Classroom Re-Design with No Money
by Sally Kuhlenschmidt, Western Kentucky University
So you are an instructor stuck in a classroom with no spirit, no architectural call to a higher plain of thinking, a veritable dungeon of institutional green walls and formulaic desks. What can you do?
You can complain and wait for someone else to take action or you can take control of your room.
Following is a list of ideas to improve (or at least change) the classroom environment without spending any money. After all, you'll be spending about 45 hours in that room over the next few months months, isn't it worth it to improve the environment, even if only a bit?
Always begin by reflecting on what you want the classroom to convey educationally on a particular day (open discussion? deep reflection?) and let that be your primary guide.
- Set the tone you desire from the first moment-- write a welcome message on the chalkboard each day, or put a sign on the door.
Furniture & Space
- Rearrange the furniture if that is possible-- consider a large circle, two or three concentric circles or half circles, several small circles, in twos, push the chairs against the wall and sit on the floor, lay on the floor and have folk put their legs up the wall. (Be respectful of folk with disabilities and offer options for sitting in a manner that allows them to not reveal their disability).
- Can't rearrange? Teach from a different corner of the room-- break into the student's space and talk from the back, side or center of the room (assuming chairs can be turned around, or perhaps have students sit on the tables, not the seats for awhile or have them stand.)
- Teach from a different level of the room-- bring in a step ladder and go up and down it illustrating steps in an issue (Be careful—you don’t want to fall), bring in a small sturdy stool or several boards piled on top of each other and strongly taped together as a platform-- hop on it to emphasize a point. (Again, be careful!)
- Escape and leave the room-- go outside, to the student center, to the front steps, to a stairwell (be courteous to those around and don't disturb them.) Bring education out in front of everyone!
- Rearrange the students-- we all fall into the "church pew" effect (my space!)...call out pineapple upside down cake and have everyone move over one row.
- Bring in new furniture on occasion-- have students bring in pillows or blankets one day and sit on them. Have them bring in camping chairs. Or just you bring in a collapsible yard chair, preferably colorful, and use it yourself or just sit it to one side to set a more casual tone.
- If your room has a bulletin board crammed with announcements, take a moment to rearrange them more attractively or to clean up the board of old posts and put something more attractive on it.
- Bring in an electric candles (Not real, be careful of fire hazards) to set an atmosphere for reflection.
- Try a camping light or big flashlight. Turn out the lights and have a discussion in the dark. Pass the light around to the speaker whose turn it is.
- Bring in a lamp from home.
- Bring in a mirror to reflect the light from that window out in the hallway.
Sound & Media
- Bring in your boom box/CD player and play reflective music at the start of class.
- If you have a TV/Video player in the room, you can bring in a tape with natural beauty to play at the start of class, perhaps pausing it on an image and have a substitute "window."
- Project a reflective quote or image at the start of class. Or use a portable computer to display an attractive picture where all can appreciate it.
- What do you have sitting around at home that might brighten your classroom and be easy to carry in and out? Bring in a globe or a plant to set on your desk, or a basket, maybe with fruit. Award good students with a piece of fruit. Use the fruit to convey a teaching point. ('You can't compare apples and oranges!'). Bring in something different each day without explanation-- that will get students curious.
- Put up streamers or balloons that you have left over from a home event.
- If you see a beautiful leaf or bit of ivy on your way to work, bring it in and set it on your table.
- Involve the students. Have them take turns bringing in something to make the room more pleasant for the class period.
- "Paint" the walls. Save up scrap paper, get some crayons or colored markers (okay, that may cost) and have the students each decorate a "panel" with images appropriate to the content. Artfully affix them to the walls, for example, at chair rail height, or arranged in a pattern. [Use a fixative that doesn’t damage the paint or maybe use cardboard and hang them on strings from a suspended ceiling. Be sure to negotiate with housekeeping and your department head before you do it-- after all, you need it for instruction and that is what the school is supposed to support.] See how long they stay up. If it is as dreadful a room as you believe, they may make it the whole term. If you can get the paper on the large roles (e.g., newsprint) then you could make a floor to ceiling panel.
- If you don't use the chalkboards/whiteboards often, draw a quick garden scene on one (or find a student who could do a 5 minute sketch before each class.)
- If you can get permission from the department head and facilities, and donations of old paint do a mural. Perhaps only drawing in a few "bricks" and maybe drawing in a potted plant sitting on the bricks. A small segment can make a visual difference.
- If you have any talent (or know someone who does) draw a segment of crown molding on a piece of paper and photocopy enough to go around the room-- tape it in place with a nondamaging fixative (again, ask Housekeeping).
Make Serendipity Work for You.
- Next time you have to buy an umbrella, buy one that could do double duty as a colorful bit of decoration in a corner of the room (e.g., school colors).
- Wear an elaborate hat and set it on the desk for variety.
- If the rooms are really dreadful, consider teaching an on-line course and completely inventing your space.
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