Teachers decorate to promote learning and welcome students
There’s only so much a teacher can express via the medium of bulletin board, but she can do her best with an unfolded stapler and construction paper borders to convey the impact of the mission.
So, Heidi Ragsdale carefully arranged pictures, print-outs and brochures about NASA’s Mars MAVEN mission on the bulletin board at the front of her West Middle School science classroom. She also stapled her visitor’s pass to the board, because she was in Florida last November to watch the launch.
“People were crying, they were cheering,” she recalled. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. You can’t even bring it into a bulletin board.”
She’s a teacher, though, so she can try.
And like every other School District 51 teacher officially starting class Monday, she uses the palette of not just a bulletin board, but the entire classroom, to catch students’ interest, to intrigue them, to motivate them and to help them feel like the classroom is their own. There is nothing arbitrary, it turns out, about decorating a classroom.
“It’s really their second home,” said Travis Freese, a fourth-grade teacher at Orchard Avenue Elementary School. “I want them to take ownership of it. They’re here for about 40 hours out of the week, and I want them to really grasp that and really feel like this is a safe place for them.”
The challenge for teachers becomes how to convey that in what they put up on the walls and bring into the classroom. For Megan Dentlinger, a kindergarten teacher at Rocky Mountain Elementary School, it means bright, colorful rugs, lamps and “things they’d see at home,” she explained. “We can’t have hiding spots, but I like to have little spots for them to get cozy.”
On one side of the classroom is a low, white bookshelf — almost empty right now except for a photo of Dentlinger with her husband and two young children — onto which students will place the family photos they’re encouraged to bring in. And throughout the classroom are touches of green with white polka dots: in the paper borders around bulletin boards, in the ribbon trimming the writing supplies bins at the center of each low table.
“Green is a very soothing color,” Dentlinger said with a laugh, adding that she gets some of her decorating ideas from Pinterest.
“Pinterest is pretty amazing for teachers,” Ragsdale said.
She even posts her own classroom tips when she has a particularly good idea. Recently, she shared the idea of using the silverware bins from old dishwashers as containers for writing materials.
This year’s newest addition to the classroom, adapted from ideas she found on the Internet, is a large sheet of blue paper taped to her desk at the front of the classroom, with a copy of the Instagram logo and the question “Where has science taken you?” She will encourage students to bring in their photos, and even created the hashtag #whywelovescience.
The fact that she used the front of her desk speaks to a teacher’s need for efficiency in setting up a classroom, because space can be at a premium.
“You really have to think about what you bring in,” said Julie Blevens, a science teacher at Fruita 8/9 School. “Almost everything I put up I can incorporate into a lesson.”
In Blevens’ classroom, there are inflatable insects hanging from the ceiling and a human skeleton in the corner. She also brings in artifacts she’s acquired over 13 years of teaching: a vintage bell jar, an old microscope, “things to show students how far science has come,” she said.
And of course, there’s a Sheldon Cooper “Bazinga!” poster by the front door.
Thanks to its accurate science, the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” has become beloved by many teachers. Ragsdale has character bobble heads on a cabinet at the front of her classroom.
Teachers are given freedom in decorating their classrooms, trusted to use discretion in keeping it education-focused. So, Elyza Willms’ ninth-grade science classroom at Fruita 8/9 features a large dinosaur, sea and space murals around the room, while fellow science teacher Kevin Chirdon’s is painted black and depicts skies full of constellations during each season.
“Every student is unique and every class of students is unique,” Ragsdale said. “So, I think for a lot of teachers, yes, you decorate before the school year starts, but not too much because you want to wait to see what each group is like and involve them, put up their work on the walls.”
Freese said when he first began teaching, he filled his classroom walls with learner-centered posters that he could use in his lessons. One year, he ordered college pennants and hung them around the room to subtly encourage students to look and think forward.
Now, he said, he likes to keep decorations to a minimum at the beginning of the school year so that each new group of students can make the room their own. He has brought in a few personal items — a small lighthouse, a lamp with a shade depicting an old-fashioned map — but is leaving a lot of open space to be filled by student work.
Dentlinger also said she likes to leave a lot of open space for student work. The colored clothes pins hanging from the ceiling on strings right now are empty, but soon they will hold student artwork.
Through experience, Blevens said, teachers learn to navigate the fine line between stimulation and distraction. Things to look at around the classroom can be fun and stimulating, but too much of them and students stop listening.
So, teachers learn to be selective: a poster of Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue shows a lighter side of a serious scientist. A picture of Jim Henson with Kermit the Frog might inspire creativity. Plus, it might show a little of the teacher’s personality, helping him or her build relationships with students.
“I think everything needs to be focused on student learning,” Ragsdale said. “We want it to be fun and interesting, sure, but I think everything teachers bring into a classroom, we’re asking, ‘What can students learn from this?’ “