Getting Ready for the Year

Copyright 2018 Lisa Julia Photography/Bayard Inc. All rights reserved.

Teachers share their tips for creating a welcoming classroom.

By Julie Young

When students walk into Shannon Craig’s fifth-grade classroom at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Carmel, Indiana, they see desks grouped into five separate cooperative teams. Each desk has a brightly colored nameplate with a student’s name on it while the whiteboard at the front of the room has a welcoming message along with instructions on where to put freshly purchased school supplies.

“Nothing makes me panic more than walking into a room and not knowing what I am supposed to do,” Craig says. “I try and eliminate any opportunities for my new students to feel this way on the first day of school.”

Though some students won’t admit it, there is a lot of excitement to the start of a new school year full of opportunities and possibilities. Not only are they anxious to get to know their teachers, they are eager to see their learning environment for the coming term. Whether it is colorful bulletin boards or inspirational posters featuring their sports or music idols, students revel in a classroom them and makes them feel at home.

Know Your Audience

Craig says she likes her bulletin boards to set the tone for the school year. With seven boards in her classroom to decorate, she knows she has plenty of space to bring color and information to her students. She knows many of the kids may be curious if not apprehensive about what they will be studying, so right from the start her science and math bulletin boards are ready to go with the first units proudly displayed.

“I feel it is important to blend the excitement of something new with the comfort of something familiar.” she says. “Of course, my giant poster of Albert Einstein with his tongue sticking out lightens the mood of the room, as well as my classroom skeleton that dons a tie and holds a sign introducing himself to the students.”

At St. Louis Catholic Academy in St. Louis, Missouri, kindergarten teacher Sandra Jones says it is important for children to feel safe and comfortable when they come to school, and classroom décor is a big part of that. She makes sure her room uses a lot of bright colors and that it is balanced in order to offer students learning opportunities wherever they look. Kindergarten provides a unique time in a child’s life in which he or she learns to sit properly for penmanship skills and learns to be a good listener. Jones says a room can help children become more self-sufficient with features such as incentive walls and chore charts where students can see what is expected of them and to what they can aspire.

“They are here to learn and grow spiritually, emotionally, and academically,” she says. “We have to provide them with engaging décor that not only teaches them something, but gives them the constant reassurance that they are safe and well cared for.”

With a large African American population at St. Louis Catholic Academy, second-grade teacher Henry Wilbanks doesn’t shy away from incorporating a sense of culture in his classroom. Graphics include a map of the United States and one of Africa, and he makes a point of displaying African American heroes around the room to offer his students inspiration from the likes of Maya Angelou, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and William DuBois.

One of my favorite graphics is a photo of a rural South African child that says ‘God made me and God doesn’t make junk,” he says. “I want the students in my classroom to be inspired and to believe they can be anything they want to be.”

Use Your Resources

Some textbook publishing companies help teachers by supplying them with posters and other classroom items that are used in connection with their curriculum. Saxon Math offers the math board which is used at St. Louis for daily “Math Meetings.” The math board (as well as the rest of the curriculum) is designed to help students master concepts through repetition, daily mixed practice, consistent instruction, and engaging hands-on experiences. Each board is different depending on grade level, but the board is consistent with what is being taught in class. Wilbanks says the board takes about two hours to set up, but the benefits last throughout the year. In addition, Wilbanks says a well-stocked classroom library with age-appropriate reading material is the key to encouraging young readers to develop skills they will need for a lifetime.

“I also make sure that I have my math manipulative kits ready to go at the beginning of the year,” says Craig. “I go through each kit cleaning and counting the manipulatives to be certain that each student will start with everything they need for math class.”

Reading and language arts also play big roles in the classroom as well. Many teachers have a book nook or a reading corner that allows students a chance for independent exploration of books geared in and around their reading level along with comment cards on which students can jot down what they thought of a particular book. Some teachers incorporate a “word wall” in order to use new terms in writing workshops, while others provide comfortable bean bag chairs for students to lounge in while reading.

“I make sure some of my books are facing outward so that kids can see the covers,” says Craig. “Students become very interested in math and science books when they are titled You Wouldn’t Want to Be an Egyptian Mummy: Disgusting Things You Don’t Want to Know or Sir Cumference and the First Round Table.”

Of course, funds often limit teachers’ ability to go all-out on fancy room décor, equipment, and technology for students to use. Wilbanks and Jones say that colleagues are always on the lookout for free items that might be of use to someone in the building no matter what the grade level, and their pastor has helped them offset some of their costs over the years by investigating grant opportunities or subsidizing teachers’ budgets for much-needed items. Others have turned to online wish list registries which allow people to make donations to a teacher’s classroom, whether financially or in the form of specific items.

Classroom supply companies offer literally hundreds of thousands of items on their websites which can be purchased according to a specific teacher’s need. They include bulletin board sets, classroom decorations, learning charts, resource books, banners, and posters. Some suppliers specialize in the tools that help teachers create their own classroom items, while others focus on technology, furniture, adhesives, and other necessities.

“Sadly, a lot of what we buy does come out of pocket,” says Jones. “I know our priest is looking into some grant opportunities for us, but we often share items we find with other teachers in order to hold down the costs. If I am somewhere and they are giving away a poster that goes along with our third-grade curriculum, I’ll pick it up because you know there is a need for it in one of the classrooms.”

Wilbanks says he has been known to pick up things at the local dollar store in order to give his classroom a personal touch. From the pinwheels and honeybees to the butterflies, he feels it is important to show off his softer side to students. Still, he has to budget carefully and look for bargains because costs can quickly get out of hand. Some of his indulgences include printer paper and inkjet cartridges for his personal computer in the classroom.

“When I see what is needed I will go and have a discussion with my wife, but sometimes I still have to sneak out and get what I need,” he notes with a laugh. “My number one goal is that the children are able to go to the third grade and do well. I’ll do whatever it takes to achieve that. Nothing makes me feel better than to have the third grade teacher ask me what I did with the kids to help them be well prepared for the next grade level.”

Craig says that the parents and PTO of Our Lady of Mount Carmel are extremely generous with their resources, but there is still always something she would like to have for her room. Creativity and forthrightness go a long way toward getting those needed items.

“I tend to ask a lot of favors from my family and friends,” she says. “If I need it, chances are someone I know has it or knows someone else who does. I have even been known to go into stores and ask for donations. For example, Pizza King was very kind to donate 75 cardboard circles so that my students could make galaxy mobiles.”

The Latest and Greatest

Conferences and workshops often include vendors showcasing the latest and greatest in classroom décor. Laptop cabinetry, desks, software, and little things that make the classroom experience engaging for the student and easier on the teacher are hard to pass up. Some companies have been around for years and have become giants in the teacher supply industry. The biggest transcend the education market; their products are used in senior care centers, hospitals, and childcare centers all over the world while still being kid-friendly and ultra-durable. Companies work hard to provide amenities that assist the educator in strengthening the learning environment and meet academic standard with bulletin board sets, educational games, personal die-cut machines, or whiteboards.

Other items that are hard to walk by are educational aids such as felt boards, pocket charts and overhead caddies to help teachers keep everything in its place. While many of these vendors have shopping options right on their websites, teachers may be in the mood to save shipping and handling charges by visiting the art supply dealer or school supply retailer or putting bulk orders together through a website in order to split the shipping costs.

“There will always be things a teacher wants, but can’t get funds for,” says Craig. “I am hoping to update my classroom décor with more current posters pertaining to the curriculum. Many of my posters are out of date.”

Jones says that she spends a lot of time on the classroom in order to get it ready for the following year. As with most teachers in Catholic schools, the crucifix plays a key role in the room set-up. Jones says that spirituality is an important part of her classroom décor.

“Before I do anything for the start of the year, I pray that I will be able to put the type of classroom together that creates a safe environment for the students while they are in my care,” she says.

Julie Young is a freelance writer and author from Indianapolis, IN. She is an adjunct faculty member at Indiana University/Purdue University-Indianapolis.

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