Like most teachers, I spend a lot of time in my classroom during the summer. After almost an entire year in the same room, I am in dire need of a change! As I look at my own classroom environment—the way desks are arranged, the kinds of pictures and posters that cover the wall, the way my classroom library is arranged—I try to imagine it full of students and wonder, “Is this a safe space? Is it clean and inviting? What does this classroom say about me, my students, and my approach to teaching? These questions are even more at the forefront of my mind this summer since reading Patrick Allen’s book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop.
Although his text is especially useful for reading teachers, Allen devotes a nice little section of his book to exploring the physical environment of his own classroom. Below I have listed a few of Allen’s questions, along with his short self-reflections. These have really helped me look at my own classroom through a different lens, so I thought I’d share a few of them with you.
Nurturing a Positive Classroom Environment: 5 Questions for Teachers
If someone walked into our classroom, who would he or she say owned it?
I want my students to take ownership in our workspace, to know that it is our classroom—not just mine. I am careful to place my area in a distant corner of the room so that there is more room for students to move about and so that their desks and workspaces take prominence. Although I make logistical decisions about where furniture is placed, there is always opportunity to change. I want every visitor who comes into our classroom to sense that the room belongs to learners. If our students have a sense that the classroom belongs to everyone, it encourages community and adds depth to the types of responses that occur.
Have I added a personal touch?
My students know me well. Ask them now and they can tell you which book I’m currently reading, my current writing project, my plans for the weekend, my family stories…and they know because I believe it is imperative that I invite them to get a glimpse into my life. They see pictures of my four kids. They notice the colorful placemats under book baskets, the lamps, and the strings of lights above their work areas. All of this adds up to much more than objects. Personal touches set a milieu of comfort.
Is this a room that I would want my own children to be a part of?
Often when I am sitting with my students, gathered around the chart paper or the document camera projecting a piece of text we’re working on together, I wonder if my son Jens is being asked to gather around his teacher to contemplate a particular thinking strategy or to discuss the qualities of a wonderfully written piece of text. I also wonder if my daughter Lauryn is listening to a lovely book by Patricia MacLachlan and being asked to mull over a memory it sparks or a sensory image it creates. It is with the eyes, ears, and voice of the teacher I want my own children to have, that I interact with my students, especially as I work with them one-on-one.
Does the room look like a teacher supply catalog blew up?
Our room has blank space on the walls strategically placed throughout the room. Rarely will you find a poster supplied by our local teacher supply store. My funds are better spent purchasing books. Besides, I don’t think students really pay attention to posters that say, “How to Choose a Good Book,” or “Ten Things Readers Need.” Rather, I think that the language and the thinking that adorns our walls should be that of the children. This takes time, but I never feel the need to fill the walls with “stuff” until we’ve had the time to bring it together as a group of learners. The walls should be a public display of students’ ideas.
How low can you go? How are materials arranged?
I try to put things in the reach and view of children. I learned this lesson from my mother-in-law; she absolutely despises walking into someone’s home and seeing pictures hung so high on the wall that you have to crane your neck to see them. The same should be true of our classrooms. If it is meaningful information, students should be able to see it clearly. If students are encouraged to revisit previous learnings on charts you created together, they are more apt to reuse them while working independently if they are hung at their eye level.
Does the room reek of “cute” or reverberate thinking/learning?
Thinking is hard work. Cuteness isn’t. If someone walks into my classroom and says, “That is soooooo cute!” I immediately ask myself about thoughtfulness. If someone is observing me teach and says, “Your kids are so cute!” or “That lesson was such a cute idea!” I immediately ask myself about thoughtfulness of my activities. I don’t want my classroom to mirror strong evidence of “cuteness.” I want my classroom to reverberate with a sense of thinking.
Photo credit: dcJohn / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)