“So, are you ready?” I was asked many times on Friday.
“As ready as someone can be,” I found myself replying.
When you look around my room, it may be unclear whether or not I’m not ready for the year to start. And why? The books aren’t completely organized; names are absent from desks, cubbies, and student supplies; my bulletin boards are bare, with no cute sayings, pictures, or vocabulary words.
But this is all by design, for my room can never be ready before the first day of school because it’s impossible for me to ready it on my own.
Responsive Classroom tells us of the importance of making students partners in the process of building classroom culture and community, but this doesn’t only pertain to the classroom rules, routines, and agreements. It pertains to everything, as Responsive Classroom reminds us.
While it’s tempting to create a Pinterest-perfect classroom, it’s imperative that we ask ourselves who these picturesque settings is serving. The cute bulletin board packages, the clever sayings posted underneath scalloped borders: these are oftentimes largely unnoticed by children and only appreciated by the adults who’ve created them. What’s more, these pre-made components of a classroom send a strong implicit message that this is the teacher’s space to care for, not the students’.
Now I’m not saying it’s not important for a classroom to be inviting on the first day of school. Aesthetic is important in a classroom, and it’s important to acknowledge the nuance here. The problem is that too many teachers take the aesthetic too far, conflating teacher-driven cuteness with a warm and welcoming classroom environment. Building an inviting and inclusive learning environment entails so much more than cute sayings and faux-wood paper: what makes a classroom inviting and inclusive is when children can see themselves in it.
Here are a few tips on how to do that:
Let the kids label their supplies and learning spaces. There are many benefits to having children do this for themselves. First of all, it takes some of the work off of you. Labeling all of those folders, notebooks, cubbies, and desks takes time! Second, it helps children interact with their folders, notebooks, and learning spaces prior to using them for their intended purpose. It also allows them to take ownership over their own supplies. Finally, it helps you avoid making assumptions about gender or names: they get to choose colors based on their preferences and can write their preferred name!
Partner with them to create critical classroom tools. While it may be more convenient to buy a classroom calendar, it’s a lot more fun to make one with them. I cut out 2-inch by 2-inch squares and engage the class in a discussion about important dates and why we need a calendar in our classroom. Not only does it help children see their work up on the walls within the first week of school, it allows them to interact with it as the year goes on. What’s more, it invites a great conversation about the holidays we celebrate, allowing children to bring their family cultures into the classroom from the very start.
Enlist them in organizing. Simply put, kids will engage with the systems they feel connected to and invested in. Otherwise, it’s unlikely they’ll keep them up. I like to have my students help organize the books to start the school year. It helps me introduce and review genre, meanwhile getting them acclimated to where the books are in the classroom. It doesn’t have to end here, though. They can help organize a maker space, classroom supply caddies, or even a communal supply area with paper and other materials.
Remember that classroom decor can only take you so far. It’s important to have a warm and welcoming space–and I’m by no means suggesting your children walk into a disorganized and dingy space on the first day of school–but what’s most important to remember is that the space will never be ready until the kids set foot in the classroom. It is for this reason that we must make sure our students place a role in helping build the learning space.