Back when I had my own classroom, nothing fired me up for the school year more than getting my room ready. I’d spend hours putting up posters, adorning the walls with eye-catching student work from previous school years while leaving space for new student work. I’d create new systems for homework collection and book borrowing, arranging desks to maximize space and de-center myself as the “sage on the stage.” I always strove to create a welcoming, uncluttered space that said, “You are safe here, you are celebrated here, and you will also work hard when you are in this room.”
But as much as I tried to convince myself that the classroom planning and designing I did was for my students, my setup process was ultimately about the anticipated needs of my students.
But instead of anticipating needs, what if we actually asked students how their ideal classroom would look, smell, sound, and feel?
When we think of back-to-school prep, teachers often think of “community building”—getting to know our students as people and prioritizing social-emotional learning skills. And this is a good thing! We should prioritize community building early in the school year. However, we often overlook the important role played by the shared space and sense of place in building affinity: the physicality of community.
This is why, before investing in introductory letters, name games, and identity charts, I suggest something radical: Start with where you're at.
As the iconic lyrics to R.E.M's “Stand” ask, why don't we think more about the places and spaces in which we live and work, and about the direction and guidance those places and spaces can provide us? Why don’t we think more about the function of a gathering place and how shared space can help or hinder community development?
Many students spent this last school year learning from their homes either exclusively or part-time in a hybrid schedule. For some, learning at home provided a level of comfort they're going to miss as school moves back to full-time in-person instruction. For others, not having a shared classroom community made learning difficult and they’re returning to the safety and familiarity of classroom walls with enthusiasm. Regardless, remembering what it’s like to share space and engage with each other through our physical selves will take intention and time.
Giving students the opportunity to imagine what a shared space can be is a good way for students to experience ownership and agency in the classroom. Ask them what a shared space should look, sound, and feel like. What’s on the walls? What are the desk configurations? How can collective and individual needs be met when we’re all in the same place?
Collaborating on a vision for their shared space offers students an opportunity to practice working together again in person. It will help them learn to listen and cooperate, balance their own needs and interests with those of their classmates, and build a sense of agency and shared ownership of their classroom community. Despite the variety of school settings, I think most teachers can implement a version of this activity, regardless of how much you have to adapt your physical space. Ultimately, the activity will give you valuable insight into your students and the community that will hopefully build over time.