Prepping an empty classroom

I just took a fifth-grade position, and the principal showed me the classroom I’ll have. It’s a brand-new building, and there’s nothing in the classroom—just the student tables, bare bulletin boards, a few empty bookshelves, and a teacher desk. When I was student teaching, the classrooms had lots of interesting bulletin boards and centers, but this is really barren. What can I do in a short time and with a small budget? —A., California

New teachers should realize the classroom displays and bulletin boards in the classrooms of veteran teachers are the result of many years of experience and collecting. But starting with a blank space can be good—you won’t have to go through someone else’s “stuff.”

Imagine how you want the room to look and feel. Remember that less is more and avoid covering every available space and filling every nook and cranny. Students should be able to focus on their work, and some classrooms are so cluttered it’s distracting.

I can’t speak for the other subjects you’ll teach, but for science there are a few quick things you can do to make the classroom attractive and conducive to learning:

  • Use some shelf space for a classroom library with books on a variety of nonfiction topics and reading levels. Start with books from the school library and supplement with books from yard sales or children’s book sales during the year.
  • Reserve and label a place in the room as a “science center” with materials for activities related to what students are currently learning. This science interest center could also have objects or materials for students to explore (e.g., shell collections, animal bones, rock samples, weather maps, simple machines). Students may enjoy adding to your collection throughout the year. Change the materials with each unit of study. Any science-specific safety equipment (such as goggles or aprons) could also be stored here.
  • Add a few plants (live or artificial) to the room.
  • Find out what technology will be available in the classroom—laptops, tablets, etc. You’ll need a place to store these, close to outlets where they can be recharged.
  • Set up a private study center for students doing make-up work and independent study or who need fewer distractions. You’ll probably want to have other areas for small group instruction and project work.
  • Invest in some plastic tubs to organize materials and keep them out of the way.
  • Although it’s not part of the décor, find out what safety equipment and science materials will eventually be in the classroom.

In terms of bulletin boards…

You can spend lots of time and money on elaborate bulletin ones, but that is not really necessary! I found that the most effective bulletin boards were those created with student materials (or by the students themselves) and whose content served an instructional purpose:

  • Include a “word wall” with the key vocabulary for each subject. Start with a blank space and as you introduce a new term, ask a student to create a card with the word and post it on the wall. Refer to it often during class discussions or writing assignments. The cards can be taken down and used during review games, too.
  • Safety rules should be posted in a prominent (and permanent) place. During the first few weeks of school, students could make the posters for display here.
  • Reserve some space to display student work.
  • Maps from a travel club cover a lot of bulletin board territory. A state map can fit into science, social studies, and math activities.
  • Print magazines and the Internet are great sources for pictures related to your current units. In addition to their decorative value, these pictures can be used to stimulate discussions or as part of writing prompts.
  • Set up a space for a photo gallery. Display some of your own photographs related to a topic and encourage students to share their photos or bring in related pictures or news articles. Post photos of students engaged in your class activities.

I know experienced teachers who deliberately start each year with blank walls or bulletin boards. As the year progresses, students add their own artifacts to the classroom.

As a beginning teacher, you’ll have to prioritize your time. The bottom line is that the learning activities you and the students do are more important than elaborate teacher-created bulletin boards and other decorations.

For more ideas:


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  1. Cheska
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I agree with the author on prioritizing time. With a short time and budget, it is important to plan first and then execute. While we all want our classrooms to be Pinterest worthy, think about what systems, routines and procedures you need to put in place first. Focus on those and let your students fill in the gaps and spaces with their work over the year. Best of luck!

  2. Mary Bigelow
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your advice / comment. I don’t think there is a “Classroom Beautiful” competition. So let students make the classroom their own!

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