Tuesday, August 14, 2018

On Setting Up My Classroom OR Ourter Space

I have an incredibly scientific method for setting up my classroom, which I will share with you now. You're welcome. (I know I'm framing this like a joke, but this is 100% dead serious what I do as soon as possible when I get into my classroom every year.)

Step One- Push desks around semi-aimlessly, pretending I don't know what every single possible permutation of desk combinations looks like.

Step Two- Find an empty spot on the floor.

Step Three- Lay down.

Step Four- Stare at the ceiling and feel the room. I do this in new rooms because I want to know if I can feel the energy of it. Since I've been in my current room for going on four years it's more about re-centering myself in the room. (Step Four is both dead serious and where things get a little hippy-dippy-here's-your-crystal-go-hug-a-tree.) 

Step Five- Remaining in the same spot, close my eyes and think about the coming year, think about the kids and their energies, think about how the room will be used, and open myself to finding new ways.

Step Six- On my very last day as a lifeguard at Courson pool in Palmdale, CA, a place where I had been a pool aid, lifeguard, and head guard over the course of half a dozen years, my staff and I laid on our backs on the deck. There's a lot of context you need to really understand why what's about to happen is important, but the short version is lifeguarding was not a job for any of us. It was so much more. We closed our eyes and I said, "Remember everything about this moment. Remember how the deck feels on your back. Feel the sun on your skin. Smell the mix of chlorine and sunscreen (still the best perfume in the world). See the sun glaring through your closed eyelids. Hear the water gently lapping against the edges of the pool. The coming year will be hard. We are strong enough to make it through and triumph. But in those moments where you're overwhelmed, close your eyes and come back to right now. Come back here."

In Step Six I return to that moment, and I try to make that feeling fill the room. I want my classroom to feel like that.

Step Seven- Turn on Loud Music Loudly and push the desks into the same basic groups-of-four-or-five arrangement I always start the year with until the kids show me we need something different.

Step Eight- Putter through boxes, putting everything in its proper place, pretending that this will be the year when Everything Will Stay Organized.

Step Nine- Put almost nothing on the walls except some Pacific Rim posters I made about cooperation and teamwork, some grammar rules posters the kids don't see until I point them out, our What Am I Reading pocket chart, and whatever posters the school wants me to have up.

Step Ten- Pace, talk to myself, try to remember how to teach.

There's a lot of pushback against the Pinterest Classroom™ (aka The Instagram Classroom™) recently. For, I think, good reason. To be specific, I think that because it aligns with my particular educational philosophy. I'm not sure it's wrong. I wouldn't tell a teacher who spent a ton of time and money making her/his classroom picturesque and beautiful that they were doing something wrong. Who the hell am I? I'm working on a personal theory bolstered by personal preference and experience. I bet there are certain kids who love walking into a classroom like that. And I am sure that there are parents who see that room and think This Is A Good Classroom. Like you can tell from decor. (Again, not a judgement, you can't tell if I'm a good teacher from my room either.)

My room doesn't look like that. I can't even think like that, and there are other things I'd rather spend my time on. My room is Spartan when the year starts. It's not cold, but it's pretty naked. This goes towards setting the tone I'm going for for the year- This is our space, not mine. If I've got a Class Theme, that's it. I don't assign desks for the same reason. "Let's start out trusting you, and giving you ownership. Choose whatever seat you want (you should see some of the parents' eyes when I say that), and I trust you to make a good choice. Know that I've got final say, and your choice might not be where you stay long. There's a lot to think about with seating. But you get first crack." It's instructive to see who sits where, and how the parents react. But that all goes towards the same idea that the bare walls communicates- This Is Our Space. It's not hard to starting linking that idea to a whole bunch of stuff once you decide to do it. It's way easier than trying to make everything fit into a jungle theme.

My walls are a canvas that is constantly filled by the kids. Any anchor charts I need are made by the kids. Every year we'll take some time to make basic math vocabulary and strategy posters that I'll put up. Stuff goes up and comes down on the regular. This has become slightly more challenging because we do so much on the computer in my class, but that helps motivate me to find and connect art projects.

Back to all that hippy-dippy stuff from earlier- The classroom is like the tree in The Giving Tree except it's not deeply deeply depressing when you revisit it as an adult. It will give you everything you need, you just have to be willing to take it. Nothing is static, everything is dynamic always. We don't get a lot, especially in public school. The answer to that is two-fold- Fight for more, and make the best of what you've got. These go together. The classroom is a tool. A canvas, as I stated earlier and am repeating now for those of you with poor reading retention. I look at everything I'm given in a very simple way- How can I break this to make it work? 

And that includes the energy in the room. We spend so much time in our classrooms. We live in our classrooms. Our kids live in our classrooms. They are full of energy and experiences and I don't believe in ghosts or angels or witchcraft or that it's not butter, but I do believe places can retain an energy. Even if that energy is really just my brain trying to make sense of the culmination of all the memories and emotions I have associated with the place. Perception is reality, and that's energy in the walls, my friends. And I need to understand that energy so that I can do my best to clear it out. Clean the machinery.

Our classroom starts empty. As empty of stuff on and in the walls as I can make it. Then we spend the year filling it.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. Confession: it takes me about a week before school starts to center myself in my room, be there in quiet, be there with music, imagine, open boxes, sort, but everything back in boxes, and leave my room virtually untouched .... except for the imprint of my hopes, dreams and ideas. Thanks for the post Doug, and always making us feel OK about accepting our own weirdness.

  2. Another good one. True of so many things. Good read son.

  3. I confess I've never done Steps 3, 5 and 6 but I may do in the future. I do however do the rest and have had to justify leaving the room 'naked' more than once. But it is easy to justify. It isn't MY classroom. It belongs to all in that space that year so we all have the right to shape/decorate it. 😱