Tips for Organizing and Decorating from IEA Member Valerie Aker, South Middle School, Nampa
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This summer I’m moving my home and moving my classroom. It’s an interesting experience doing both. I’m finding a lot in common as I start to set up each of them.
First and foremost, moving gives a great opportunity to weed out. In my home I have things I’ve literally never used in 20 years. I’ve come to the conclusion that despite having a whole set of them, I’ll never use tart pans – for anything. I’m donating them.
In my classroom I’m also acknowledging that this is likely my last move in education and as such, it’s time to let go of materials I haven’t used in the last 20 years here either. I started my career in a first grade classroom and while my middle schoolers sometimes act as if they are six year olds, the truth is, I don’t need to hang onto centers that teach them to button and tie or to count and sort objects into groups of 20.
In both cases, it’s difficult to let go. In both cases, I find the new design and décor I want is… useful, practical, clean, neat, and peaceful. So, just as I am putting things away room by room in my new house, I’m thinking and sorting very carefully in my classroom.
First and foremost, I want the environment to be inviting. Since this is my home at least eight hours a day and my students’ home at least some portion of the same, I want us all to feel at ease. For me, this is best achieved through organization and accessibility. A classroom is much like a house in that when you first move in, you are often house-poor. As time goes on you acquire things and make it more and more your own. Most teachers start off with lots of hand-me-downs and thrift store finds. That is a great way to start. I’d encourage you though, to invest in some paint and contact paper and make as much of it as you can match and fit together in a pleasing color scheme. You may not be able to paint the walls or change the counter tops, but by choosing the colors you can control, it will seem more conjoined and intentional and will make it easy to start building on your personal taste.
A few ideas to bring that homey feeling include using tables whenever you can instead of desks. This leads to collaborative conversation, provides more space to work, and lend themselves to easy and flexible grouping. Consider chair pouches for students to store their personal materials. Area rugs are a good way to muffle noise and to define space for various centers or activities. If you don’t have lockers or cubbies, removable stick-em hooks and milk crates or even paper boxes can make inexpensive storage space. Empty laundry soap boxes make great book storage and lend a clean smell to the classroom.
I am a big proponent of self-advocacy and as such, I want my students to function independently. So as much as they can find, solve, and do for themselves; the better. In my classroom, nearly everything gets labeled. When I first started teaching, I did those labels with my students over the first few days of school. We’d point to the clock, write clock on an index card, tape it up, and I’d celebrate with my students that they’d just read the word. In middle school, fortunately my students can read. The skill they seem to have missed is navigation. I still use a lot of signs, but one of my best investments was a $20 label maker.
I have centralized areas for all supplies that students are welcome to use. These include the pencil sharpener, glue, scissors, colored pencils, rulers, calculators, erasers, and reference materials such as multiplication charts and dictionaries. Everything is labeled and everything has a place it should be.
Paper, pens, and pencils can be “purchased’ from me during passing periods. We use a token economy to reward positive behavior and students use those tokens to purchase materials they don’t have with them. They are expected to take care of this on their own time, rather than class time. Buying materials on class time drives the price up substantially – much like a late fee on a credit card or utility bill.
In order to help students know exactly what they will need for class each day, we have one wipe board (laminated poster board works, too) that is specifically daily instructional information. It tells students what they’ll need that day, the day, date, and an agenda for class time, the lesson objective, page numbers, homework, and due date.
We have a similar area with additional information such as how to head the paper, the grading scale, a school calendar, and the lunch menu. It includes social information such as upcoming school events, sports and music events, service opportunities, ongoing challenges, and community information.
I have an area for no-name papers. If students are certain they turned it in, they are welcome to look there. I also keep make-up work folders. If you miss something from my class, it’s in your personal folder. It makes it much less for me to remember when someone is absent and much easier to help students learn to be responsible. I always make two or three extra hand-outs and they are stored in tub near the folders for those who have misplaced something.
We also have sample letters to teachers that my students write asking for make-up work, missing work, to please verify a grade, and when needed, what they could do to improve a grade.
I put the hygiene materials, Band-Aids, tissues, hand sanitizer, wet wipes, wastepaper baskets, and a mirror in a number of locations around the room. Never put them on your desk! If you do, you are exposing yourself to constant germs and pretty disgusting behavior. Instead, when students need any of that, they know to go quickly and quietly and take care of it without disrupting the class. Same with the bathroom pass – my students have four pre-printed passes they can use during the semester. They just fill in the date, write their name on it, and go. At the end of the semester, any turned in unused earn a reward. It really helps cut down on unnecessary trips to tinkle.
A few other key points to remember:
- Students thrive in a clean, purposeful environment. They need to be able to find and do things on their own. This teaches problem solving and independence.
- Be conscious of lighting. Many students (and adults) have headaches that are caused by flickering, florescent lights. Whenever you can, access natural light. When that’s not possible, lamps and even white Christmas lights can help.
- Many students, particularly special need students are sensitive to smells, too. If you must have scent in your room, try a mild vanilla and make sure it’s not overpowering.
- Green, living plants improve the air and are soothing. They also make great, inexpensive decoration.
- Organize your room to work well with the flow of traffic – never put high need things like the pencil sharpener near the door. It blocks traffic coming in and out and also causes lots of unnecessary trips just to see who might be in the hall.
- Make sure any and everything posted in the room is legible and has both correct spelling and grammar. Model, model, model.
- Provide a variety of reading materials. Most children aren’t exposed to the newspaper at all anymore. They need to see and use them along with magazines and catalogues. I’m also in favor of graphic novels, comic books, booklets, brochures, poems, charts, maps, and graphs. Students need real world reading material along with the classics.
- De-clutter and simplify. As teachers, we tend to verge on being hoarders. You just never know when you might be able to use something. If you’re going to keep it, pack it neatly in a box, put a lid on it, and label it.
My classroom is my home almost more than my actual home. As such, I want it to be welcoming, encouraging, and positive. With just a little coordination and time up front, my new home and my new classroom should provide a great start to this new year.