Intentional Classroom Design: Purposeful versus Pretty

When scrolling through beautiful images of classrooms on Instagram and Pinterest, vibrant colors, well-coordinated themes, and lots of decor accessories catch my eye and surely equate to lots of traffic.   I’m a big fan and can find myself pining for more money and more time to recreate the same amazing aesthetics in my space.  A.J. Juliani’s Innovative Teaching Academy August coursework on Classroom Design had me rethinking my priorities:  Thankfully, he had invited Erin Klein to share her ideas on the subject with us.

The learning was just in time for the new school year:  I was moving back to third grade and back into my previous third-grade space.  Since I “knew” the room, I went ahead and set it up almost exactly the way I had left it, except this time around there would be tables instead of desks, and flexible seating options instead of all traditional chairs.

After learning from Erin, here are the changes I made:

  • Create a Cozy Reading Nook:
    • To do this, I took the supplies off of the black bookcases in the closet and brought them out into the room.  The supplies were eventually organized into “stacks” and/or Sterilite drawers that I already had but wasn’t using efficiently.
    • I moved the teacher table and the tall, white bookcase that was behind it over to the right of the nook and closer to the supply closet.  I “lost” some wall space for organizing files but this forced me to be purposeful about the space I did have to work with and to eliminate clutter.
    • The baskets with fiction series went on the tall white bookshelf to the left of the nook:  Not ideal, but students were able to reach all but the top shelf easily.
    • The fiction books labeled with the A-Z colored labels from Lessons With Laughter now were placed in alphabetical order and very easy for students to access.
    • The leveled library books in Dollar Tree baskets were organized in another bookcase that was still in the reading nook but the brightly colored baskets were not an advertisement to “look at me” during classroom instruction.
  • Go “Au Naturale” with Bulletin Boards:
    • This was a tough one for me, I’ll admit since I’ve always loved a black background with a matching black border on all of the bulletin boards in the same room.
    • Two things helped me consider this option:
      • I left the paper and the border up for the teacher who was going to be moving into my 4th-grade space.  That paper would have been enough to cover the 3rd bulletin board at the back of the room, so I was going to have to buy another roll of black bulletin board paper to cover it.  The roll would cost $9:  It was only $9, but still it was $9.  I literally had the roll in my hand at the Teacher Store and made the decision to put it back.
      • I had temporarily placed the border around the board, so I knew I had enough, but I also noticed a strong glare from the natural light on the border from the windows and lamps in the room.  The glare wasn’t as noticeable on the boards with the black paper, but now I knew the glare was there.
    • Erin advocates for colors from nature and natural lighting.  The cork bulletin boards weren’t as “pretty” or as “finished” as those covered in black bulletin board paper and black with white polka dot border, but they were natural looking.  Additionally, because they weren’t dressed, they suggested an openness to student collaboration.  If I decide to purchase bulletin board paper in the future, I’ll definitely consider colors from nature and make an effort to find materials without glare for the borders.
  • Zone Collaborative Spaces:
    • I thought I had this covered when I moved from desks to tables, but I had never considered zones within the room beyond collaborative groups.
    • The biggest change I made was to remove the computer tables and replace them with student desks.  The computer tables were functional but made it nearly impossible for more than one student to work at a desktop computer.  By placing the computers on desks, one or two students can pull up an IKEA stool and join in the collaboration at a desktop.  It is not an ideal solution, but it is an attempt to improve.
    • The carpeted, morning meeting area at the front of the room below the SmartBoard is a large, collaborative space.
    • The reading nook is a smaller collaborative space.
    • The standing desk area is a movable, collaborative space and houses furniture pieces that can be moved to invite further collaboration.
    • Students working in pairs or at table groups with an iPAD keeps the technology collaborative.
      • In the future, I’d love to have some of the iPAD stands that Erin shows in her classroom.  The stands automatically invite collaboration in a way I never would have considered!
  • Remove the Clutter:
    • Anything that vied for student attention in a distracting way needed to go.
    • Placing Anchor charts on department store skirt hangers helps:  I pull them out during the content subject area and put them away afterwards.
      • This would ensure lots of “white space” on the walls.
      • Prevents Anchor charts from becoming wallpaper.
      • Forces me to keep the Anchors current and pertinent.
      • Currently, two anchor charts have earned staples:
        • Flexible seating guidelines since we are constantly referring to them
        • RADD anchor chart since we need to restate the question, answer the question, and provide 2 details in our answers across the curriculum.
    • Paying close attention to the shelves on the bookcase behind my teacher/small group table:
      • Are kids seeing storage containers, personal memorabilia, and/or materials that pertain to the lesson they are learning?
      • I still need to work on this area since I’ve found myself clipping important notices and/or student artwork to the baskets on the shelves.
    • I’ll admit, this was a tough one for me.  Many of the items that I ‘removed’ were gifts from students and previous classes that reflected our Future World Leader theme and passion for higher education.
      • About a month into the school year, I put the college pennants up on the largest bulletin board at the back of the room.  It constantly reminds me that the “color of Education” is blue, that one of the big ideas of everything we do is college and career readiness, and that daydreaming about attending college one day isn’t so bad, right?
      • The rest of the items are currently in the closet for further consideration.
  • Add ‘Natural’ Lighting:
    • Thankfully our space has taller windows which helps considerably!  Our fourth grade windows were nearly half the height and the difference and feeling in the space was noticeable.
    • Lamps
      • Two table lamps in the reading nook and another on the trapezoid table at the entrance of the room (one more than last year)
      • Standing lamps (5 more than last year)
        • Two are on either side of the teacher/small group table
        • Two are on either side of the SmartBoard at the front of the room
        • One is located in the computer desktop corner
        • One is beside the trapezoid table
        • Two are at the back of the room on either side of the standing table
    • Having five additional standing lamps makes it possible to keep the overhead fluorescent lights off during instructional time, even on rainy days.  If the sky is particularly dark, we can turn on just one set of the overheads without being blinded by harsh, glaring light.  In fact, the only time the overheads are on for an extended time is when:
      • The custodian cleans the floor twice a week.
      • A teacher “pushes in” for instruction.  Typically, they just turn them on without asking.  Out of habit perhaps?

Thinking about intentional Classroom Design inspired me to:

  1. Create a reading nook.  If you don’t have a nook, a corner or designated space will do.  A small area rug and a few pillows may be all you need.
  2. Go “Au Naturale” with Bulletin Boards.  No borders, no bulletin board paper, just plain cork.  Not comfortable doing this?  Consider wide ribbon or washi tape in neutral colors without any sheen or distracting designs.  This is going to be more expensive so look for sale opportunities.  Know where to purchase no-sheen borders? Please share the link in the comments below.
  3. Zone collaborative spaces.  Arranging desks in groups or moving to tables is a start, but try to think bigger.  Is there room for students to collaborate at morning meeting or while they’re using technology?
  4. Remove the clutter.  Taking on the entire room may be too overwhelming at this point in the school year.  Start small and be strategic:  Where do you spend the most time teaching in your space?  When students’ eyes wander to whatever’s behind you, what is vying for their attention?  Take it down if you can.  Remember, you can always put it back.
  5. Add ‘Natural’ Lighting.  Big name discount stores usually keep these in stock at reasonable prices year round.  Don’t have any more funds or time to search for deals at yard sales or reuse stores?  Put the word out to your families.

While purposeful and pretty can absolutely coexist in the same learning space, learning from Erin Klein has helped me focus heavily on intention first.  What are your thoughts on Classroom Design?  Be sure to share ideas you’ve tried in the comments below.

Create a cozy reading nook with bookcases, lighting, and rugs.
This is our technology area: There is room for students to pull up IKEA stools and collaborate! The traditional seating at Table Group 1 now includes the wobbly, bumpy discs as an option.
Tables invite collaboration for small groups and/or partners. Large meeting space at the front of room creates an area for collaboration throughout the school day.
Inspired by Erin Klein Classroom Design, this cozy reading nook is a first for our classroom! The teacher table and white bookcase used to occupy the nook.


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