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I have a photo book of my first classroom, seventeen years ago.  The desks are piled in the middle of the room.  The teacher desk, my favorite item, was an old wooden desk.  I still have it today.  In fact, I changed buildings 5 years ago with the stipulation that my desk goes with me.  My room had a chalkboard and short wooden shelves.  I rearranged the furniture (three times), bought a cheap couch to make my reading corner, found some discount fabric and created curtains and pillows, and added my 3D flower-pot bulletin board with a poem about growth to start the year.  Over the years the furniture, reading corners, curtains, bulletin boards, and grade levels have changed.  But each August, I feel a rush when the school year starts.  It is always fun to set up a new classroom!

I like to start with and center my decoration on a classroom theme.  This drives the beginning of the year decoration, bulletin boards, and little extra things I like to do for my students.  My classroom is an extension of myself.  It is important my students and families feel comfortable in this learning space.  Over the years I have had many classroom themes including apples, crayons, sports, frogs (For Reaching Our Goals), and Superheroes.  Pick a theme you enjoy and have fun with it.  If you do a school wide theme incorporate that.  The little touches will show your students and families you are there for the whole child.

Sometimes my theme starts with a lesson, discount items I have found at the supply store, a great garage sale find, or inspiration from my fellow teachers.  From there I search the Internet and teacher stores for the supplies I will need.  If you don’t want to spend money, there are so many free supplies around.  Be creative, ask your friends if they have items you can borrow, search at thrift stores and garage sales, and check out free cycle sites.  Finding things for the classroom is part of the fun.  When I am using a theme from the year before, I just add to my stash.  Last year my Superhero theme was such a success I am using it again.  This means my room is already started and I can add a few fun new items I have found over the summer.

So, what do I “theme up” in my elementary classroom?  I use my theme for the items my kids will see: nametags, locker tags, back to school night letterhead, bulletin boards, posters, center signs, and my classroom management system.  Thinking about Superheroes, I had the Superman symbol cut out for locker tags and name tags.  I always let my students decorate these items themselves.  It asks them to immediately become part of our classroom environment and gives them a stake in the community.  I found a Superhero font on the internet and used it for my first parent newsletter.  I found some books about Superheroes and those were our day one reading.  My first few activities for getting to know you are, you guessed it, Superhero themed.  The kids immediately see how everything we do is linked and connected.  This sets a strong base for the year.

Bulletin boards and posters are the obvious place to display your theme.  You can go as simple or as elaborate as you like.  Borders, self-created posters, quotes, and pictures can all be used to decorate.  Big Huge Labs  has inspirational posters and other fun things you can make and print.  If your school is like mine, you may want to print them at home so they are in color.  You can also find quotes at Brainy Quote.  I found a quote that matched each of our classroom areas (reading, math, social studies, science, art) and printed that quote (and the Superhero who said it) to display in the area.  Look around your room and think about the impression and feeling you want to create.  Find things to support that feeling and display them to welcome your students and set up that classroom environment.

Classroom management is the most important thing you can do at the beginning of the year. It sets the tone for your entire school year.* Incorporating our Superhero theme, I used lightning bolts for positive reinforcement.  Batman holds our foam lightning bolts strung on yarn.  During the day if anyone is helpful, listening, participating, etc. they are thanked for their assistance to our community and asked to wear a lightning bolt.  Students with lightning bolts are great resources for others that day.  This year I plan to also add a traveling trophy that can be moved from desk to desk during lessons.  However, you use classroom management, tie your theme into the process.

I like to welcome my students with a little back to school token.  This is an easy way to tie in the theme with a stamp or stickers on goodie bags, a theme poem, or pencils.  You can go crazy at the store or print something simple and free. Check party supply aisles and dollar stores.  You can often find something with your theme for as little as $5.00.  This small gesture shows your love and respect in welcoming your new class.  The thought is to introduce the theme, give the students a piece of the classroom, and continue to link everything you do together.

Setting up your classroom is a small part in starting your school year but it is an important piece to setting the tone.  You can keep it simple or “bling” it up and be as elaborate as you wish.  Your lessons, classroom management, and communication with families will be the most important things you do for your students.  I always want my families to feel welcome, to feel like a part of the classroom community right away, and to want to relax and stay.  Whether you use a theme or do not use a theme look at your room and think about how it makes you feel.  Do you want to come in and look around?  Is there an area that draws your attention?  Is there an area you want to avoid? Do you want to stay?  Adding a few simple touches will set a positive and welcoming tone that will provide a foundation for the year to come.  Have fun and let us know what exciting deals and themes are being used this school year.


*I have written other articles about classroom management.  For more ideas about classroom management check out “Classroom Management I Learned From My Mom,” “Just Ask: A Survey Approach to Classroom Management,” or “Crazy Things I’ve Done: Creative Classroom Management.”

Elementary Classroom Set Up

Lori Rice is a fourth-grade teacher at West Elementary in Wamego, Kansas, who has taught K-2 reading...

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