Why My Classroom Has No Theme

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My first year of teaching I remember trying to create a theme for my room.  What would our classroom look like?  What teacher would I be known as?  Would I be the ocean teacher?  The movie teacher?  The zombie teacher (too scary)?  I asked my mentor finally for help and what she told me stuck with me throughout the years; don’t worry about a theme, worry about the kids.

And so I did.  And I never did get a theme.  Every year I thought that this would be the year that I would finally decorate and pull it together, but it just never happened.  Instead I filled it with books.  I filled it with blank walls.  Empty bulletin boards and room to breathe.  I thought I was a lost cause, the teacher with no theme, until I spoke about it a few weeks ago.  I was wrong, I do have a theme.

My theme is students.  My theme is room to invent.  My theme is books as they threaten to take over every single surface available.  My theme is fun.  My theme is flexible.  My theme is for any child that walks into our room to make this their room.

So I have no polka dots or pastel colors.  I have no chevron stripes (even though I love them).  I have no meaningful borders or fancy sitting areas.  I have furniture we can move and the space to do it.  That doesn’t mean I have a problem with those that spend so much time and so much money concocting a theme for their room.  It simply means that I am on a different path.  One that will never lead to my classroom being featured as something to emulate for its beautiful design.  One where I will always choose to spend my money on books rather than decorations.

Yet I do write this post with a few questions in mind to those who do have a theme.  Please ponder them if you will.  Does your theme allow for students to take over your room?  To leave their very own imprint or will their creativity only be shown in designated areas?  Do students feel like this is their room or does it say your name on the wall?  Does a sign above your door welcome them to your room?  Will boys feel welcome in your room?  Will girls?  Will those who do not agree with your theme still feel welcome?  Does your theme inspire all?  Does your theme and decorating leave room to grow?

If yes; thank you.  Thank you for creating a space that you and all of your students can breathe in, can work in, and can be themselves in.  Thank you for creating a space that allows students to flourish and strengthen themselves.  For creating a space where they feel welcome and that does not overwhelm their senses.  If no, then I have no advice, other than to think about it.  Look through the eyes of your students and see how they might feel.  See how your room may inspire or stifle them.

I posted pictures of my room earlier this summer and not much has changed.  I wait for my students to come in and make our room come alive.  Yet, I feel the guilt tugging at me from year’s prior wondering why my room doesn’t look ready.  Wondering why my room doesn’t look fancy?  Or cute?  Or has a theme so that students will know who I am as a teacher.  I guess they will just have to find out as we grow together, much like I will.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my book Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.  The 2nd edition and actual book-book (not just e-book!) comes out September 22nd from Routledge.

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15 thoughts on “Why My Classroom Has No Theme

  1. I haven’t had a theme in 20 years. Never saw a need. Now I’m in first–and still never had a desire for a theme–unless it’s nature (posters of trees) and quotes to think about. I find quotes I love–to discuss with my students–and after discussing I laminate and tape it to a wall somewhere. The kids help me find a spot. The one I read today we’ll be discussing on the first day is
    “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” William Wordsworth. How amazing is that! I also found this year “Books are uniquely portable magic.” Stephen King and this one “Once, poets were magicians.
    Poets were strong, stronger than warriors or kings.
    And they will be strong once again.”
    Greg Bear
    I did take a few words out of that one. We read and write poetry all year (never a unit)–so this one just makes me smile. I get ridiculously excited about showing them a new quote. 😉
    And they internalize them. Evidence: I had one up last year about “In the spring, at the end of the day everyone should smell like dirt.” Weeks later a student–a girl–had really dirty bare feet at home and she insisted her mother take a picture and send it to my email. So awesome.

    Thank you for being at least one who feels the same.

  2. Thank you for sharing such powerful thoughts. I could not agree more. Well, except for the part about the chevron and sitting area. Both of those I proudly have in my own classroom. I like to think that there can be room for such things, even in a student centered classroom. I do think there is something, perhaps, to be said for making a classroom feel like home as long as everything in the room serves a purpose that leads to our students learning more, reading more, writing more and feeling more at home in our classrooms.

  3. Love this post. I commented on the lack of chevron stripes in my room in a post I wrote this morning. I do have furniture – my husband calls my classroom the spot our old furniture goes to die. My students and I affectionately call one of the armchairs the “ugly” armchair. But it is comfortable. No money is spent on decorations for the classroom, that money goes to books. Thanks for the important reminder.

  4. This is a powerful post and something so important to share. I wish I could share a picture of my classroom and how I think that I have been able to strike a balance between decorated, student-centered and book-filled.

  5. I think teachers as a whole, and I have been guilty of this too, sometimes focus too much on how things look – whether it’s our classroom, worksheets (Hello Teachers Pay Teachers) or even our blogs. The “lipstick on a pig” phrase comes to mind if you haven’t considered all the questions you wrote about in your post and the most important: “How will it help the kids?”

  6. As Pernille says, it’s a-ok if you have a theme, what really matters is the time you spend in the summer and during the school year planning and adapting to your shared learning environment: both physical space and thinking space. My wife’s kinder class doesn’t have a theme, but it has awesome centers. Each center has “stuff” that is well-thought-out. She spends time every summer freshening her centers with furniture and other items from Ikea and books and learning supplies and the raw materials to make learning happen.

    Just one example. I can’t tell you how much time she spent dyeing dried garbanzo beans various colors to use in a “sand table.” Large cooking sheets of colored beans filled the porch outside as we waited for the dye to dry. The kids will really be surprised to see the dyed beans instead of sand. I can’t wait to hear about their reaction.

    Making your room look magical is cool. Making your room look like a living room, a welcoming space is cool too. Sharing your passions for a sports team or other things you love is great as long as kids can share their passions too.

    You should think about your learning space and you should act on those thoughts… every year.

  7. Thank you for your voice of reason Mr. Theriault! There are many flavors of ice cream and while they may not all look and taste the same, they can all be good if they are made well.

  8. I see what the author is saying here, but I also don’t think that caring about a theme and caring about kids are mutually exclusive. There’s no need to take everything to extremes. Let’s just allow each other to do what makes us happy!

  9. Thank you…I too do not have theme. My room sounds a lot like your…overrun with books and more books…blank boards too. Soon there will be 22 students filling this room with joy, curiosity, art, talk, learning, fun, and play..

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  13. Ms. Ripp,
    I’m glad I came across this post. It’s the last quarter of the year and already I’m thinking about possible themes for my classroom next year. I teach sophomores and I know it’s not the norm for a high school classroom to have a cutesy theme, but I always envied elementary and middle school classrooms for the unified decorations and the fun motifs. For me, part of what’s exciting about starting a new year is envisioning new possibilities. I agree that the classroom should leave space for evidence of student growth and I will be reflecting on the questions you posed regarding décor. Thank you.

  14. I don’t do themes either, nor do I begrudge those who do. I believe Pernille stated that if you have a theme, that’s ok too. She didn’t accuse theme-lovers of not loving kids. 🙂 My only dislike are rooms overrun with commercial posters. Where are the children’s’ work in those rooms?

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