Multi-district — Vanessa Skinner’s second-graders are transported to the tropics when they enter her classroom, guided by one important word.
“Our classroom is our ohana, our family,” Skinner said. “Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”
Inspired by a memorable quote from the animated movie “Lilo and Stitch” — “Ohana means family!” — she has set up her room at Kenowa Hills’ Zinser Elementary and bulletin boards to fit the ohana theme for the past few years.
“My students find the theme relatable,” Skinner said. “Families don’t always get along, but they support each other and love each other no matter what.”
She explained how creating a classroom community has helped her students feel supported by each other and in their learning.
Like many teachers during the weeks leading up to a new school year, Skinner put time, effort and creativity into setting up her classroom. Her intentional choices set the tone for her students for the whole year.
Teachers’ attention to the layout and thematic messaging of their classrooms reflects a movement in K-12 schools emphasizing the importance of classroom design in fostering creativity and collaboration. A School News Network series last spring highlighted the role of education space as “the third teacher” in enhancing student learning.
Gayle DeBruyn, a professor of Collaborative Design and sustainability officer for Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, defined the third teacher as “all that you surround yourself with to support the work that you are doing” with students.
‘Our classroom is our ohana, our family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.’— teacher Vanessa Skinner, Zinser Elementary School
Decluttering For Optimal Learning
At Byron Center’s Brown Elementary, Brooke McClain decided to evolve her third-grade classroom away from bright, loud colors to a more neutral design.
“My classroom needed a reset,” she said. “There is so much noise in the world, I wanted to keep it simple and natural.”
With several windows to let in natural light, McClain’s classroom utilizes lamps to create a warmer lighting than the overhead fluorescent lights provide.
“When I think of sitting in my classroom, I think of every student making their own space, but also feeling calm and comfortable within the classroom family,” she said.
McClain also sorted her students into family houses, inspired by the Hogwarts houses from the “Harry Potter” series and ideas she discovered on Teachers Pay Teachers.
Like McClain, Caledonia Elementary third-grade teacher Becky Beachum said she enjoys teaching in a calm and relaxing atmosphere with minimal clutter.
Beachum said she did a lot of research for her optimal classroom design, inspired by education instruction consultant, Dr. Anita L. Archer, known for her work in explicit instruction and effective teaching strategies.
“Archer’s teachings emphasized the importance of an organized environment for effective instruction,” she said. “A well-planned classroom layout ensures all students have a clear line of sight to the teacher and instructional materials.”
Beachum said her classroom layout planning has resulted in her students maintaining attention and engagement during lessons. This year, her new interactive learning spaces encourage activities, discussions and collaborative work.
“I am excited for small groups of students to work at our new high-top work table,” Beachum said. “By fostering excitement and emphasizing the benefits of this new addition, I hope to create a positive workspace where students are eager to engage, learn, and work together effectively.”
‘My classroom needed a reset. There is so much noise in the world, I wanted to keep it simple and natural.’— teacher Brooke McClain, Brown Elementary School
Keeping It on Their Level
Down the hall from Beachum’s room, kindergarten teacher Kelly Peterson made her design decisions with 5-year-olds in mind.
“I want this classroom to be theirs, so I intentionally add items at their eye level and add their projects to the walls throughout the year,” she said.
After teaching for 23 years, Peterson discovered not everyone learns best sitting in a chair. Flexible seating options include chairs with backs, stools with no backs and a couch in the reading corner.
Added Peterson, “I allow students to sit where they feel the most comfortable as long as they can show me they can be responsible and on task.”