I’ve had the opportunity to visit many classrooms over the years. And there has been a trend of classrooms looking more like Turkish bazaars than places of learning. Colorful spinning artwork hanging from the ceilings. Bright, beautiful bulletin boards screaming for attention. Pets in and out of cages. It is an assault on the senses (I was even in a classroom where the teacher was burning incense!). And while I am not going to debate the advantages or disadvantages of these types of classrooms, I will say from my experience that it was overwhelming for at least some of the students I was observing.
When we planned our classroom layout at City Elementary, we had the same instincts as many other teachers to make the classroom environment “fun” and “exciting”. We had number lines and colorful alphabet posters ready to adorn the walls. Our artsy staff was ready to create the seemingly mandatory classroom bulletin boards welcoming students back to school. We also had two pet rats on our classroom team. But as we began to plan and think more about our students, our ideas of how to design the classrooms began to shift. We realized that what could be fun and stimulating for other students might be overwhelming and distracting for our students. We had to let go of many ideas about what a classroom should look like, and instead build a learning environment that matches the profiles and needs of our students.
As you can see in the photos, our classrooms are far from visually exciting. And it has been transformative. We believe that everything in our classrooms that is not relevant to instruction is an opportunity for distraction and disregulation. More than a month into the school year we have not heard one complaint from our students about the lack of “fun”. In fact, we have seen that the streamlined nature of the classrooms has led to increased focus and less sensory overstimulation.
We also have divided the classroom into meaningful, predictable areas. Our classrooms have places for group instruction, snack, independent work, and movement opportunities. We have spent the first weeks of school teaching students what is expected in each area in terms of activities and behaviors. We use furniture and rugs to create clear boundaries so when students move between areas there is a clear distinction of space and expectations. It has been great to watch students have a break on a trampoline in the sensory area, and then walk over to the group instruction area a few seconds later and sit down and get to work. This is possible because different areas have different expected behaviors.
While we do take a minimalist approach to our classrooms, we do know the benefit of sharing the amazing work of our students with the larger school community. In our hallways you will find examples of our students’ artwork, as well as their work samples from academic units. It is great for parents, visitors, and students to experience the great work that is happening in our classrooms.
The other important realization we have made is that our classroom structure, though it is working well now, is not permanent. As our students grow and goals are met we will need to restructure our classrooms to meet changing needs. For example, we have seen that the couch in one our classrooms needs some attention. It’s original purpose was as a comfortable place for independent reading, but it quickly became a go to place for students to take a quick break when feeling tired or overwhelmed. And while the couch can serve both purposes, we have seen some of our students disengaged during reading time because of the ambiguity of it also being used for breaks. So we have ordered a cover for the couch which we will put on only when it is available for breaks – and at all other times when the cover is off we will teach our students that the couch is only used for reading. We hope this visual distinction helps set the expectations for the area – we will keep you posted on how it goes!