Be the change, classroom setup, new year

It Is Time To Renew, Reorganize, and Reevalute

image from icanread

Something magical beckons us on the cusp of a new year; one full of promise to change, a clean slate as if for once we can get it all right, or at the very least figure out what we need to change, ahh, January 1st and all of its promises.  It is no different in the classroom; the new year is an opportune time to not just conjure up  resolutions but also renew and reevaluate your setup hopefully leaving you saner and more organized.

I used to think of things I needed to change after the 1st of the year but quickly got worn out thinking of all of these changes.  After all, as a newish teacher, I have enough things I am already trying to reflect upon and implement so I am not sure we need more things to do.  So now I have scaled it back, I look at my room through a different lens, that of reevaluation.  May my thoughts help guide you as well.

  • Study your workspace configuration.  Are students able to move, spread out, work at different places than their assigned work spaces?  Can they get away when they need to or are they always squished together?  Often this aspect of our room is completely out of our hands as it depends on classroom size but even cramped rooms can have getaway corners, places where students can find some sort of solitude, or places where they can work together as a large group.

  • Study your “dusty” areas.  Are there parts of your classroom that are hardly ever used?  Places where the students cannot get to or where an arrangement of furniture seems cramped or forced?  I recently realized that my large conference table was squeezed into a corner meaning I never used it and neither did my students.  In two moves of furniture it is now front and centre and used every single day with students.  Easy to do once you know what isn’t working.

  • Study where the piles are.  I used to force myself into several organization systems that just didn’t work.  What resulted were various piles of papers, books, and miscellaneous teacher items that never got put away.  I had too many places to place things and often these spots were also in the wrong area so I would drop off stuff and then leave it to gather dust, in the end forgetting that I had put it there in the first place.  Now I pay attention to where I place things, create gathering places where they feel natural (think: where you place things anyway) there and follow the 1 minute rule; if you can do it in 1 minute – do it right away.

  • Ask your students.  I often take the time to ask my students what is working for them, where their favorite places are, or what they are missing.  Conversations such as these have resulted in their own area for office supplies, more small tables, and choices of whether to lie down or sit in a chair whenever we do writing and reading workshop.  Students are the biggest components and inhabitants of the classroom; they should have a say in what is working or not.

  • Recreate your area.  I start out the year with my favorite things close by; a great stapler, hand lotion, my favorite picture, and billions of colorful pens that brighten my day.  As silly as these things sound, it feels nice to have what I need close by when I am planning.  As the year progresses, though, my things seem to move or vanish altogether.  Take this time of renewal to renew your area, think about what would make you happy every day in a small way and bring it into your immediate vicinity.  It may not seem like a big thing, which is why it is perfect to do now.

  • Start to think of next year.  Call me crazy but January is when I start to think of the next school year.  I clean up papers as I go through them, make extra copies for the following year if it something I will have to use like a math test, and throw out/recycle anything I don’t need.  Too often we leave these tasks for the end of the year but it is easier to just stay on top of it throughout the year.  Start to think of what you need to change for next year with your lessons and tweak them now, because next time you teach it, chances are you will not remember the changes you needed to make.

While there are many things you can do to reorganize your classroom as you prepare for the second half of the year, think small at first.  Change the easy things, give yourself time to think about what needs to happen, and then do it.  Recruit your students to help, reflect on what is working and what isn’t, and then decide what needs to change now for you to be happy.  Change never has to be big to be effective. It does not have to be grandiose or expensive; find something small to make you feel renewed even if it just includes the happiness that brand new pens can bring you.


building community, classroom setup, new teacher, new year

Some Ways To Show My Students They Matter

This year we start the first day of school with a first day of school.  And while there will be no orientation day, no meet and greet, I still want them to feel that excitement of a new year, a new room, a new group of kids, and definitely a new teacher.   I want them to know that I am so happy to teach them, because I am!  So I have been thinking of little ways I can show them how much they matter, feel free to add more in the comments.

  • The welcome letter – I spend a lot of time crafting this letter because I want them to get to know me a little bit, get excited about the great things we will explore, and for them to feel welcomed.  I change it every year, but here is last year’s letter as an example.  (Don’t mind the atrocious picture quality, I had to compress the file).
  • The book bins – Every student will have a book bin waiting for them with books carefully selected from last year’s students.  On each book is a post-it note explaining why the book was chosen and how much they loved it.  I hope this makes my new students excited about reading.

    Student created book bins with selected books
    Student created book bins with selected books
  • The letters from former students – each student also has a handwritten letter from my old students giving them tips on 5th grade, insider information about “surviving” their new teacher, and things they can look forward to.  I love the care my old students take to welcome the new students even though they are not at the school anymore.  (And I keep these letters every year after the new students have read them).
  • Pencils with messages – these don’t show up for a few weeks as I get to know them but I love leaving small messages on number 2 pencils.  Why buy them pre-printed when you can write exactly what you want with a sharpie?

    messages on pencils from last year
    messages on pencils from last year
  • Purchasing their favorite picture books – I have been on a picture book binge this summer – they are just so absolutely fantastic.  So what better way than to expand my library then by asking my students what their favorite picture book is and then surprise reading it aloud for them at some point?  I cannot wait to make this a reality, even if it means spending more of my own money on books.
  • The precepts – we finished last year sharing “Wonder” and I asked my students to write precepts for how to love 5th grade.  They did and these will be welcoming my new students in the hallway leading to our room.
  • The family picture – Someone smart (and if it was you please let me know so I can give you credit) wrote about how they would have students bring in a family picture to leave in the classroom all year.  I love this idea!  So I will ask every child to bring in a special picture (or photocopy of one) and then we will make a display out of all of them for the whole year.  I want the students to feel this is is their room as much as mine right from the beginning.

I am sure as summer winds down there will be more ideas, but for now I am excited about these.  What will you be doing?

classroom setup, new teacher, new year, student voice

My Student Questionnaire for Beginning of Year

My old student questionnaire

Since I will be traveling quite a bit in August, I am getting my papers in order for the beginning of the year and stumbled upon my standard student questionnaire in a folder.  Once I glanced at it I realized how it was in need of a serious revamping and thus asked my PLN for must ask questions for this document.  Thank you so much to everyone who inspired me!

Here is a link to the Google Doc – feel free to make a copy and make it your own.

Here are just the questions (for the actual survey go to the link) that I will be using that first week of school to get to know the kids better.

  1. What are the three most important things I should know about you?
  1. What are things you are really good at?
  1. What are you most proud of?
  1. What is the favorite thing you did this summer?
  1. What have you most loved learning (even if not in school)?  Why?
  1. What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not in school?
  1. What is the best book or books you have ever read?
  1. What do you want to learn HOW to do?
  1. I think 5th grade will be….
  1. What do you love about school?
  1. What do you not like about school?
  1. I work best in a classroom that is….
  1. Some things I really want to to work on this year in 5th grade are….
  1. What are things you cannot wait to do this year?
  1. I learn best when the teacher is….
  1. What do you know about Mrs. Ripp?

classroom setup, new teacher, new year, Student-centered

Some Questions to Ask Yourself As You Set Up Your Classroom

Those bare walls beckon, calling out to us to fill them with motivational posters, rules, and most definitely lots and lots of colorful charts.  Our counters are perfect for boxes of tools that may be useful: staplers, extra books, and perhaps even a cute pencil cup for all of those lost pencils.  Every nook and cranny serves a purpose, every nook and cranny should be used.  Behold; our brand new classroom awaits, and boy, does it have personality!  Yours that is, and not so much that of your students.  My first classroom I had panic attacks over the bareness of it all.  I didn’t have enough stuff to make it look welcoming, to make it look useful, to just make it look great.  So I created laminated rule posters, what if… posters, and even threw up a couple with frogs telling us to “Hang on” or “Work hard!”  My desk was covered in Danish proverbs that I knew my kids would be inspired by and above my door hung a rather obscure quote from Shakespeare telling my students to persevere in failure.  I loved that quote and spent hours getting it just so with my paper and my laminator.  I hung it proudly thinking that it made my room look like a place for learning and that it was sure to inspire my kids every day.  One day, my principal walked in and said the quote to a couple of my students, who instead of breaking out into knowing grins, stared at him blankly.  They had no idea what he was referring to or even what it meant.  After all, these 4th graders had not yet heard of that Shakespeare guy.  I was mortified, and just a little surprised; what else did they not notice in my meticulously set up classroom?

I share that story so that new teachers can laugh at my mistakes and hopefully use it as a way to guide themselves in their classroom setup and organization.  I made the mistake that many teachers make; I filled my room so that it looked cute.  I filled it so that it looked used.  I didn’t want to come off as the newbie in town that had nothing.  Except, that is who I was and I should have embraced it, let my room develop over the years, and always edit everything, but I didn’t.  Instead, I was afraid of looking new.  So to steer you away from my mistakes, I offer some questions as you contemplate the organization of your own room.

  • Do you really need that paper copy?  I hoard paper, most teachers do, yet I never use my paper files much.  Whatever I need I find in my computer files or I google it if I can’t find it.  So ask yourself whether you really need to make that many copies of that sheet of paper, or whether one is sufficient, or perhaps even just a bookmark on your computer to find it again will do.
  • Where does your stuff want to go?  I always tell teachers to ask themselves this because often we subconsciously set things where we feel they belong.  So if you are constantly setting down your books in a certain place, make that place their home.  Make it purposeful rather than accidental.  I started doing this several years ago and my intuition now rules where stuff goes and it means less time spent searching for things that I tried to corral somewhere else.
  • To desk or not to desk?  Several years ago I gave up my desk because of what it did; it created a barrier between me and the students and I was constantly drawn behind it, even though I shouldn’t have been.  So I got rid of, now I have a table for my computer and planner, it faces the wall in the corner and I can’t sit there without turning my back to the students.  It forces me to stay present and not get pulled away from them.  Perhaps that will work for you as well or perhaps you love your desk and that is okay as well.
  • Are you in the room?  Is there anything personal of you in the room or will the room not give of a hint of your personality.  Are there pictures or something that shows the kids just a little of what you are about.  Be aware though, don’t have too much, which leads me to the next question…
  • Is there room for the kids?  I don’t just mean spacewise, although the flow of your room is incredibly important, but did you leave things blank enough for the kids to take over the space and put their mark on it?  Is there room to show their work or whatever tool you need at the moment?  Are there places for them to work besides their tables?  Can they spread out, can they meet at other tables, can they lie on the floor?  Can they make the room their own, a safe place for exploration, or is it just your room and your rules?
  • How many unwritten rules do you have?  Are you strict about where the supplies go or whether kids have access to them?  Do they have to sign out to leave for the bathroom or can they just put a pass on their desk?  Are there other places for them to work or is their desk their only option?  Can they get a corner for themselves if they need it or will the rest of the class always be watching?  Are there things labeled your things and some labeled their things?  All of these ways to organize inadvertently create more rules for the students that may leave them feeling less welcome.  Find the balance between your need for control and their need to take ownership of their learning space.

While many lists abound of great organizational tips, I find that sometimes they don’t speak to the deeper meaning of how we organize our classroom.  The truth is that how you organize your classroom says so much about you and your teaching style.  I hope you take the time it deserves to get it just right, and then take an outsiders perspective to to see what it signals about you and your teaching.  We may think that our classroom is only the place we teach in, but often it is also the place that shows how we teach.  So make it meaningful, much like you teaching probably will be.

A snapshot from my classroom on a regular day

classroom setup, new year

It’s Not How Your Classroom Looks, It’s About How It Feels

Image from icanread

Last week, before the arrival of Ida and Oskar, I was able to sneak in some work time in my new room.  As I stood there trying to envision what the room would look like, I realized that it didn’t much matter for two reasons.  One; what it looks like empty is vastly different from when it is filled with 20+ 5th graders.  Two; more importantly the emphasis should not be on what it looks like but what it FEELS like.  So some questions I pondered as I set it up:

Which way does your desk face?
Or do you even have a desk?  I don’t anymore but rather a workspace with my computer and planner on it.    And it faces the wall in the corner.  No more hiding behind my desk, no more defined my teacher space where the kids are not allowed to go  In fact, my super comfy office chair often gets snagged by the students because they know I don’t use it much when they are in the room.  I faced it toward the wall so that I am not tempted to sit behind it, no distance between the students and I, and it works.

What is on your bulletin boards?

I used to be the master of fancy bulletin boards and I was very obsessive over my border and letter placement.  Unfortunately, that meant that I had nowhere to showcase student work or things we needed throughout the year.  I will tell you right now, my bulletin boards look super sad at the moment; empty, scratched and not cute at all – very un-elementary like – an d I am fine with that, soon the students will take over.
How much space does your teacher stuff take up?
Is every space yours or is it open for student use?  Do you have so many things out that you may need more bins to keep it all contained? I try to keep my stuff in cabinets, leaving impromptu work areas for the kids.  It sends the message that I am not the most important person, but rather that this is our space, and they have as much claim to the counter tops and shelves as I do.
What do people see from the hallway?
When people walk by what do they see?  Tables?  Your desk?  Nothing?  At the moment, when people walk by they will see our tables, empty spaces, ad framed pictures and quotes.  This will obviously change once the students come in but what visitors see does influence how a classroom is viewed as well as lend itself to the overall feel of the school.
What is the movement flow like?
Can students move or will they constantly have to ask someone else to push their chair out of the way?  This is out of many of our hands but we can work uot the best overall flow before the students get there.  Can kids access the high-frequency areas such as cabinets, supplies, reading corner, or will they have to squeeze by, take a strange route or get stuck in random places?  Can the students “breathe” in the room or is it filled to the brim with all of your treasures?”  And do ask the students and watch their patterns those first few weeks of school, I don’t think a year has gone by where we haven’t changed something within the first few weeks.  
Do they need permission?
My first year I was very obsessed with keeping things in their place.  So if that particular reading chair belonged in the reading corner then that is where it belonged, no permissions to move granted.  Now students take the movable furniture wherever they need it and at the end of the day we put it out of the way.  I even did this with their desk supplies; I told them exactly what they had to have in their pencil cups (no seriously I did) and then patrolled them to see if they followed my order.  Talk about control freak!  SO now, no permissions needed, just put it out of the way at the end of the day.
Is there room for the students?
classroom setup, new year

The Secrets of Your Classroom – What Your Set Up Says About You

image from icanread

I finally made it into school today and saw to my amazement that all of my furniture had been moved back in, the floors were waxed, and now all of those boxes were ready to be unpacked.   I couldn’t help but be excited, and then I realized that I am hugely pregnant, and didn’t even know if I could stand up for the time it would take me to set it up.  So what is a girl to do?  Try anyway.  As I unpacked, arranged, and dreamt a little of the new year, I realized once again how much the way we set up our classroom reflects our educational philosophy.  How much those seemingly innocent decisions of table placement, wall decorations and so on really reveal to the world.  So these are the questions I asked myself

  • To desk or not to desk?  I was offered the granddaddy of desks this year; huge, sleek, brand new and I turned it down gladly.  last year I decided to go deskless and I have never looked back.  Instead I have a table for my computer and planner, one where I can meet with kids but it is tucked into the corner, somewhere where I don’t get drawn behind, isolating myself from the kids.
  • Tables or desks?  I used to have small desks that we would scoot together to create pods, now I am fortunate enough to just have big tables for the kids to use.  They move their chairs as they see fit to work with the lesson and I don’t ask questions when they do.  They just pick up their pencil can and go.
  • What’s on your walls?  I used to have all of those awesome posters with the animals saying cute motivational things plastered all over my walls.  That way wherever you looked you would be motivated to hang in there, work hard, and make great decisions.  I took them down two years ago and now have three posters hanging; a world map to push pin our connections, a top ten of my room created by former students, and a calendar.  Everything else we add as we go.  
  • Are you in the room?  Those kids become part of my family so I have framed pictures in my room of newspaper articles from former years, all of the kids I have ever taught, two fantastic student art pieces that still choke me up and two quotes from the Little Prince.  These mean more to me than motivational poster ever will and show the kids who I am, that is so important.
  • Which way do your desks face?  My former students told me they didn’t want to face the Smartboard but rather the whiteboard because we used that much more.  So this year that is exactly how they face.  However, once again, the students can move about as they like so in all honesty I am not too bothered how they face.  I don’t need to be the center of attention so the desks don’t need to face me so I can lecture.
  • Other areas?  Are there places for the students to work that doesn’t include their desks?  I used to have cushy bean bags and comfy chairs but lost them all to fire code.  Now we have carpet squares, random chairs from my house, a big reading carpet, two stand up desks and lap desks that the students can use whenever they want.  I don’t ask questions, if they need them, they use them.
  • Sign in and out.  Some teachers ask students to sign out when they go to the bathroom etc.  I don’t, instead they put the pass on their desk so in case of a fire drill I know where they are.
  • Can they get what they need?  I used to hide all of my extra supplies and would get really upset if students dared ask for a pencil.  Now, I have bins of stuff they may need which they can grab and they know to just ask if they need something that isn’t out.  My goodness, who hasn’t ever needed an eraser?
  • Where are those rules?  Anyone who walks in will notice there is no class constitution, no rules, no what happens when… posters in our room.  Expectations are discussed by the students and changed as needed.  With only 20% of the walls up for use due to fire code I am not wasting that space on rules.
  • Where’s the tech?  I am fortunate to have a 4-in-1 computer set up for students, but we also have some flip video cameras, headphones, microphones, and camera for them to use.  Do you hide it or can students just use it?  What is your level of trust with technology and putting it in the hands of students?

By no means a final list but things that flashed through my head today as I unpacked.  What did I miss?