Why I Decorated My High School Classroom

All of my dreams are coming true.  I am getting a new classroom!
It’s smaller, and it has less storage than my current classroom. But guess what it does have… A window…To the outside! Yes, I am packing up my classroom and moving upstairs for one solitary window that looks out onto a roof.
What would you trade for an exterior window? I suppose your answer depends on the strength of the relationship between natural light and your own mental health.
Despite my proclivity for laughter, I sometimes struggle with anxiety, depression, and symptoms one licensed professional described as “strongly indicative of adult ADHD.” I’ve spent lots of time working on my mental health, mostly with my former therapist, Rhoda. Rhoda is all about growing and changing through self-awareness. I “graduated” from seeing Rhoda a while ago, but she helped me understand all sorts of important things about myself.
(By the way, if you think it’s a little strange that I’m talking about this, I hope you know that I agree. It feels way too private for this kind of public forum. Break the mental health silence, people.)
Here are just a few things Rhoda helped me understand (that actually relate to this blog post):
1. I need to do something creative every single day.
2. My job is a good job. I cannot quit it to deliver mail.
3. The lack of sunlight in winter is sad, but it is no reason to hide in a corner and sob.
4. Real people do not have mind-reading superpowers.
These key points led me to believe that:
1. Classroom 100 is a great room in theory- space, location, storage. Also, let’s face it, I had been pushing around a cart for years, so simply having a classroom was an amazing improvement. But, for me, the room wasn’t working.  Four windows into a hallway made me feel sad and closed-in.
2. I needed to ask for a different classroom.
You see, before Rhoda, I felt it was better not to say anything if I was unhappy.  For years, I sat in Room 100, feeling sadder and sadder, thinking “Nobody loves me. Nobody cares. Why do other people have windows? Administration hates me.”
Rhoda called this type of thinking “my little ball of resentment.” When she said this, I always pictured myself petting this little resentment ball as it sat in my lap like a furry cat. I liked that image a lot.
If I would have talked to Rhoda about my classroom, she probably would have said, “How is anyone supposed to know you are depressed in that room if you don’t tell them?” With Rhoda’s voice in my head,  I felt empowered. And last year, I finally asked for a different classroom. Yay! I asked!
And then they said no.
So after I cried a little, I thought about how Rhoda would encourage me to not take this personally. (They actually had great reasons for saying no, and they told me to ask again next year. Please understand this: I work in a very nice district with very reasonable and kind people.) Rhoda would have also encouraged me to do something with Room 100 that would make me like being there. Finally, she would have given me homework to watch a super-sad and traumatic documentary about Syrian refugees or some awful situation going on in the world. You know, just to give me a little perspective on the issue.
I decided that if I was going to have to stay in the room, I needed to change something. I wanted to make it a comfortable place for me and, more importantly, for my students.
So here it is. What I will call:

 

Extreme Classroom Makeover: 2015 Edition
or
How I Redecorated My Classroom To Help My Depression
or
Making Teenagers Feel Comfortable So They Don’t Hate Coming To Reading Class 
I will start with a photo of the room. As you can see, it’s really a very nice room; actually it’s better than most classrooms in which I’ve taught. It’s certainly better than pushing a cart around. The windows are a considerable size as well. Prior to 2013, these windows looked outdoors. An addition was put onto the building, and while this gave me my own classroom, the classroom now looks into the hallway. This means that I usually need to close the blinds to keep the youth focused.
The Classroom
During the spring, our students have the annual art show. I absolutely love the art show. But, every year, the young artists cover my windows so they can present their work on the windowsill outside of my classroom.
My view of the art show. That’s black paper taped to my window.
My students actually hate this more than I do.
I laugh at the irony.
I haven’t met many high school teachers who spend a lot of time decorating their classrooms. As we’re typically a pragmatic bunch, we’re happy enough to put up some motivational posters and write the objectives on the board.  Until the Extreme Classroom Makeover of 2015, I did the same. In fact, I littered my room with educational literature for many years.
Welcome!
That orange poster describing the ALA young adult book awards will make you want to read!
How did this even happen?
Anxiety. Anxiety. Anxiety.
I was proud of this decor. And optimistic.
The students would understand the objectives if I typed them up!
Of course by May, I didn’t have the stamina for all of that typing, and they began to use the objective grid to ask each other to the prom.
I am able to…find a prom date.

 

What a nice learning environment. Do you see the tray on the floor?
Did someone forget to bring it back to the cafeteria?
So you get the point. I decorated with educational materials, if I decorated at all. That’s what you’re supposed to see when you walk into a classroom, right?
What I’ve found though, is that the youth don’t read educational posters. In fact, brain research shows that students who are overstimulated with decorations actually learn less. They also learn less when they perceive learning as a threat, and if decor could be considered threatening, those bright blue affix pocket charts would fit the description.
Last summer, I read several articles about classroom decor. In truth, I probably spent more time looking at pictures on Pinterest than reading.  (I don’t know when I started to consider Pinterest “academic research.”) Here are some of my favorite resources:

“Decoration and Organization for the High School Classroom” 

“Spring Cleaning”

My Own Pinterest Board 

I became obsessed with the project. In fact, the process of decorating my classroom caused me an inordinate amount of internal angst. I began to feel an incredible deal of sympathy and respect for those elementary teachers who come up with different themes for their classroom every year.
Here are the pictures of my final setup. (Final being the end of April. It was much cleaner in August, and the desks all faced the podium in an optimistic and cute semicircle.)

 

 

When my students walked in on the first day, they were impressed. It may not look like much in these pictures, but when you’ve set your classroom decor expectations so low in the past, pretty much anything you’ve done looks amazing.
I thought it would be nice if I shared my experience with you in case you felt similarly motivated. So here it is:

 

How I Decorated My High School Classroom and How You Can, Too
8 Tips for Teachers 

 

1. Make it a Home
 
I shifted paradigms. When I started to think of this space as less of a classroom and more of a home for my students, things came together.
I think a great rule is if you wouldn’t put it in your house, don’t put it in your classroom.

 

Would you hang these above your sofa?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Tone it down, my colleagues! Why so bold? If you have to, (and obviously I had to), INVITE them to learn. Don’t scream it at them.
I made this sign for my podium.
I used my Silhouette sketch pens, but there’s no reason you couldn’t print out something nice and frame it.

 

2. Think About Color 
Choosing a color scheme for your classroom can be surprisingly difficult. When searching for information about color, I found several brain research articles. I started to think about how I wanted my students to feel when they walked in our room. I got rid of the bright and bold colors and went for a more calming color scheme.
Note that this does not mean you need to put on some coveralls and paint your own classroom. That’s a lot of money and time, and chances are, your administration will not like that idea. That being said, here’s a good read about classroom colors from Sherwin Williams.
Also consider the current color scheme and what items you get to keep in your room, or more realistically, what you’re forced to keep. My desks for example, were hideous. Did someone buy these at a garage sale?

 

Shades of 1965: Don’t let outdated furniture ruin your color scheme.
I spent long nights thinking about these desks. For real. They haunted me.
Mid-August, I devised a plan to arrive at school one deserted Sunday, drag these desks out to the softball field and spray paint them.
Fortunately, my favorite custodian intervened. He helped me remove all of the bright orange and blue desks. (Please do not ask me where we put them.) We replaced them with a (still hideous) but now uniform gold and yellow palette.

 

Desks are less ugly when they almost match.
When decorating your secondary classroom, choose a color, and go with it. It’s always a little bit fun to add a couple of accent colors, but keep it under control. The youth need order in their lives. They want to feel like they belong. They don’t want to have to come in from the hallway into something that looks like this:
I actually think this is really fun for little kids.
These colors, however, would make my teenagers’ heads explode.
Young people are inundated with social media. They send 400 texts a day. They can make their faces look like unicorns on Snapchat. They need a calm and comfortable environment in which to learn.
3. Light It Up  
 
Think about lighting. A lamp can bring warmth to a room. My students really like turning off those nasty florescent boxes and using lamps instead. This is especially true when they are taking tests and doing projects. It relaxes them.
Find a nice lamp and turn it on.
Teenagers’ lives are crazy busy, and they will appreciate the peaceful atmosphere.
I was torn on the subject of Christmas lights. I didn’t want to junk the space up, but I gave my students the option, and they were in favor. These cheap globe lights are actually very convenient when watching video clips; they give the room a nice glow in the dark, so nobody’s doing anything they shouldn’t be.
4. Bring Life to the Space
 
Add a plant. Have the teenagers take care of it. Or if you’re me, add fake flowers so you don’t inadvertently kill anything. Even artificial plants bring some life into the room.
Simple and clean is your goal.
Do not bring in an artificial flower arrangement from your mother’s bathroom.

 

5. Use Fabric: Curtains, Bulletin Boards, and Rugs 
Hang up some curtain panels (or “drapes” as all of the men in my building call them). I got mine at TJ Maxx, so they really weren’t too expensive. I hung them using command hooks.
Don’t underestimate curtains.
Hang the curtains.
Do not ask for permission first.
🙂
If you can find a few more dollars (I’m sorry, I know, I know…), use fabric on your bulletin boards instead of paper. It is so much easier to put up! It also makes the room feel less… crunchy.
If you’re like me, you will agonize over the patterns of fabric, polling everyone you see throughout Jo-Ann Fabrics. “Do you think this pattern is too feminine for teenage boys?” “Which shade of green says, ‘I want to learn today?'”
While I was decorating the bulletin boards, I also decided to nix the awful paper borders. They are too expensive, and they don’t look nice.
Instead, I used quite a variety of material that I had around my house- leftover burlap, ribbon, strips of scrapbook paper, kraft paper that I punched with those amazing Martha Stewart fancy punches… Get creative.
Use leftover scrapbook paper as a bulletin board border.

 

This required a lot of fancy punching.

 

I had this shiny blue ribbon in a closet at my house. Instant border.
Finally, try a rug. I didn’t find much use for one in my room; I was just given new carpeting. My friend, Stacey has a rug, however, and the students love it.
6. Keep it Classy  
The fewer plastic bins, the better. I know it’s difficult when you want to organize.
I like baskets. I also like these boxes, which I happen to make and sell in my ETSY store.
There’s no need to organize with plastic bins if you have purchased wooden boxes from
Honeysuckle and Pine.
I also did my best to avoid littering the walls with educational garbage. Instead, I displayed quotes from literature and framed this awesome picture of John Steinbeck. Doesn’t he look like he’s part of the family?
John Steinbeck smoking a cigarette has done more to stimulate
educational conversation than all of my motivational posters combined.

 

One day, I will tell you about the bookcase disaster of 2014.
Until then, trust me.
Anchor those bookcases, my friends. Anchor them.

 

7. Consider Your Students 
 
Give them a full-length mirror.
I’m not advocating that you focus on appearance. I’m simply saying that as teenagers, they need a mirror. Giving them a mirror will reduce unnecessary trips to the restroom.
When I told my freshman that we were moving rooms next year, the first thing that they asked was, “Can we bring the mirror with us?”
$5 from Target. The best $5 you will spend.
My students really enjoy group work, so I have set aside groups of desks for this purpose. I’d also really like to get some tables for this purpose.
They also love this IKEA chair. In fact, they love it so much that they will work for it. Get yourself a chair. Or a couch or a beanbag, and bribe them with it. (Just kidding…kind of…)
I was going to give it to Goodwill. I’m glad I didn’t.
Now, think about this…What if your students had somewhere safe to put their phones? Somewhere out of their hands and out of their pockets? Would they be more focused? Would they feel liberated to learn? Hahahaha.
I started this “parking” system with my students this year. It has worked beautifully. Simply have them park their phones into their designated shoe holder when they enter the room.
Have students park their phones in a designated slot when they enter the room.
 
8. Share Your Passion 
I like to build things, so I built furniture for my room. Maybe that’s not your thing though. Don’t fret.
Do you tell hilarious history jokes? Print them out, frame them, and laugh with the students. Are you obsessed with Shakespeare? I’d say that’s a good reason to proudly display his bust. Share your passion!
Here are some things I built for my classroom:
This wooden desk provides additional work space for me.
It also gives me a nice personal space barrier.
A desk organizer for my coloring book
A podium for teaching and for teacher manual storage.
9. Acknowledge Personal Lives and Accomplishments 
I have a bulletin board where I post pictures from the newspaper along with awards, birthdays, and anything else that acknowledges the students’ personal lives and accomplishments. They pretend to hate it.
I also have a bulletin board for my personal photos. On the same board, I post photos of my students, both past and present.
Don’t be afraid to share a little bit of your life with your students.
It makes you a person in their eyes,
and this makes them feel a little bit of pity for you when they give you a hard time.
So there it is, my 2015-16 classroom. I thought I decorated it for my own mental health, but it turns out, I did it for them. The youth. My kids, whom I love, and whom I want to feel safe and comfortable and happy to be in my classroom.
They have me two periods a day for four years in a row. The least I can do is decorate the room.  And hopefully, it made being forced to take reading class just a little bit more enjoyable for them this year.
I’m packing it all up soon to move upstairs to a room with a window. Even though I’ll be able to look outside, I’m going to decorate again. I will decorate it for them.

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