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There’s No Place Like Home, Except School


There are decorated classrooms and then there’s Gladiola Elementary School teacher Jennifer Blackburn’s decked-out classroom. Seeking to appeal to and stimulate her first graders’ senses and give them a home away from home, Blackburn’s classroom is a student mecca of comfy chairs, whimsical decorations and colors.

At first glance, girls seated at a dining room table could just as easily be having a tea party as doing math. There’s ample student artwork mixed in with twisty borders and loopy streamers. Rather than working at desks or even assigned tables, students settle into camping chairs, antique rockers and wicker seats or choose backrest pillows for cozy reading on the floor. The walls are painted a calming blue Blackburn used at her own house; paper-lantern globes hang from the ceilings and lamps illuminate soft light.

Three years ago, Blackburn became inspired to make her classroom more like home, from colors to furniture to lighting and decor. She’s hung curtains and added seat covers.

“I was trying to meet the different brain needs of students,” said the 18-year Wyoming teacher. She felt traditional classrooms were too sterile and institutional, and wanted a more inviting atmosphere.

“As a classroom it’s kind of like their second home, as well as mine,” she said, noting that she adds more seating and decor as her budget allows.

Alexis Winfield, left, and Brooklyn Weenum work at a wooden table

Appealing to Different Learners

Blackburn studied multi-sensory learning and flexible seating, both based on philosophies that students learn through movement and by using all of their senses. She wanted to give them a place they are excited about, call their own and feel comfortable learning, moving and growing.

“I was going for an alternative style that provides comfort,” Blackburn said. “This kind of environment lends itself to them having ownership.”

Recently, in the midst of the energetic youngsters, Blackburn conferred with a student about her reading progress, pointing out big improvements. “That’s what we want to see, girl,” she said, offering a high five. Around her, students read and worked independently in spots of their choosing.

“I like to sit at the owl table,” said first-grader Francisco Castillo, referring to the dining room table, which has seats covered in an owl-patterned cloth. His classmate Yudexy DeLos Santos agreed, saying, “It is much more comfortable to sit at.”

Marlee Waldrop, left, and Carly Alonzo settle on the floor to do math

But Oscar Hernandez, who said he likes the ABC decorations on the walls, had a different favorite spot: “I like sitting in the rocking chair.”

Blackburn’s goal is to give students opportunity and choice so they are independent learners. “A lot of brain-based learning has to do with movement. It’s student-led.”

In instruction, Blackburn encourages getting out of the seats. Students hop to count “ones” in math, stand like a stick to resemble a base 10 blocks. “It’s not a sit-and-get class,” she said.

To accommodate that, she’s always adding more touches of home to her classroom because she sees how students react.

“There’s a calmness. There’s definitely a pride of ownership in taking care of the items in the room,” she said. “They gravitate to certain areas of the classroom they find comforting to them.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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