from each other!
Most importantly, it’s not what the room looks like, but what you believe about learning and your students that will make for a successful year. I recently wrote this Pledge To My Soon-To-Be Students. I hope you enjoy it.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and Laureate Emeritus for Teaching Channel. You can follow her work at sarahbrownwessling.com or connect with Sarah on Twitter: @SarahWessling.