What if I told you that you could start the school year without spending countless hours at the end of your summer break crafting bulletin boards and setting up your room? And, what if I told you starting the year without your room “Pinterest ready” could actually be beneficial to your students? Sounds nice, right? That’s what the intentional classroom is all about.
When I first heard this idea in my third-year teaching, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I’m the type of person who loves organizing things. And I love the color-coded caddies and bright displays on the bulletin boards and putting everything out so that the students see their space and feel at home right away. It felt wonderful for me as the teacher to set my room up that way.
But I started realizing I was doing myself and my students a disservice by creating the space for them before I even knew them.
Before we dive in too deep, I want to reiterate that I am a responsive classroom trained teacher. I talked a lot about that in Episode Two of the Teaching with Jillian Starr podcast when I discussed logical consequences and rewards in the classroom. But I think it’s really important to mention because this is a philosophy that starts from before the students ever even set foot in your classroom.
What is an intentional classroom?
It’s a philosophy and a practice that is rooted in how you set up your classroom and then start to establish the routines and community within your classroom. I’m going to give you a brief overview of how I run my room as an intentional classroom, but if you want more information after reading this, I highly encourage you to check out the Responsive Classroom website.
Their book, The First Six Weeks of School, is my go-to back-to-school resource. I recommend it to all teachers that ask me for support around starting the school year. I even refer back to it every school year to make sure I’m still adhering to the same practices and getting in the right mindset for back-to-school.
Setting up the classroom for the first day of school
This might surprise you, especially those of you that follow me on Instagram and where I like things bright and colorful, that’s not what my room looks like on the first day of school.
I truly have nothing out. There are no caddies on the tables with crayons. There’s nothing on the walls. There are no bulletin board headers. Or even chairs at the tables.
There is very, very little in my classroom on that first day. It is all packed away. And it will be introduced little by little over the next few weeks of school, but I’ll get to that in just a minute.
So, what DO I have out on the first day?
The only things that I believe are important to have out when the students arrive on the first day of school are:
- Classroom calendar
- Class schedule
- Students names available in a few different places
There are a couple of reasons I like to have their names around the room the first is that I want them to know that it’s their space. Secondly, some students aren’t familiar with Roman letters. This helps them to start to recognize their name written in English, but I also like to give them the opportunity to add their name written in their native language next to it. This way all the students can see both sides of how we represent their names.
What I bring out on the first day of school
Now let’s go back for a minute to where I said there’s nothing out in my classroom on the first day of school. There are a few items that I introduce on Day 1 including:
When I introduce chairs to the students, I talk about:
- How to pull them out from the table
- How to sit in them appropriately
- Why we don’t tip back in them
- How to stack them at the end of the day
And I don’t just talk about it. We model it for one another. And then by the end of the day, the students have had a group understanding of how to use chairs.
It’s not that they didn’t know how to sit in a chair before. But now they know that I know we all have the same expectations. So, later in the year if a student misuses their chair in some way, I can refer back to our original conversation. This is a proactive strategy for classroom management.
When I introduce pencils I might talk about how we only use them to write on paper, where we can sharpen them, and what we do with eraser shavings (because we all know those end up on the floor usually).
We even discuss why it’s important not to lose them. And, that they are part of our group supplies and what replacing them means for the community as a whole.
On the first day of school, my entire class library is put together. However, it’s closed off to the students. I only open one section of it at a time.
Now, I think having access to books from the beginning is super important. So, on the first day of school, I open the first section of the library.
This gives up the opportunity to discuss:
- How to search for books they’re looking for
- Where the books go when they get returned
- How to choose new and exciting books they might not otherwise select
It’s a wonderful opportunity to give a thorough tour of the library in small chunks. But also, on the flip side, make sure the space is well taken care of. And I’m not wasting precious time during the year trying to keep it up, keep it clean, and replace books because they weren’t taken care of.
During the first week of school, I focus on establishing a community, routines, and expectations. I’m not focused on teaching academic content in week one. But I might introduce a few math manipulatives. They are great to start just trying out the routines of math centers.
For example, I might choose to introduce a new material like a pattern box and leave it as an open-ended assignment. Students can create patterns or symmetrical images or practice fractions. And this gives us the opportunity to learn how to clean up and put away the center effectively.
Benefits of the intentional classroom
It allows you to slowly introduce items
Running an intentional classroom gives you the opportunity to introduce one thing at a time. This lets you explain the following to the entire class at once:
- What the expectations are around the item
- How to use it
- What you as a class hope to get out of it
- How to put it away
This creates a common community understanding around each material in your classroom.
A common argument to this is that there are some students that know how to use everything and that this experience will create disinterest in them during those first few days of school. However, I’ve honestly never had that experience. The students that have a solid understanding of how to use the materials are often the ones that help model it, answer questions, and help create those group norms around the materials. They are active in the process.
What I like the most about this process is that it helps establish a community of learners. It acknowledges that each student is a part of this greater group right from the first day of school.
And, as a side benefit, everyone knows how to use all the materials. The class can help hold each other accountable.
It helps save time later in the year
Running an intentional classroom allows you to front-load your year. You spend those critical first few weeks establishing routines, introducing materials, and setting expectations in order to limit the number of behaviors that creep into the classroom later. It allows you to address the behavior now, so you don’t have to waste precious academic instructional time redirecting students later in the year.
You get to know your students
Another huge benefit of starting the year with nothing out is that you have the opportunity to get to know your students before you create the environment for them. You get to know how they do their best learning and what could interfere with that happening.
Coming from my background as a neurodivergent student who struggled a lot with ADHD and sensory integration issues, I can see how starting the year with nothing on the walls would have really helped me in those first few weeks.
While brightly colored walls with an abundance of decor may work for many students, there are some that it doesn’t work for. And, if we don’t know the students that are coming into our class yet, how can we make assumptions about what should be in our rooms that will be best for them?
Starting with a blank slate gives you that space to get familiar with your students. Then, as you introduce new material into the room you can see if it triggers any of them. It’s a lot like introducing new foods to a baby. You’re only supposed to give them one new food at a time and wait several days before introducing another. This allows you to see if there is an allergy to the food.
Using this process in the classroom helps you identify what might trigger behaviors in a student. If you put it all out at once, you don’t have that opportunity to dive into the specifics.
If you’re interested in learning more about neurodivergent students and how a classroom environment can really impact students, especially with ADD and ADHD profiles, I highly suggest you listen to episode six of the podcast. I talked with a teacher named Matt Halpern, about our experiences with ADD and ADHD.
It allows your students to invest in the classroom
Getting to know your students first also allows you to build your classroom with your students. You can establish classroom goals and rules together. The decor of your room can reflect the personalities of the students that you have in your class. Being a part of creating the environment can help students feel more invested in it.
If you want to see an example of someone that’s doing a great job with this, check out LaNesha at Education with an Apron. She creates an authentic learning environment with her students.
Takes away some of that pressure
Starting your year from scratch releases so much of the pressure that we put on ourselves as teachers to have the ultimate classroom prepared for our students as they walk in the door.
Not everything has to be absolutely perfect on that first day. We do want students and parents to walk in and think it’s a beautiful space. But you can do that with a clean, bright library. You can have some borders up on your bulletin boards with a paper background. And there can be a wonderful, warm message on the whiteboard to welcome them into the room. And, as I shared earlier, students’ names should be up around the room, so they feel that immediate connection.
This approach helps you to be conscious of what we’re putting in our classrooms and what the motivation is for it. It’s not so the room looks a certain way on the first day of school. Instead, we build our rooms around what’s best for the specific students that we have that year.
So, you may be thinking, “OK Jillian, so what am I supposed to do to prepare my room for the first day of school?”
Focus on the layout
What I recommend doing is really focusing your attention on the layout of your classroom. There’s a lot that goes into a classroom setup that has nothing to do with the pretty things that go on our walls. The layout is essential, and it is going to create the flow for the rest of your year.
You need to allocate certain spaces within your classroom for different needs.
You’ll need a morning meeting space.
This space allows a place for your students to come in, be welcomed, and made to feel valued because that space is set aside for them.
You’ll also want to make sure that you have your classroom library space in mind.
It should be warm and inviting. Where you place the library also communicates the class the value and importance of literature. I talk more about that in episode 5 of the podcast.
You’ll want a space where students can easily access material independently.
This means there should be shelves clearly labeled that your students can get to without interrupting you when you’re working with a group of students. They should be able to get what they need and put it back by themselves.
You need a “teacher space’.
I personally don’t have a desk in my classroom. I think I had one for the first two years and then realized it just collected papers and candy wrappers. It was an embarrassment. So, I decided to get rid of it. That doesn’t mean that you need to though if it works for you.
Instead, I use my teaching table as my desk space for after school. Most of the rest of the time I’m with my students. Behind it, I keep my teacher toolbox and some of the files that I need on a regular basis. I want to make sure they’re easy to access them when I’m teaching.
I like the teaching table to be in the center of my room so that when I’m sitting with a group, I can also have eyes on all different parts of my classroom. This helps me put out little fires here and there instead of waiting until problems erupt for me to notice them.
I also like to allocate a space in my classroom called Australia.
I talked more about this in episode 4 of the podcast. Our “Australia” is just a calming space for students to go where their feelings are valid. It allows them to process them in a place where other students can’t really see them. They get to remove themselves and not have the embarrassment that comes from having big feelings out in the open.
I have created this space in the past by using bookshelves or displays and even filing cabinets. Anything that helps create a nook in your classroom. Nooks are really powerful in a classroom and if you don’t have a natural one, you can create one.
Make the space easy to navigate.
You want your classroom to be easy to move around from one space to another. You don’t want obstructions that students have to weave their way in and out of just to get from point A to point B.
First off, it helps remove bottlenecks in the classroom where pushing and shoving happens. Open pathways create a safe way for students to move around the classroom.
But, more importantly, this helps all students to have easy access around the room. We don’t know if we might have a student on our roster that requires a wheelchair or braces to move around. Or, they might struggle with other physical limitations that impact their ability to move around safely, such as vision impairment.
Take advantage of technology when planning the room layout.
It’s exhausting pushing furniture around trying to find the right place for everything to go. I dread spending all day by myself sweating in the classroom in the heat of summer arranging my room.
So, I started taking measurements of the walls in my classroom. Then, I create a PowerPoint slide and alter the dimensions of the slide to match my room. It becomes a visual map of my classroom on my computer. This allows me to use the shapes tool to put in table measurements, bookshelves, and other furniture. I can then “rearrange” the furniture as many times as I need until I get it just right.
This saves me a lot of backache when getting my room ready. It also allows me to spend the time in my classroom doing things like making sure that my supplies are organized, and students’ names are on things. I can focus on making the space welcoming for all my students for the first day of school.
That’s an intentional classroom
Following these simple tips can help you create an intentional classroom while removing pressure from yourself. It also allows you and your students to create a powerful environment and community together.
For more tips on intentional classrooms and responsive teaching, follow me on Instagram and subscribe to the Teaching with Jillian Starr podcast.