Pear-ing Down Your Classroom

Illustration by Kate Moore.

Illustration by Kate Moore.

Designing a Better Learning Space

I was in my fifth year of teaching high school. As summer drew to a rapid, yet sweltering close, I paid a visit to my classroom. It was on the first floor, with north-facing windows that were heavily protected by tall trees. While the cinder block walls helped to keep it cool, the combination of these features meant the room felt dark and dreary. Determined to spruce it up, I embarked on what, in the end, would be a failed HGTV project.

I started by taking down the ancient chalkboard in the back of the room, that in principle I loved, but in practice was never used. Then I headed to the hardware store to get paint. We will never know who’s to blame here, but my dream of accenting one wall with a warm, earthy color went awry, and it wasn’t until the wall was half coated that I finally admitted to myself the true hue the paint man had mixed for me: French’s Mustard.

Alas, I was out of time and money. My hot dog-themed room would have to stay. So I set out to cover it up with as many posters, maps, and student projects as I could. By covering up the loud wall color, I made my room over stimulating in every other way possible. Looking back, I wish I had taken a more measured approach to classroom design.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned:

  1. Simplify
    In my efforts to spruce up my room, I got caught up in covering the walls with timelines and student work. I equated “looking good” with “having lots of stuff on the walls.” In trying to make a fun and informative classroom that honors student work, it’s tempting to cover every vertical space. I learned that having fewer, better-planned displays that reflected the broader themes in our lessons was more effective and less overwhelming.
  2. Natural Influences
    Integrating elements of the natural environment into your classroom can help put students at ease. A few simple natural elements added to my classroom spruced up the room and made it feel fresher (for example, a couple of plants or a vase of flowers). A well-hung piece of light fabric can add a feeling of clouds or sun rays; in either case it brings a lightness and airiness to a room that could otherwise feel stuffy.
  3. Beauty and comfort
    The impact of beauty and comfort in the classroom environment can be difficult to quantify, but we know that when we’re uncomfortable, we’re distracted. A thoughtfully-designed, beautiful environment clears the mind of the distractions that can impede the learning that needs to be done. Look at how you can soften or change the lighting in the room or think about simple ways to mix shapes, patterns, colors, and hard and soft surfaces to create a sense of harmony. Creating an environment that welcomes, invites, and promotes a sense of well-being can really change how you and your students feel in the room.
  4. Design for Community (or that which is most important to you)
    One of the great benefits of getting to go to school everyday, rather than take a correspondence course or have a private tutor, is that you get to be a part of a learning community. Think about how the layout of your classroom can aid those vibrant moments of discussion, debate, and empathy. Maybe it’s as simple as putting desks in a circle. Or maybe you can make an area of your room that has a rug for students to gather on. 
    I had a teacher in high school who brought in two old couches and arranged them like a living room. When we were learning new content, we’d be at our desks. But when we were discussing a reading, we’d pile into the living room for a more casual, fireside chat atmosphere.
  5. Room for movement
    This ties into designing for community. When students are stuck at the same desk day after day, the feeling in the room can become stifling or rigid. Having different areas of the classroom for different types of activity (like the living room area), can create a comfortable environment where students know they aren’t confined to one spot. 
    Getting up and stretching or just changing positions will liven up the energy in the room, get ideas flowing, and help students feel happier.
  6. Room for peace
    Just as important as vibrant community moments are moments of peace and quiet. School can be a study in over-stimulation with its busy passing times, loud lunchrooms, barrage of new information, and daily social pressures. Students need time to think their own thoughts and create a sense of calm and well-being. Think about the parts of your classroom that can help students reset. Maybe it’s cozy areas for quite reading, or maybe it’s the calming music you play on hectic days. Maybe it’s a moment of quiet before you begin class or the mid-class stretch you all take.

Sometimes you don’t have a lot to work with. Maybe you have no budget for nice furnishings or maybe your classroom is small with limited natural light. That’s OK. Start small. Focus on one or two of the tips above and think about how a little change to the arrangement, or a little addition to the flow of your lesson, can help create a vibrant but comfortable learning space.