Our move from a small town in WI to Brooklyn was a whirlwind. From the time I accepted a teaching position, we had two months to sell our house, find a place to live, and figure out 1,000 other little details.
Finding a place to live is difficult in most places. Weigh in the factor of not being able to see a place in person, combined with the NYC renter’s market. Difficult doesn’t begin to describe it.
A sublease fell into our laps, a lovely couple who was moving temporarily to Paris. The only problem was, they wanted to leave everything behind. Furniture, rugs, art, appliances. Everything.
I was a bit unsure about this new place that would become home. We managed to bargain bringing some our own things. Alas, letting go of many of our belongings made the move easier and more affordable.
I’ll never forget the drive to NYC, charged with emotions, or walking into that apartment.
All I knew, from those very first steps, was this was someone else’s home. I was a guest.
My husband and I, still coping with the shock of the 750 sq. foot apartment that stood before us, sat on the floor. We gave each other a look that said, “What did we do?” and I cried.
We did what we could to make the place feel like ours. We rearranged furniture, stored art and lamps in the closets and replaced them with our own. We even searched for temporary wallpaper to cover the maroon and teal walls, which we weren’t allowed to paint.
I understood. That couple was there before us, probably for many years. They made it home. They wanted to return to it that way.
Still, returning each day to a space that I love, a space that represents me, a space that I feel safe and inspired, a space to sink my roots into and grow, is at the core of my well-being.
In this foreign city, in this foreign home, I struggled. So much so, that when July 1st rolled around, we were hauling (on a dolly down traffic-lined Lafayette Ave.) the few belongings we moved with us eight blocks away into a new apartment.
Everything about this place felt like a clean start — energetically and physically. From the freshly-painted white walls, gleaming wood floors, shiny appliances, and rays of sunlight flooding in through the big windows. Sure, we’re not the first inhabitants of this 100-year-old building. Each new tenant left small improvements and scuff marks on the floor, and we have made ours for the next ones.
I have grown with this new little home. In the blank canvas that I’ve painted with my husband, our relationship is stronger. I’ve discovered new things about myself, become more confident and truthful in who I am, awakened new passions. The painting isn’t finished yet, and that’s the beautiful thing about having a space to create. It’s never quite done.
In every moment of this 24/7 life that is teaching, I try to grow in empathy for the kids I spend my days with. That’s how this journey leads me to my classroom.
Think of a classroom a bit like a new home. Think about the bunches of new faces that will be taking bunches of first steps into that space. Some will have just moved from afar, some will be away from home for the first time. For others, it will be the only home they have. All will be experiencing strong emotions.
Will they feel like they are walking into their new home? Or will they feel like guests in yours?
Yes, you probably were there before they were. Yes, you probably have rearranged your furniture one hundred times, and yes, the way you had it–the way you did things last year probably worked well. Yes, you are making thoughtful choices about every bit of decor and shelf space and material and book to display. There’s just one problem. You probably haven’t met the bunches of other little beings who will also be calling this space home.
You won’t know the interests they have, what colors make them feel relaxed or calm or anxious, the kinds of quotes and messages they need to see displayed on the wall, which books will serve as both mirrors and windows to them. You won’t know for sure how much space they’ll need to move and to be together and to be alone. You won’t know the time of day that they will do their best writing or reading or questioning or play.
You can’t make all the decisions yet. Nor should you make all the decisions ever.
I’m seeing lots on edu-cyberspace about the need for a classroom being THEIR (the students’) space, not OUR (the teacher’s) space. It’s neither one. It’s your and their space together. A classroom should represent your beliefs, have room for you to grow in your practice, while also representing the beliefs and identities and passions and growth of the kids who share it.
So, before you spend lots and lots of money on bulletin board accessories (no judgment, I’ve been there), before you fill the walls with posters and quotes to inspire (me, again), before you fill every bucket of your library (check), before you spend your whatever-it-is-it’s-not-enough budget on XYZ (every year), wait. Wait until you meet the new family that will be calling your classroom home. Give them a blank canvas to design with you. Give them room to grow, room for their own treasures.
Usually followed by the idea of creating a classroom space with kids follows these questions:
- How do I do this as someone who likes control and for everything to look a certain way?
- How can I make the space feel both like a blank canvas AND warm and welcoming?
- What does creating a classroom environment together sound like and look like?
How do I do this as someone who likes control and for everything to look a certain way?
There’s nothing wrong with liking control. There are many things wrong with liking to control kids and their environment, neither of which can or should be.
Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz recommend, in an interview with Stacey Shubitz about their very necessary book, Kids 1st From Day 1, that with every choice we make for kids, provide two additional choices that kids can make for themselves.
Keep this in mind when setting up the space. For every bulletin board you fill, leave two that are empty for you to fill together. For every book box you add to the library, leave space for two more based on kid interests. For every time you assign kids a place to sit or a partner to work with, allow two more times for them to choose their own. Letting go of some of the controls we have begins with our belief, our trust, that kids are capable and worthy of having a say in how and what they learn.
How can I make the space feel both like a blank canvas AND warm and welcoming?
First and foremost, before a kid notices any smidgen of the classroom, they see YOU: Your smile, your eyes –at their level– that say, You are safe, You are welcome, You are accepted.
I’ll never forget bringing a kindergartner to read a poem at the TCRWP Principal’s conference. Cornelius Minor, when meeting a group of anxious poets, kneeled to the floor and thanked them for being there. He looked each poet in the eyes and asked them to help him make a song in his head: “Help me sing the music of your name.” Cornelius ever-so-gently invited each poet to say his or her name, and just as gently, he repeated every one, until it was just so, until it sounded like music.
Your body language, your first words, your tone, your energy, will be the driving forces in what makes kids feel warm and welcome when they come into a classroom. The environment, though valuable, is secondary.
As for things you CAN prepare in the environment ahead of time:
- Begin with letting go. Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz offer a tool to use when reflecting on some of the furniture and decorations that might be centered around YOU and not KIDS.
- If accessible to families, ask each one to send you a photograph of their child. These photographs can be displayed on the door, as an immediate “I belong here” message. Kids don’t need cutesy. Let them turn those photographs into art in the first weeks. Let them add their name. Let them create a sign that shows, “This is the Community of Room ____.” Within these experiences, a community will grow.
- If accessible to families, ask each one to send you a photograph of their family, perhaps a photo of them doing something they love. Can’t settle with the idea of completely blank bulletin boards? Here’s your first one. These photographs will fuel important conversations about identity and families and traditions. They will also be a piece of home that kids will see immediately, something to look to when they are feeling lost. (If number two and/or number three do not feel accessible, you can take pictures of kids on back to school night or on the first day, or have them draw a self-portrait/family portrait in the first weeks.)
- When setting up the space, keep in mind what typically works for kids. I love sketching a floor print of my room, and Hertz and Mraz have provided a template for doing just that. Soft lighting, a cozy nook, places to sit on the floor and on chairs, places to wiggle, places to stand generally work well for kids. As do unblocked windows, open spaces to move, to play. Add some books that kids typically love, blank paper and watercolors, coloring tools to share. For all of these things that you add, think, some, but not all, and leave room for growth. Most importantly, be prepared for it to all change, because we cannot possibly fully design a space or curriculum that will work for kids who we have not yet met.
- Get comfortable with the emptiness. Most likely, any angst about leaving things “undone” roots from our own needs and perceptions as adults. Kids will not walk in and say, “Hey, why are the bulletin boards empty?” or “Where are all of the posters?” If any adult says it to you, you’ll be prepared to share your beliefs about this space, about what kids need. Before long, like minutes into the first day, those walls will no longer be empty.
What does creating a classroom environment together sound like and look like?
- Let kids add to the space and part with perfection. You’ll begin to notice that the way a kid hangs their artwork up with a long strip of yellow tape, or writes a label with some letters backwards, is far more precious than any way an adult could do it, and your classroom will begin to speak, This is a space for kids.
- For every conflict that arises in your space or in your community, solve it together. “I’m noticing it’s really tricky for us to keep our art center organized. What’s making it tricky, and what ideas do you have for making it easier? Who can help us with setting that up?” “It was a really big deal when ______ felt excluded. Let’s try really hard to make sure no one feels this way again in our community. What are some agreements we can make? Let’s write them together. Where would be a good place to hang this as a reminder?” “It seems like so many of you like working on the floor. How can we create more space for that in our classroom?”
- When is there time for these kinds of conversations and projects? Consider adding a soft start to your day, which my kids know as “Morning jobs” time. Of course conflicts will happen throughout the entire day, and sometimes those conflicts need to be addressed with the community immediately before learning can proceed, but often the action steps that follow (e.g. a community conversation, making an agreement sign, co-constructing a chart, rearranging a space, creating new labels) can be done the following morning. You will always have a crew of eager community helpers.
By starting the year with a blank canvas, by including kids not only in the thought processes that drive your decisions, but in the decision-making process itself, kids will eventually take the lead and address problems in the community on their own. You’ll take a quiet step back as they come together for a call to action. You’ll begin hearing things like, “We need a sign for this. I’m going to make one and put it here!” and “Maybe we need to visit the library to get more books for our classroom because ______ is interested in ______.”
People will marvel when they walk into your classroom at the space that has so clearly been created for and created by and created together with kids. Your and their classroom will very quickly become everyone’s favorite place to be. A place to call home.
7 thoughts on “The Blank Canvas Classroom”
You are one amazing woman.
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What a beautiful and peace infused post! Thank for you sharing about your blank canvas classroom! I have one question regarding the library. After making labels, do students generally put the books back in the same tubs they came from? How do you run your check in/out process? I’ve always had coresponding stickers on the books that match the box labels, but am not sure how to navigate this with student created labels.
Thank you Alexia for your kind words! I actually have found that if kids grow the categories and add the books (I usually have a small group of volunteers help with this, then teach the class about it), it stays pretty organized! As is the life of a primary teacher, things can get messy. When they do, we do community cleaning. Kids sign up for an area of the room that needs care and are able to reorganize the library themselves.
Once you have a system in place, I know it can be a pain to re-label/sticker things. So I’d say, the most important thing is not that they are making the label. Rather, that kids are involved in selecting the topics of books that go to the library, and changing them throughout the year. You could show them a list of topics they have in their class library, and have volunteers take a survey of most popular topics. Of course, as new interests come up, we sometimes go to the school library or ask for donations to add a new category that isn’t in our room. I wouldn’t want to go to a bookstore that had the exact same books on display all the time!
This is such an amazing love-filled post about creating a shared world with your students. I didn’t have much wall space in my room (which was otherwise a very nice room) so I made sure to always put their work on display on the outside wall of the room so they could feel proud and validated. As ENL students they didn’t often feel good about themselves, so I wanted to do what I could to change their self-image. And to show off to other teachers and students in the building what they could do well.
It makes such a difference!
Thank you for giving me more to think about!