Classroom spaces should tell us about our students, who they are, and what they value.
The building was bursting with energy: Empty boxes and welcome banners filled the halls. Teachers were creating and mounting bulletin boards, unpacking boxes and assembling learning materials, and decorating their classroom doors.
I still remember how each year our faculty worked late into the night preparing for opening day. And sure enough, when students arrived on that first day of school, the halls and classrooms were stunning: Bulletin boards and posters exhorted students to be kind, to be successful, to respect one another, and to try hard. Each classroom was ripe with words, artwork, and photos that represented the teacher’s expectations and personality.
Unfortunately, in our efforts to have everything ready for students and families, we missed an opportunity. While the classrooms and halls shouted teachers’ proclamations about who they were and what was important to them, there wasn’t much about our students, who they were, and what they valued.
When you walked into a classroom, it was clearly Mrs. Smith’s room or Mr. Ackley’s room—nothing suggested that the space was also where Juan, Linda, Sara, and a score of other students would be working and learning.
Please don’t misunderstand: These were Mrs. Smith’s and Mr. Ackley’s classrooms. And their efforts to make the spaces welcoming and conducive to learning were impressive. But I wondered, as the principal, would it have been even better if we had left spaces open for our students to own? Why not label an empty bulletin board “Who We Are!” and have students draw self-portraits? What about a bar graph that shows students’ heights, that can be updated in January and again in June? How about a space waiting to showcase students’ families—however students want to define them—with drawings or photos?
Imagine asking students to name their favorite summer activity, book, or movie and then having the class use those data to create a graph or chart that hangs on the classroom wall. Envision how powerful it would be to begin the school year by having each student set an academic and personal goal and then write those goals on a “Goals for the Year” board. You could add your own goals to the collection as well. “We’re all in this together,” the activity (and visual reminder) would suggest to students.
Our opening days at New City School in St. Louis were always good, but they could have been better if we’d allowed students to have some ownership over their new spaces. And given the strangeness of the past year, I suspect it will be even more important to welcome back students by visibly showing them that it’s their school, too.
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