Creating Classroom Environments: Starting the Year with Empty Walls

Creating Classroom Environments: Starting the Year with Empty Walls - #TWTBlog

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Classroom Environments Blog Series - #TWTBlogMy first principal helped to mold my beliefs about what matters when creating meaningful classroom environments. He had a disdain for pre-made signage and cluttered classrooms, which impacted the way I utilized the wall and clothesline space in my classroom. Not everyone’s administrator was like my first principal. As a consultant, I’ve talked with many teachers whose principals expect their classrooms to look PERFECT (Whatever that means!) on the first day of school.
Before you get to the heart of this post, I have a disclaimer.  I have been a Pinterest user since the site was in its infancy. I curate quotations, recipeswriting inspiration, and much more on my pinboards. I enjoy the visualness of Pinterest so I use it in tandem with Pocket. However, I try not to go down the rabbit hole of Pinterest since making all of the things I enjoy looking at on there would rob me of the time I spend with my family, exercising, and reading.
Case in point: Images upon images come up when you search for “first day of school classroom bulletin boards” on Pinterest. There’s so much inspiration for bulletin boards you can make to make you room ready for the first day of school. Here’s a small sampling of what I found when I searched last week:
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So many good ideas!  Short of spending much of your summer vacation decorating one’s classroom, I don’t know how anyone finds the time to fill their classrooms with so many adorable bulletin boards! And not that there’s anything wrong with cute bulletin boards, but here’s the look I went for when I taught in Manhattan:

On the first day of school in 2005, most of my bulletin boards were blank. The center bulletin board provided each student with a space to display his/her writing. The bulletin board on the left was filled with synonyms, which was a waste of space since it wasn’t co-created with my students. Two empty bulletin boards are pictured on the right.

I never taught in a Pinterest-worthy classroom, but my classrooms in both New York and Rhode Island worked for my students. Why? Because with each passing year I realized ample wall space for my students was crucial since it allowed them to see pieces of themselves on display throughout the classroom.
A sampling of first day of school ideas on Pinterest.

A sampling of first day of school ideas on Pinterest.

Let’s talk about the “Pinterest-ization of Education.” (I’m unsure if I heard that term from someone else or made it up. Leave a comment and a link to the place where you’ve seen that term coined if you have, in fact, seen it before.)  If you spend some time looking for “first day of school classroom ideas,” I guarantee you’ll start to feel like whatever you’re doing in your classroom isn’t enough. I’ve found classrooms that look as though they’ve had more hours spent decorating them than I’ve spent decorating on my entire home! If one enjoys decorating, then that’s great. All the power to you.  But do you really want to spend hours decorating your classroom when you could be planning units of study, organizing your classroom library, perusing articles your PLN shares, or reading professional texts?  (Sorry if that short list made you feel like there’s SO much do to before the school year begins!) If not, then I’m here to assuage your desire to decorate because it’s okay to start the school year with a decluttered, somewhat barren classroom, that can still feel welcoming to your students.

5 Ways to Resist the Urge to Cutify Your Classroom
  1. Ditch the Theme: Classroom themes are adorable, but are they worth the time? Instead of spending hours decorating your classroom around a theme (e.g., bees, jungle, monkeys, superheroes) consider an idea-based theme like Matt Gomez did. Classroom themes to build community will increase student engagement more than decorations will.
  2. Resist the Temptation to Decorate: I realize parents, fellow teachers, and your administrators will be coming into your classroom. I know many teachers decorate out of the fear they’ll be judged for having a spartan-looking classroom. If the idea of empty bulletin boards make you cringe, then post signs that say: “coming soon” or “work in progress.” Also, research Reggio Emilia and Waldorf classroom environments. Both tend to have a more austere approach to classroom decoration.
  3. Cover Your Bulletin Boards Simply: Buy plain fadeless paper and simple borders to cover your boards so they’re ready to receive student work. (Again, label them with “coming soon” or “work in progress” signs.) If you’re looking for a more durable, longer-term way to cover bulletin boards, consider using wallpaper or fabric.
  4. Create Permanent Displays: Spend your time creating a permanent display where you can feature your students’ work (e.g., published writing at the end of each unit of study).  Once you set up these kinds of bulletin boards all you have to do is change out the work periodically.  For instance, I set up a “Celebrity Writer Profile” bulletin board in the hallway at the beginning of one school year. Eventually, I removed the words “Celebrity Writer Profiles” and changed it to “Published Writing” so the bulletin board lasted all year.
  5. Employ a “Less is More” Mentality:  Minimize student distractions by hanging up things that truly need to be on the walls.  Only adorn the walls with things that will positively impact student learning (e.g., word walls, anchor charts). A “less is more” mindset will be especially helpful to students with attention deficits.

On a related note: In addition, create spaces for classroom charts around the classroom.  Making a space for writing workshop charts, reading workshop charts, math charts, etc. will be useful to students since they’ll know where to look for strategy charts. If you don’t have multiple bulletin boards for this purpose, you can color-code charts by ink color (i.e., green ink is reading, blue ink for math, black ink for writing).

It is important to create and sustain a child-centered classroom. Beth recently told me about the 80/20 Rule many teachers follow.  Here’s the gist: 80% of the things displayed in the classroom are student-created while 20% of the classroom is teacher-created. If you’re going to follow this rule this coming year, then that means no more than 20% of your classroom’s walls should be covered on the first day of school.
For further reading:
Let’s chat on Monday, August 10th at 8:30 p.m. EDT, when the eight of us host a Twitter Chat about classroom environments.  Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.

Let’s chat on Monday, August 10th at 8:30 p.m. EDT, when the eight of us host a Twitter Chat about classroom environments. Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.