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Classroom Design | Teacher Talk

From the moment I began my teacher preparation program, I began to imagine how I would decorate and design my classroom. As a person who has always felt that teaching is an art, I am continually drawn to the teaching practices that invoke the senses. I regularly think about the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile nature of a great classroom or library. My best experiences in educational spaces bring back the smell of paper, the cozy feeling of a reading corner, or the sound of CCR playing from the record player in my fifth grade classroom with Mr. Craig Johnson at Beadle Elementary in Yankton, SD.

In the book Brilliant Teaching, author Adeyemi Stambridge asserts that “A teacher is an artist who creates through the medium of experience.” The look and feel of a classroom can greatly impact the learning experience for students as well as improve classroom management and student wellbeing and mental health.

For example, a library itself teaches you how to behave in the space. The rows of bookshelves, big tables near wide windows, and comfortable chairs tucked into corners, denote that the library is a place for reading, learning, and studying. And therefore, there is an understood agreement of behavior for everyone in the library: it’s quiet (not silent) and the topics of conversation are typically about ideas or questions. It’s rare that someone enters the library yelling or running around (although my former library colleagues may beg to differ!) because the space naturally teaches the expected behavior. Of course there are always exceptions. I did once have someone come into the library and ask me why the coverage of the Nebraska Husker football game was not playing over the library PA system.)

Similarly, the organization of the library teaches people how to use the library. The Dewey Decimal System groups books of similar topics together. When someone would ask for a specific book, I always walked them where that book was located. Almost always, the patron would check out 5-10 books on the same topic because they browsed the surrounding books on the shelf. I didn’t need to teach that person how to use the library – the environment of the library did that for me.

Similarly, teachers can craft classroom design to cultivate the specific learning objectives. Simply the way the desks are arranged can change the entire dynamic of the classroom. When I would lead Socratic seminars or discussions, I liked to arrange my classroom with the desks in a circle, so everyone could see each other for the conversation. Or, if I was leading station or group work, it worked best to cluster the desks into groups where students would be near 3-4 students. But on a test or essay day, I would move the desks into wide spaced rows, so students could focus only on the task at hand and not be distracted by a nearby student.

Claire Latané, author of the book Schools That Heal: Design with Mental Health in Mind, contends that schools were often designed to look and feel like prisons, with little attention to how the environment impacts student wellbeing. In a post COVID world, schools are now more conscientious about student stress and are taking steps to address the classroom environment. She recommends incorporating natural light, nature, cozy common areas, classroom pets, and quiet zones as low cost changes to improve the classroom environment.

Jacqueline R. Wilber, Ed.D. is a faculty member and Director of the Center for Student and Professional Services at the University of South Dakota School of Education. She has a B.A. in English from the University of South Dakota, a M.Ed. in Teaching & Learning from DePaul University, an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Doane University, and she is an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher (e-RYT 500) through Yoga Alliance. She began her career in public schools in 2007 and has served as a middle and high school teacher and public librarian. Jackie contributes to Teacher Talk on SDPB. Visit her at: