To the new teacher struggling to put her classroom together, I see you…
You’re standing there, head cocked, staring at those four empty walls. I know you’re feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and so very broke. You’ve been spending late nights scrolling through pages of Pinterest classrooms and making notes. Now you’re wondering how to get the ideas found there into the classroom you see here.
1. Choose A Color Scheme
2. Help Your Students Find Their Place
3. Think About The Most Important Take-away’s For This Grade Level
4. Let Your Students Have A Hand
To me, designing the environment in which my students are going to spend the next year learning is just as meaningful as delivering the actual content. The classroom has to inspire them to want to learn, but then it has to be a safe space to do so. Designing a classroom means creating a space that is aesthetically appealing, sure, but also one that fits the routine, meets the needs of diverse students, and still allows each student a sense of ownership.
When I first began planning the design of my classroom, I was a new teacher fresh out of college. I had just paid 4 years of tuition, and was beginning to realize that the cost of setting up a classroom could be just as much as another semester. I couldn’t afford to pre-spend my first few paychecks on themed bulletin borders, posters, calendars, alphabets, name tags and labeled containers. So, I chose just a simple color scheme at first: primary colors.
There were plenty of color schemes that I considered, but I was intentional in choosing the one I did. I liked primary colors by themselves, but I also knew they would match a variety of themes later on. Although I was choosing a color scheme over a theme for now, I didn’t want to rule out the possibility of having a theme in future years. I aimed to design a classroom that I could eventually change the theme of by changing only a few small accents. Primary colors would lend themselves well to farm, superhero, Dr. Seuss, and carnival themes, just to name a few.
Once I chose a color scheme, my focus became accepting hand-me-down’s and scouring sales for containers. A friend once told me that if you want to go heavy on purchasing anything for a classroom, go heavy on purchasing containers. Containers of all sizes. They can be used for storage inside or outside of cabinets, and they can also be used to quickly hand off activities and all of their necessary materials to groups of waiting students. I took this to heart.
I found that Target’s dollar bins had larger primary colored containers in the 3-5 dollar range beginning around the first week of July. Hobby Lobby had larger neon colored containers as part of their Spring collection. However, these containers got up to 90% off when those spring items were clearanced out at the end of July. Dollar Tree also had some really good options for containers
I purchased different types of larger containers from the Target dollar section.
I purchased different types of smaller containers from the Dollar Tree.
Also, I found primary colored paper trays at a yard sale for a dollar a piece, but I have been told they are available at most teaching supply stores.
I actually went to a sale at a teacher supply store going out of business in search of such trays. It was named The Little Red Schoolhouse. It was the name of this store that further developed my vision.
As a lover of all things old and beautiful, I began to imagine my primary-colored classroom with pops of red and an old schoolhouse feel. I purchased galvanized pails and tubs, chalkboards, burlap, and jute rugs. I stalked yard sales to find DIY projects that would help my theme come together.
Check out this breakfast tray that I transformed into my classroom’s “Borrow Bin.”
A sweet, sweet teacher friend passed down an old apple basket that had been in her family for many generations. I use it now to hold the pillows students can use while reading independently on the carpet.
My husband, who usually tries to talk me out of bringing home furniture left on the side of the road, brought home an antique bench just screaming to be painted red and sat upon by developing readers with dangling legs, too short to reach the floor.
At this time, I still hadn’t adopted an actual “theme.” I had only paired my color scheme with a few textures and patterns I really liked. Once you have your basic color scheme figured out, you might start to consider whether you like polka dots, chevron, stripes, squiggles, etc. and slowly add them in. Since they’re just patterns and textures, it won’t feel like only a half put together theme.
This year, with the addition of some rustic apple accents I purchased from the teacher supply store, my theme finally transformed into a theme…. one I now like to call
As I mentioned before though, the aesthetics of a classroom are but one small piece of what classroom design truly is. Designing an effective learning environment also means helping students see how they fit into this little school room.
In the classic novel Anne of Green Gables, set in a small Canadian town in the early 1900’s, the entire town wakes in the middle of the night to help a family whose home has become engulfed by flames. Even the town’s children approach and surround the burning home of their classmate’s family, willing to do whatever they can. I love this sense of unity among the town’s people, but especially among the children. Both inside and outside of their one room schoolhouse, they are family. I wanted to incorporate these same values into my classroom. I wanted to see relationships transcend the walls of my classroom.
The first way that I knew to do this was by making every student feel like a valued member of our classroom. I took pictures of every student and hung them from clothespins on strung twine. Near them I posted a sign that read “You are the apple of my eye” to match my developing theme. I also have seen classroom signs that say, “What I love most about my classroom is whom I share it with.” I hung other signs with quotes that emphasized each students’ value. (Until I could get students’ pictures printed, I just had apples hanging from the clothesline.)
*Note: I do take students’ pictures down to hang holiday decorations from this clothesline. Spiders, Fall leaves, Christmas bulbs, snowflakes, hearts, shamrocks, Easter eggs, etc.
On the first night of school, I also have every student design a small “tile” to represent who they are and what is important to them. On the second day of school, students share their tiles with the class and they get pieced together to create a mosaic. We have a conversation about how our differences make us stronger because they help us to learn from one another.
After students feel secure in the value they add to our classroom, they can begin to find the value in others too. For this reason I incorporate collaborative grouping numbers on their desks to make teamwork more manageable. You’re more likely to use something regularly if you have a system in place for it, and I knew I wanted my students to share their thoughts and strategies with one another frequently.
As they do so, they will likely have differences in opinion. For this reason, I also keep my expectations for using manners posted in the classroom.
A classroom can feel like it has a lot of space to fill, but truly the available space goes fast.
It’s important to think about what the main take-away’s for the grade you’re teaching are and to be sure that those concepts are represented in the everyday decor of your classroom. Also, this might just be a type-A personality thing, but I like to have the resources for a single subject all gathered on the same wall or in the same area of the classroom so students know exactly where to look for the information they need.
In the above picture, you will see my “Writing” wall. I have the steps of the Writing Process posted along with a short description of each. Beneath the steps of the writing process are editing mark posters. Each poster displays a different editing mark students will use when editing their rough drafts. Because writing is taught daily, this is something that will need to be referenced often.
In the below picture, you will see that I also have numbers strung across a bulletin board. This bulletin board (actually a make-shift bulletin board! Just bulletin board paper, borders, and hot glue there, friends.) hangs at the front of my classroom beside my math strategy posters and math vocabulary pocket chart. I carried my “math” resources over to this bulletin board since it was nearby.
Because multiplication is a major mathematical skill students must master in the 3rd grade, I have hung these numbers as an incentive to learn them. Each week students take a weekly fact test. If they pass, they receive a small reward and they get to write their name on the number of the set of facts they passed. Then, they get to move on to the next set of facts. If they pass the fact test for all 12 sets, then they earn a large reward at the end of the year such as an invitation to a special party.
The actual bulletin board, however, (and the posters displayed on it) are possibly my favorite part of my entire classroom.
You see, after I filled my classroom with resources for the most important take-aways in 3rd grade, I was left wondering what to do with all of the other anchor charts I had created. I didn’t want my classroom to appear cluttered or to overwhelm the students if I hung them all. Still, I wanted them to be utilized by the children.
That was when I had the idea to create a “focus” board. This bulletin board has 3 sets of clothespins. The clothespins allow me to easily change out the anchor charts displayed, so that I can hang resources only for the concepts I am teaching or reviewing at the present time. The students love coming in each week and seeing how the board has changed, and I love that 1. they’re excited about learning and 2. it wasn’t a hassle at all to change over for a new week.
I’m all about making things easy. It’s not like teachers have 1,000 other things to do than re-decorating their room weekly.
Besides the most important take-away’s, I also like to consider the routine my students will have when designing their learning space. This can be difficult since you’ve often not met your students when you first decorate your room. You might have to readjust in the first few weeks as you get to know them and what works best for them, but it is good to have a plan in place to start from.
A few examples…
Near my “Writing” wall, I have bins of paper and small red crates with students’ writing resources. Bookmarks that outline the steps of C.E.R. Analytical Writing. Strips of paper with extra writing prompts for early finishers. Revising bags (filled with post-it notes to add more details, a ring of Lowes paint cards that give “colorful words” students can replace their overused words with, and a pen for editing). And editing checklists which guide students through peer-editing another’s paper.
Along my back wall, near my students’ Comprehension Center, I have 4 colored bins set up- Red, Blue, Green, and Yellow. Each colored bin correlates with a different reading group, so students know exactly which differentiated activity to grab.
Near my Vocabulary center, a laminated piece of apple-themed letterhead is taped to the cabinet. (A make shift white board). Each week I use Expo markers to write that week’s assigned words and the page number of the story that uses them in context. When the week is over, I use a tissue to erase it completely from the letterhead and then I write the following week’s assignment in its place.
In the corner of my room are two small whiteboards hot-glued to the wall for students to write their names for Reading Counts tests and Library trips. When we have some spare time in our day, I glance up at the lists and call names from there for students to take their tests or visit the school library.
By my library is a place for students to keep their library markers when not in use and to sign out the books they do choose to take. I also use this space to keep students’ lexile cards and timers for trips to the actual school library.
(Plus check out our cute scarecrow girl gifted to us for the Fall season!)
The Borrow Bin is located along the side counter of my classroom. My grade level is partially departmentalized, meaning I receive students from another teacher for an hour during the day. This space is designated for these students… so that they do not have to go through my own students’ pencil boxes for supplies when they come to me. My own students also use these supplies if they need to work somewhere on the floor away from their group or if they do not have specific materials themselves.
And let’s not forget keeping my own routine in mind while designing the classroom. I snagged this idea from a friend… Walmart’s plastic storage containers labeled with the days of the week to help me keep my many copies organized.
Don’t think you can only include the main take-away’s for your grade level in your classroom, either. What do you hope your students will remember about having YOU as a teacher? What are the pieces of education that are the most meaningful to you? Be sure to include those as well!
For me, that’s developing a love for reading in my students. I really prioritize exposing students to all types of genres, and I urge students to read independently at home.
For that reason, I spent a lot of time developing my classroom library. I was intentional about organizing it by genre, authors, and series (not levels) so that students of all abilities can experience a variety of texts and find what they’re interested in. Perhaps a newfound interest will be enough to motivate them to reach a level high enough to read it!
At the beginning of the year, I put “Do Not Read. Books On Hold” labels on all of the genres with the exception of the “Picture Books” tubs. The students think this is because they have to show me they can keep the library organized before they can earn the rest of the bins. And while that might be it in part, I also like to build suspense by only “releasing” a few new genres at a time throughout the school year. You should see the way those kids jump and dive for a Science Fiction novel on the first day the bin becomes available!
I also included a Reading Counts point tracker on a narrow wall within my classroom to keep encouraging students to read in their personal time. I come up with fun- but simple- monthly challenges to keep students’ reading and give them a little friendly competition. One month, one student from each reading group with the most points received a giant pencil. Another month, any student with more than 12 points earned in that month came into the classroom at recess to make fake snow with me.
I would love to eventually have a class garden too! But, that will come.
It’s their classroom, after all.
One of the very first things that I allow students to take ownership in is the creation of their name tag. At Meet the Teacher, I have card stock with their name printed in bubble letters waiting for them on their desk. When the students come in, they find the desk with their tag on it. This helps them to know where they’ll sit on the first day. Then, they color their name tag while their parents fill out all of the necessary paperwork for me. I laminate the name tags once the students leave and velcro them to the desks before the first day of school. I love to see their reactions when they come in and see how official they look laminated! Plus, I have noticed that the students do not pick at or destroy their name tags throughout the year if they personally designed them.
Next year I am even considering letting the students bring one wallet sized picture to have laminated and also posted to their desk. We, adults, have pictures and decor to personalize our own work spaces. Isn’t that the very reason you stopped to read this post in the first place?
My students also create their own word wall cards and anchor charts.
They help me to update our learning goals.
Their best work is displayed across my longest bulletin board.
And, at several times throughout the year, I create opportunities for students to fill a space of the classroom with some kind of personalized response. New Years Resolution after Winter Break, something they love about school for Valentines Day, a reason they’re lucky for St. Patrick’s Day, something they’re thankful for around Thanksgiving, an act of Christmas kindness they’ve noticed in December. I leave the little slips of paper in a small container and students take them and fill them out at their convenience.
Don’t be afraid to let go!
You might find a yard sale rug for 8 bucks that doesn’t totally match, but you love it. Buy the rug anyway!
There might be events and activities that come up throughout the school year that you’ll want to transform your space for. Don’t be discouraged if you have to take down some “perfectly placed” resources to make room for something else.
Just go with it, and HAVE FUN!