10 Questions to Ask Yourself as You Set Up Your Classroom This YearCarmel McDonald
We needed that summer break. We deserved that summer break. As my students would say, no cap!
But the sales coupons are starting to arrive in the mail. The targeted ads ("Target"-ed ads?) are really on point. The former patio furniture section of the grocery store is now home to eighteen styles of Paw Patrol backpacks.
So, let’s just face it, teachers. Resistance is futile. It’s "go" time.
For most of us, the most looming task is getting the desk-chair-book-cord jumble into some semblance of order. And though the idiom "rearranging the furniture" means spending time on a pointless activity, I would argue that in a classroom setting, arrangement matters a lot.
The design of the learning environment plays a huge role in student learning. And I don’t just mean for the sake of our first-day-of-school Instagram story, or to be the cutest in the hallway. The way we construct our learning space will have a direct impact on student concentration, communication, conversation, and management.
Here are 10 questions I ask myself each year as I set up my classroom.
- How do I arrange my desks?
Each year I walk the room a few times before day one and make sure my configuration allows for ease of movement. Even if my room is packed, can I access and interact with every student without being a contortionist? Is circulation possible?
Can students communicate effectively with each other?
After all, speaking and listening skills are direct objectives and essential to the learning process. Here's an equally valid question: can students ignore each other in this configuration also?
- Is there a designated "business center" in the room?
I have found over the years that getting the logistics of classroom life over with in the first minute means we can get to work quickly and get into learning mode pronto. I have students enter the room, proceed to this designated spot, do what might need to be done: hand in their work to an inbox, put field trip money/permission slips/notes from mom/lunch money/one-of-the-gazillion-papers-we-deal-with into another box, sharpen or grab a pencil, possibly grab a bellringer assignment, then head to their desk. (Call me Mrs. Fussybritches, but I refuse to be handed papers.)
- Do I have enough negative space?
Desk placement is significant, but open area is too. Is there space for students to move around when they need to? (Movement is an essential part of engagement.) Are the aisles wide enough for passage that doesn’t distract others? Is there easy access to the teacher’s desk? Garbage can? Kleenex box?
- Where do students' screens face?
Can their work be seen when it needs to be? Can it be private when it needs to be? Where (and when) can they charge up?
- How can I facilitate helping students during class?
Is there a space for a small-group meeting? Or a one-on-one conference with me? How can I comfortably and non-invasively read what's on a student's screen if they need feedback? Am I facing a student, or coming alongside? (I would argue that "alongside" posture is worth its weight in Ticonderoga pencils when it comes to bang-for-your-buck pedagogy.)
- Do I have space for students to take a sensory break or "I'm emotional" break?
Even if it's not formalized, where would I encourage a crying student, or escalated student, to go? It's worth thinking through ahead of time.
- Do I create space to show off student work?
Maybe it's a "Wall of Fame" (as suggested by Baruti Kafele in Closing the Attitude Gap... phenomenal book), or maybe it's an "On-a-Roll" wall or a Brag Board. Decorating the space with student artifacts communicates to students that what they produce has value. If you are short on wall space, consider posting work on closet doors, clotheslines, or even the ceiling.
- Will everyone feel comfortable in the space?
We want students to "own" the room also. Are flowers and ruffles the way to go? In another article I'll rant about the heavily feminine aesthetic of "Pinterest-ing" classrooms.
- Are my (simply stated) classroom expectations posted clearly?
I have found that walking a few steps and pointing to a rule is a quiet, effective, unemotional way of re-directing a class or a student. Sometimes tapping a rule speaks louder than repeating one.
Good luck, my fellow educators, in creating a space that will work for you and your learners. I hope that with each shuffle of a desk, or hanging of a poster, or stocking of a shelf, your excitement about the new school year will grow.
Carmel McDonald has taught middle school ELA in both British Columbia and Michigan, and has learned that tweens are tween-ish everywhere. She digs that. In 2019, Carmel was named Jackson Magazine’s Teacher of the Year. Carmel has nineteen adventurous years behind her as an educator, and is enjoying year twenty.