Quick Tip Tuesday: Creating a classroom that reflects your beliefs

December 15th, 2009

Katy Slocum was just in her first year of teaching fifth grade, but she already understood the difficulty of working in an environment that doesn’t support her beliefs about teaching and learning. So when Debbie Miller visited her classroom, the two set out to transform her messy classroom into an inspiring space, proving during the process that decluttering the classroom also helps to declutter the mind.

This week’s Quick Tip shows the beginning of this process with Katy and Debbie from Debbie’s recent book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs, Aligning Practice, Taking Action, K-5.

Before we can begin to rearrange furniture, organize books and materials, create literate environments, or even think about lamps, rugs, and pretty tablecloths, we’ve got to get rid of the things we don’t need so we can make room for the things that we do. For Katy and I, that means making three piles:
1. things to keep
2. things someone else might want—maybe other teachers, kids, or Goodwill
3. things to throw away

We begin early one morning, tossing or organizing all those piles of paper, figuring out what to do with that tall tilting stack of National Geographic magazines and those cardboard boxes labeled so carefully by teachers who have come before. When the kids arrive, we scrunch ourselves into the meeting area, share our thinking, invite input, and ask for volunteers to help organize and put together all the books and materials for writing, science, social studies, and math. The rest agree to tackle their cubbies, desks, backpacks, and the floor.

Once the major surfaces are cleared—or at least ordered in some way—we move on, working after school to sort through closets, drawers, and all that was behind those closed cupboard doors. We send three bright yellow Judy Clocks, two boxes of teddy-bear counters, and an extra box of 500 Unifix cubes to kindergarten and first grade. The bulk of the magnifying glasses, microscopes, magnets, test tubes, and potting soil go to the science lab. Twenty-five boxes of paper clips (what’s that about?) go back to the office, along with bags of rubber bands, brads, thumbtacks, and six one-gallon jars of paste.

An amazing assortment of clothing items left behind by teachers goes into the Goodwill pile—cardigan sweaters, see-through plastic raincoats, scarves, umbrellas, shoes, and one never-worn pair of sequined St. Paddy’s Day socks.

Outdated maps and globes go into the never-see-the-light-of-day pile. Ditto the ancient jigsaw puzzles of cats and puppies, the six dried-out Twirl-a-Paint kits, and the once-white Lite-Brites, minus their pegs. We toss out what seem like hundreds of old workbooks in every subject imaginable, reams and reams of yellowed and brittle handwriting paper, shoe boxes overflowing with broken crayons, used-up pencils and congealed bottles of glue, fuzzy-tipped markers, and twenty almost-empty tubes of glitter. Not to mention the packs and packs of faded construction paper and box after box of empty (and thankfully clean) baby-food jars.

And the two huge gray filing cabinets, filled to the top with teaching units, worksheets, lesson plans, and month-by-month themes and activities? I leave their fate and what’s inside to Katy, but encourage her to be ruthless, and to consider getting rid of at least one of those metal giants entirely. With all that stuff out of the way, no one could believe how much larger the classroom had become! And now, Katy could do some real thinking about her beliefs, the physical space and room arrangement, organizing all those books and materials, and creating a working, literate environment. And, as you just might know, clearing the decks isn’t always about getting rid of someone else’s stuff. I was excellent at squirreling away all kinds of things, in all kinds of places, entirely on my own! Think bags (and bags) of pinecones for Thanksgiving turkey-making (it looked like fun in Family Circle a few years ago), stacks of find-a-word puzzles and coloring sheets (dropped off by a well-meaning parent), and that red folder filled with
important papers I’ve stashed away (somewhere) for safekeeping.

I’d pledge to clean and organize a drawer or shelf a day on many a Monday morning, but I could never seem to keep that going much beyond Wednesday. My best strategy was to come to school on an occasional Saturday morning armed with a box of trash bags, a full-to-the-top bottle of Formula 409, a brand-new roll of paper towels, a sugar-free vanilla latte, and a Van Morrison CD. Cleaning, sipping, and singing “On the Bright Side of the Road” with Van—does it get any better than this?

We’d better hope so! But when I walk outside two or three hours later with a smile on my lips and a skip in my step, I’m not so sure. And now I’m thinking the smile and the skip were about more than having a clean and uncluttered classroom. Could it be that clearing the physical clutter of my room also cleared the mental clutter in my mind?

Something to Try
Step outside your classroom door and look back in, as if for the first time. What do you see? Do you want to go back inside? Or do you want to run and hide? If you’re inclined to run, force yourself back. Grab your notebook and divide a page into thirds. In the first column, draw or write about what you like about your classroom environment. What seems to be working?

In the next column, do the same with what bothers you most. What’s getting in the way of teaching and learning? What doesn’t make sense? And in the last column, write or draw what you’d like to see when you step inside. Do the same from a child’s point of view. Get at their eye level and see things as they see them. Now what do you see?

First impressions count. Classroom environments vary, but they always need to be welcoming places; interesting, joyful places that beckon kids and teachers to actively participate in the pursuit of knowledge. Places that invite curiosity, exploration, collaboration, and conversation. Places that make us want to come in and stay, day after day after day.

Next, consider asking a colleague—someone you trust in the field, but probably not a close friend—to step inside your room. Ask this person to take a few minutes to look around and then ask them the following kinds of questions:
■ What do you know I value?
■ What do you know about what I believe about teaching and learning?
What’s the evidence?
■ What do you know about the kids in this room?

Any thoughtful person who spends even a small amount of time in our classrooms should be able to respond to these questions. If they can’t, or if they say something that seems to us totally off the mark, it should give us pause. We have to wonder what it is about the environment that’s sending mixed signals or no signals at all. Just as it’s important to define our beliefs and align our practices, it’s important to create classroom environments that reflect our beliefs.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Debbie Miller + Stenhouse&hellip  |  March 16th, 2010 at 8:24 am

    […] Creating a Classroom that Reflects Your Beliefs […]

  • 2. Handwriting Worksheets  |  July 6th, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    This reminds me of the steps you are supposed to take when cleaning your house. Figure out what you really need, what can be donated, and what needs to be thrown away. Another good way to organize is instead of using big metal filing cabinets move everything to a digital format. Print only what you need for upcoming lessons and don’t store extras. This will help keep clutter from accumulating in the first place.

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