An Unexpected Perspective on Classroom Design

effective efficient Aug 01, 2016


As part of my role as a testing coordinator, I am charged with the dubious task of visiting classrooms to assess them for readiness as high stakes testing environments. In short, this means telling colleagues, in excruciating detail, exactly how much visible information they will need to cover up or take down because that info might “assist” a student on said test.  It is an interesting perspective on education, this idea of removing things that are useful for learning. Feels sort of counterintuitive, but I get it. If a test is to truly measure learning, that student shouldn’t be scaffolded during testing. I have to tell you though, when you see the look on a first year teacher’s face, as you explain that she needs to cover up 75% of her walls (the glorious evidence of six months of blood, sweat and Pinterest tears) it is a tough moment.


I bring a pad of graph paper and a couple felt tipped pens. I try to visit after school, so things are nice and quiet and the other teacher and I can chat a bit. I start by sketching out a rough outline of the room, add a little rectangle cleverly labeled “door” to orient the thing, scribble in a couple windows, maybe a clock or some such. Then I write the teacher’s name (with the title,  “Ms. Proper Name”, as a nod of respect) in my very best teacher print in the center of the page, perhaps to be clear that I do know I am an interloper. I do all this handwritten business because it seems friendlier to me than an Excel spreadsheet with a cold list of tasks. I think classrooms are very personal spaces for their teachers. It isn’t nice to get a list of everything somebody else deems “wrong” with your home. Best it be delivered tactfully.


 Then the cute little drawing starts to get a little ugly.


I am still surprised, no matter how many times I may have happened into a given classroom, how MUCH information I haven’t previously noticed that is often tacked up on walls, desks, boards, windows… everywhere. Of course, some teachers, often Middle School types, have pretty sparse rooms, but they are the exception, not the rule. And I choose “sparse” on purpose, because those cases usually don’t feel like a deliberate design choice, or an instructional decision, more like a lack of interest in decorating and/or visual reminders. The younger the students, though, the more WOW factor you usually get in terms of sheer volume of visual happenings.  So, felt tip in hand, I turn to the first wall and start my handwritten notes on the drawing with little arrows pointing hither and dither:  Please cover/remove all of your 12′ by 8′ word wall. Please cover/remove the 16 Language Arts graphic organizer posters. Please cover/remove the gorgeous hand-lettered ode to genres border circling the room. Please don’t cry or fall off the ladder… etc. etc. etc.


After the forbidden treasures map of the room is actually delivered, usually one of two approaches happens. Either the yards and yards of butcher paper (or the dollar store table cloths, my personal preference) arrive and the room is wall papered. Or. The teacher simply pulls it ALL down. Rarely is there an in-between. And then, weeks later, testing survived, the ban is lifted. Information freedom reigns once again. Yet. These rooms often do not suddenly revert to their pre-test states. Sometimes the paper lingers, because it is, after all, a pain to deal with. Sometimes, those posters and anchor charts, that seemed so “essential” just weeks ago,  have been outgrown by the students, so no one is clamoring for their return. Sometimes, another test looms, thus the teacher decides it is too much bother to return the room to “normal” for just a few weeks. There are lots of reasons.

Make every poster, chart and bulletin board earn a place again.


Here’s the thing. Maybe it is an opportunity. If your room has been stripped bare,  or hidden from view, perhaps it IS a time to consider each element as a design choice, or an instructional decision. Surely your students have either stopped “seeing” information you created and posted months ago or have absorbed their content. You have taught, and they have learned without them for weeks on end. Is it possible, then, that it is time for new content, sharper tools, fresh reminders? Or, perhaps, have you and your students grown calmer, more focused, more self reliant in the visually quieter space? There are no right or wrong answers here, just choices. Consider the options. Look at the rest of the items in your room while you are at it. Is it useful? Is it beautiful? Have a thoughtful purpose for each thing that has the honor of gracing your school “home” and I believe your classroom will be richer for it. 



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