In the Classroom

Easy Classroom Setup and Classroom Theme Ideas for Your 21st Century Room

Whether it’s your first year teaching or retirement is on the horizon, picking a classroom layout is always one of the first things to consider when designing a classroom setup. There are so many variables to consider when developing classroom theme ideas as well:

  • Age of students (year level)
  • Size of classroom
  • Number of desks
  • How much flexible seating
  • The layout of the projector, class phone, etc.
  • What your classroom walls are made of

The list goes on and on. It may be a bit of trial and error to get it right, but the perfect classroom layout is everything when it comes to efficiency in the classroom (and is a fun way to get through the day).

Do you share a classroom with another teacher? Is it a blank canvas for your own design? Are your hands tied (in some classrooms, the desks are literally screwed to the floor)?

All of these factors need to be taken into consideration in your overall vision of how your room will look upon completion and what the best classroom themes will be for your space.

Group of Young Students Studying together, High View

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What do you want to achieve with your classroom layout?

When someone walks into your classroom, the first thing they notice is how things are laid out and the executed vision of your classroom decorations. It’s an easy way to quickly (and visually) display your teaching style, expectations of student participation, and teaching philosophy.

You may not get to choose your actual classroom, but you do have the option of optimizing it as much as possible for what you want to achieve within those walls. While a lot of teachers spend hours (and dollars) doing this, there are also many creative ways to achieve the look you want without spending too much.

If you plan to embrace student-centered learning, as you should if you want your students to achieve at the highest possible level, then I would start by looking into a good flexible seating option.

students huddled around one another, working on a project

If students are working on an assignment where they need to collaborate, there has to be an option to do so efficiently. If they need to work on something independently, is there a way for them to do that in a physical position that is optimal? What about if you need to work with a small group on a topic while the other students are working…is there space for that?

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These are questions to ask for any grade level, not just elementary. I would go as far as to argue that it is even more important to have concrete answers to these questions at the high school level than any other one.

In “A Passion for Progress: Being a Rock Star Teacher in a Stressed-Out World”, there is actually an extensive discussion of a great way to take the dimensions, furniture, etc. in your classroom and work them digitally on a computer until you have something that seems like it will work.

This takes away the labor-intensive option of taking too much time just moving items around your room until you find something that fits. You’re exhausted as it is trying to prepare for your students. Don’t expel more energy than you have to!

The Research Behind Classroom Seating

Believe it or not, a lot of extensive research has been done over the past several decades to determine if the layout of a classroom and good classroom themes truly make a difference in student learning. From creating a calming effect to adapting a color scheme with a fun classroom theme, there’s no wrong way to do this…it just needs to fit in with today’s Generation Z and Generation Alpha students.

A lot has to do with the classroom space itself. When the concept of the traditional classroom was created, with rows of seating where everything was done as if in an assembly line, we were an industrial society, preparing our students for the assembly line.


We aren’t doing that anymore. We are doing our students such a disservice if we do. Remember, the world that awaits them is not the same world that awaited us, so the best ways to function in the classroom for them are drastically different.

In 2011, Amanda Careena Fernandes, M.ed., Jinyan Huang, Ph.D., and Vince Rinaldo, Ph.D. of Niagra University studied seating arrangements and their effect on student achievement. You can read the results of the study here. After their study they concluded:

The classroom environment is a very diverse and highly dynamic setting. Teacher perceptions about students are often influenced by the conditions which are presented to them. One of the most obvious and constant factors is that of seating location. In turn, students’ seating locations are greatly affected by the seating arrangements provided to them.

Fernandes, A. C., Huang, J., & Rinaldo, V. (2011). Does where a student sits really matter? The impact of seating locations on student classroom learning. International Journal of Applied Educational Studies, 10(1), 66-77.

They legitimately proved that student achievement is directly affected by an efficient, well-thought-out classroom layout, classroom organization, and creative ideas to execute classroom rules.

Even more recently in 2016, Mariola C. Gremmen, Yvonne H. M. van den Berg, Eliane Segers, and Antonius H. N. Cillessen completed a study titled, “Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs“.

This article focused heavily on classroom management and the effect a seating arrangement has on student achievement and students’ attention.

This article is amazing because it takes into account all the different factors and variables in play for our classrooms on a daily basis…factors that weren’t issues when our predecessors were in the classroom.

They compiled all the data they found with these factors in mind and concluded that:

“Using more well-considered seating arrangements can improve students’ behavior and learning. It can thus be concluded that teachers need to become more conscious about seating arrangements as an important part of classroom management. Teachers need to be informed about the possible preventive and intervening effects of a seating arrangement on students’ academic and social behaviors. It can be a helpful tool for teachers, who have the difficult task to place all students in the classroom. In addition, it can help teachers in achieving the goals they have to achieve within their education nowadays.”

Gremmen, M. C., van den Berg, Y. H., Segers, E., & Cillessen, A. H. (2016). Considerations for classroom seating arrangements and the role of teacher characteristics and beliefs. Social Psychology of Education, 19(4), 749-774.

Educational researchers are now taking note of what classroom teachers are saying (often exasperated) about the needs of our classrooms and what we have to work with. It doesn’t take much to find a blog post or podcast (or even just a conversation) to know the struggles.

And they’re agreeing with us through research and careful observation.

Designing Your Classroom Layout

As fantastic as it would be to have some type of formula to know exactly what your individual classroom needs, it’s just not plausible.

Every single class that walks into our rooms is unique. You know how different the dynamic of students can be from one class to the next. Our rooms, classroom decoration ideas, and even our bulletin board borders need to reflect that.

On that note, here are some ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Students need to move. There is so much research about why our students today need more movement in the classroom than generations before them (and it’s a bit alarming, to be honest). We need to make sure we consider that when coming up with a classroom design (and yes, that includes every grade level).
  2. No two students learn the same way. Think of yourself. You may work well sitting at a desk…or you may work better sitting on your couch. Our students are no different. Consider looking into some inexpensive flexible seating options to help facilitate this (ad) when designing your classroom decor theme.
  3. You may not get it quite right the first time…and that’s okay! I can’t tell you how many times I think I’ve gotten my classroom layout perfect for the first day of school, and then I realize that it’s just not quite right for my students. Tweak as you go!
  4. If you’re still struggling to wrap your head around this, feel free to check out A Passion for Progress: Becoming a 100% Student-Centered Educator. It will guide you, step-by-step, through this entire process.

Actual Classroom Examples and Classroom Theme Ideas

Throughout the summer of 2019 and 2020, we showcased various teacher classrooms from all over the world. Each of them was unique in their own way, and yet all encompassed the same ideas behind doing what is best for their students. Below are each classroom and the rationale of each teacher behind why they chose to customize their classroom layout as they did.

Amy Skillicorn: Latin Classroom Transformation

Classroom with 4 desks creating a table, photo of the Colosseum being projected, and several lights that look like candles

Amy Skillicorn is no stranger when it comes to a good classroom transformation. As a matter of fact, on her website, she has an entire section devoted to the topic and what she’s done in her classroom! Make sure you check it out here.

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

When I prepare a classroom transformation, my favorite desk setup is with 2-3 desks lined up together pushed against the wall. This way, the students can work effectively in groups without becoming distracted. 

desks against the wall with Latin blue and gold backdrop on wall

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I did not like what I had originally planned for my January Pirates Classroom Transformation, and so I asked a colleague his thoughts. He shared that during History DBQ Labs, he sets up his desks in this way, and so I tried it out. It was a complete success! I love that it creates so much free space!

Desks and chairs set up in table arrangements with large banner that reads "Pirates of the Mediterranean"

What is your favorite part of your design?

The atmosphere of the room is everything. When you walk into one of these setups, there is peace afforded by the empty space and group workstations. While the students know they are about to use their brain and everything they have ever learned in my class for 50 minutes straight, the setup makes them excited to do it!

Desks and chairs set up as tables with pictures and symbols of Latin displayed

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

Classroom transformations are the most joyful days for both my students and for me as a teacher. I try to complete a new classroom transformation every month, and I always include several WOW factors. Latin can be so tedious as a subject; I love creating experiential learning whenever possible! I think what students love most about this particular design (What I call “grammar labs”, in which the desks are in lines 2-3 desks wide against the wall) is that there is a balance of excitement and productivity.

In an everyday classroom, it’s hard to get students excited without them becoming distracted and it’s hard to get them productive in a way that makes them excited. What this classroom transformation setup allows is students to experience a new atmosphere that has a built-in wow factor (the decorations and prizes) while they are working productively with their peers. 

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

My biggest advice is to watch what other out-of-the-box teachers are doing. I watched 12 other teachers this year, in classrooms for students aged 5-15, and I walked out of every observation with new ideas!

Desks and chairs set up as tables with pictures and symbols of Latin displayed
Desks and chairs set up as tables with pictures and symbols of Latin displayed

For more inspiration, make sure you check out Amy’s Classroom Transformation Photo Gallery

Nicole Sendens: Camping Themed Classroom

Nicole Sendens wanted her students to enjoy the great outdoors while in school and she knocked it out of the park with her camping-themed classroom! Check out her design below:

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

I had 33 students in the class which gave me two rooms. In one room I had all the desks and a meeting area near our Camper Cafe board for reading mini-lessons. In the second room, I had floor space, a tent, camping chairs, floor seats, pillows, a fake fireplace, a couch, a writing center, and some tables that were set up at all different heights. Since I had two classrooms I could intermix desk time and flexible seating time with a lot of different options for my students.

camping set up with faux campfire, camping chair, and small tent with rope lighting

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I love to camp and I wanted to provide my students with a unique classroom, one that they would love to come to school to. I also liked having desks in one room for testing purposes and independent work time. Also, I loved the different meeting areas I had within the room. I had small group meeting areas and whole group areas. My students also loved the classroom and they made it their own.

What is your favorite part of your design?

I was able to incorporate things I love into my room. I love to camp, hike, and fish, so bringing a bit of my passion into the room and sharing it with my students made it that much more meaningful. The flexible seating, desk areas, and meeting areas all had a spot and a unique purpose. My students would move among these places each day and we knew exactly where they had to be at each part of the day. Plus it allowed all 34 of us to spread out which was needed.

Classroom boards in nature decor

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

My students loved the camping-themed classroom because they have never seen anything like it. They would brag about it to other classes/grades. They took ownership of the room and invested themselves too. Since they enjoyed the environment and I was able to share my passions with them, they felt safe there. My students and I created a great relationship that helped them grow tremendously throughout the school year. They made amazing gains. I had to move away from those sweet students of mine but they enjoyed my class so much that quite a few still write to me.

Bulletin board for student names labeled "campers"

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

Before designing your classroom, ask yourself a series of questions.

1. How can I make this feel like a fun, inviting, and safe environment?

2. Does everything I want serve a purpose or is it all just fluff?

3. How can I maximize the space in my room to make it efficient? 

4. How can I make this room easy to manage and stay organized?

5. Where/How do I want small group meetings, large group meetings, independent time, and student-led group time to look like?

Krystal Nelson: Pizza Fractions

After learning about fractions, Krystal Nelson transformed her classroom into a pizza paradise! Her pizza fractions idea came to life when she changed her classroom into a pizza shop for her first graders. Check it out as one of our classroom design spotlights.

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

This classroom setup was a room transformation that I did in my first-grade class. My room still had a similar layout to what it usually did with flexible seating options, but I transformed it to look like a pizzeria! We called our classroom the First Grade Café. Students had checkered table cloths, aprons of their own, even pizzas hanging from the ceiling! It truly looked like an Italian pizzeria complete with Italian music playing in the background.

classroom designed to look like a pizzeria

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup

I chose this room transformation because it was the end of the year and I love to switch up our room close to the end of the year to keep student engagement and to make the end of the year exciting! Plus, my students were practicing a lot with fractions and I wanted to incorporate the pizzas from our Italian pizzeria to help them practice fractions during this week. 

What is your favorite part of your design?

I loved this entire design and room transformation. I think my favorite part was just seeing the students get so excited to learn during the week when my room was transformed. They were so engaged and excited. I also loved all of the activities we were able to do. We made pizza fractions, we made noodles to practice adjectives, we created our own restaurants, practiced with money and SO much more! 

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

When transforming your classroom you may think that students will be so excited that there may be behavior issues. The students were so engaged with the lessons and environment, that we had one of our BEST and easiest weeks as far as behavior goes. It surprised me that even though our room was different and their environment changed, the students were so engaged you wouldn’t even know! It was amazing! 

Little girl holding pizza box with apron and chef hat

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

I would say to enjoy it! This room transformation was so much fun for the students, but I also had a blast during this week. Embrace it, enjoy it, have fun! 

Stephanie Lazarevski

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

I teach in a brand new school that opened in September 2019. Our school is new and modern; therefore, we don’t have desks and can’t post things on the wall. We have tables that encourage collaboration and modern learning. My room is set up to do this, while also having space to work on the floor if needed.

My tables are also set up so that every student has access to all learning materials and can clearly view the whiteboard or bulletin boards. Since we weren’t allowed to post things on the wall I post only items that students need for their learning at the time. I view my classroom as the second teacher, so students can use materials, examples, and students’ work samples to learn from.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I wanted a welcoming space where students can work together or learn for themselves. I also wanted it to be a place where families can come in and interact with their children. See the photo above.

What is your favorite part of your design?

It’s not the regular classroom with desks. It allows for me and my students to learn and teach in ways that can’t happen in a regular classroom with desks.

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

They loved always being able to sit in groups I was surprised that they struggled with not having a desk to put stuff into at the start. It really forced them to be more organized and bring only what they need to each class.

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

You and your students don’t need as much as you think they need. They need space to work with you, their peers, and their families. If my 6/7 can thrive with no desks and a couple of bulletin boards, you don’t need a space that is overstimulating.

Stephanie Lazarevski is a grade 6/7 art teacher in Ontario, Canada. You can follow her on Instagram @the.crafty.teacher.

Alexandra Brady

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

In my physical classroom, I have two long tables consisting of 12 to 13 desks. At the long table, students are broken up into smaller groups of 4-5 students. Each student has a letter that corresponds to the job that they have in their group for that day. Some jobs include rubric monitor, work recorder, fact-checker, and vocab checker.

On the walls, you’ll see a word wall, concept board, shout-out wall, and a class charter. You’ll also see student work and the rubric my school follows for student work. There is a kidney table for small group work and conferences and a centers area with games and activities organized by standard domain.

There is an early finisher folder on the wall that contains math challenges for students to complete. Table rallies are posted on the board by class and table. Tickets are all over for students to earn for various reasons.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I like the community feel of it. Students can ask other tables if their table is struggling. I also like teaching my model with students in the middle of the room on the floor. I call it the “meeting area” and it has really eliminated distractions when I’m teaching!

What is your favorite part of your design?

My favorite part is the accessibility to manipulatives (In the middle of the room) and the community feel. Students have each other to work with and learn together.

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

They worked really well together and understood expectations which were nice. I like having them learn at the meeting area when it’s time for the model because they can engage more with me and have an assigned partner to talk to when it is time.

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

Definitely give students the chance to collaborate if you can! Also, kids are never too old for a meeting area in the middle of the room. My suggestion is to get as many cushions as you can!

Alexandra Brady is a grade 4/5 math teacher in New York. You can follow her on Instagram @techaboutmath.

Katie Fields

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

We are a 100% flexible seating classroom. Collaboration and movement are the foundation of our learning space for both teachers and students. Utilizing tables instead of traditional desks allowed for student interaction and discussion.

All unused materials were removed from the classroom so that we were able to have as much space as possible for learning. If we needed to drag out math manipulatives to work through problems, we did it. If we needed indoor yoga for PE, we did it. When we needed to get into book clubs, we spread out through the room.

Most of our tables were dry erase top so students had the opportunity to work through their thinking right in front of them. Placing the tables around the edge of the room gave us an open space in the middle for small group work, floor seating when students felt comfortable and a spot for class meetings where all students could sit and see each other.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I believe that flexible seating leads to increased student work, engagement, and success. Flexible seating options allow students to make choices in the classroom to decide what type of learning environment fits them best.

Having a variety of seating options involves them in the classroom decision-making process, fostering skills of independence, and good choices regarding learning. They will feel safe to take risks and improve their skills in all subject areas, both academically and socially.

What is your favorite part of your design?

My favorite part of our classroom design is the open and uncluttered space created by the tables. I never imagined that removing the desks would free up so much space.

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

My students loved to come to class. As the days went by they truly saw our classroom as their own. Room 216 became more than a classroom, it became a home. Somewhere that risks were taken, encouragement flourished and students shined.

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

Make your classroom about your students. Give them a place to identify with, to feel comfortable in, and feel that they have a voice. Try new things and know that they may work and they may not. The risk is worth taking for your students.

Katie Fields is a 5th-grade self-contained teacher in California. You can follow her on Instagram @lilbug13.

Jeysel Vento

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

In design, it is a modern farmhouse feel. There are desks that are grouped together to make the appearance of tables and gives the ability for each pod to collaborate. We can quickly move the desks around if the activity warrants it and it creates a flexible feel.

There are also elements of flexible seating in various places within the room.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I wanted my classroom to feel like home. The decor naturally gives a home-like atmosphere and the way the students are located creates a sense of community within the classroom.

What is your favorite part of your design?

My reading nook. It was such an easy idea to come up with but is definitely outside-of-the-box when it comes to classroom decor. It helps add to the ambiance of the home-like feel that I go for within my room.

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

My students couldn’t believe there was a ”bunk bed” in our classroom. They work extremely hard to earn a turn to visit the book nook. This helps so much with classroom management, student participation, and work ethic within the room.

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

Think big! Creativity has no limits. You’ll be surprised what you can create from nothing. Also, it takes time to build your dream classroom. You’ll collect things throughout the year.

Also, the Facebook marketplace and offer-up are GREAT tools to find things for your classrooms. Many sellers are extra kind to teachers, after explaining what I’d be using the items for they’ll often lower the cost.

Jeysel Vento is a 3rd-grade ELA teacher in Florida. You can follow her on Instagram @teach_and_uplift.

Jaclyn Hariri

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

My classroom set-up is unique in the sense of my room’s layout. The room used to be the old computer lab back in the day. Next, it was split into two rooms and finally, it was turned into one room when it was given to me. I coach speech and debate so the large room has been helpful for my performers.

It’s longer than it is wide so I can only set up the desks a number of ways, but the extra space has been great for collaboration, movement, and creativity. The student’s desk is set up into groups of four and is closer to the front of the room. My back area is open with a couch area and additional space for working on projects.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I love it when students are able to work in groups. Collaboration is a huge component of my lessons and student class time. Groups also work best for the layout of the room. it allows me to move freely throughout the classroom when I’m speaking or reach a student more easily. This layout also works best for my AVID and Speech & Debate classes. These classes work together in groups a lot.

What is your favorite part of your design?

I love the little college corner that I have been working on the last year. It’s also a place students can use for collaboration assignments and projects. I use it for silent reading sessions or during literature circles as well. I also love this area because it’s such a safe place for my students to sit when they need to calm down or have a tough day at school.

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

I was surprised by how effective the couches and pillows were to help my students deal with anxiety and feel more secure. It’s been a great safe space for my students for the last two years. I was also surprised by how excited my students have been when they see me put up their work on the wall. They love pointing out work and when parents come to visit the classroom, that’s the first thing they want to point out to them.

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

First, always ask for help. Use your community of friends and family. I’m not a crafty person a lot, but I have family and close friends who are always willing to help me bring my visions to light or help me hang out stuff.

Second, gather information online to get inspire! Pinterest, Instagram, and teacher articles have helped me so much come up with fun ideas to add to my classroom design. Teacher pay teachers has been wonderful as well! There are some super creative and cute posters to check out!

Also, don’t be shy and visit your co-worker’s classrooms. Some of my favorite elements I have added to my classroom where from co-workers’ rooms! We are part of such a helpful, caring, and creative community of teachers! Use them! Lastly, trust your gut. Don’t try to become to next big “Intsa-Teacher.” “You do, you boo!” Trust yourself and create a classroom that makes you happy and comfortable because students feel that when they walk in.

Decorations only do so much for the climate of a classroom. Teachers are what matters most when it comes to the design of the room. I remember I had a student tell me that they love my classroom, not because of the colorful posters or awesome couches but because of the light and energy I provided as a teacher. Decoration will all do so much, so trust your gut, and don’t forget you’re the key to how students feel in the room.

Jaclyn Hariri is an 8th Grade ELA, 6th Grade AVID and 6th-8th Speech & Debate Team in California. You can follow her on Instagram @jaclyn_hariri.

Matthew Kulasiewicz

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

My room has desks in rows that can easily be moved around for group work or station work.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

I’ve been a middle school teacher for 21 years now and found that for me, starting out class with everyone facing the same direction alleviates the time lost getting students’ eyes to be focusing on what I want them to focus on. Plus, I’ve had many students in wheelchairs over the years and this made getting into class so much easier for them. Like I mentioned, we can get the room rearranged in a different configuration in two minutes for activities.

What is your favorite part of your design?

My favorite part of my design is the 12-foot long rustic standing workstation I built for our classroom a few years ago. Desks and chairs aren’t always the most forgiving for the growing bodies of my students and this has given them a way to work and stretch out a bit.

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

Last year I built a two-person tall table with wooden stools that is in the back of my classroom. I thought it would be fun to experiment and see if students would want to sign up for a day to sit at the table with a friend if their choice. Every single hour of every single day the first question I get it, “Mr. K, who had the table today?” 🙂

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

The best advice I can give about setting up your classroom is that what you have on your walls, the borders of your bulletin boards, or whatever Pinterest/Instagram deluxe room you see that you wish your had will not ever come close to meaning as much as the connection you make with the students you see.

That being said, make your room work for you. My desks start out in rows, which to some may seem old-fashioned, but it works for me and the way I do things with my students. As far as room decorations go… I only add something to my room decor if I can use it as a conversation starter with a student. Think about them first and the rest will fall into place and you’ll find what works for you.

Matthew Kulasiewicz is an 8th-grade US History teacher in Wisconsin. You can follow him on Instagram @survivingsocialstudies.

Mikaelah Cash

Describe your classroom setup and classroom theme ideas:

I have a mat space with stars for students to sit on as last year I struggled to get students to sit in the right area, this removes the “option” for them to sit behind desks, etc. I have a bug double whiteboard with storage behind it and under it which is really handy.

Then there’s a little whiteboard in front of my mat space and a library area that has double-sided storage so one side books for the students and the other I keep things like resource books and colored paper. All of our classrooms also come with a tv screen and Chromecast but I’m also lucky to be the only classroom with a projector screen as well which I prefer over the tv!

We have collaborative learning furniture and I’m currently trialing letting students choose their seats each day. I have an area for students to hand in work or collect marked work as well as keep work that isn’t completed. Students use tote trays to keep their personal items in but their books go in subject boxes under the big whiteboard.

Why did you choose this particular classroom setup?

In New Zealand we don’t get a choice in classroom furniture it just comes with the room and stays with the room. When I arrived at my school to set up my room I had a lot of random bits of furniture that didn’t seem to go together.

I struggled all of my first year to figure out a good layout and then finally over the summer break I found a layout I love. I don’t think I’ll ever change it now! It flows well, I can see all the students easily enough from all areas of the room, and they’re split so students have the option of working in a smaller or bigger group.

What is your favorite part of your design?

I love all the bright colours, the fabric on the walls, the displays, and carpet spots. It makes the room feel bright and welcoming. I also really like my projector and all the storage!

Did anything surprise you about how your students reacted to your classroom setup (behavior, enjoyment, etc.)?

My students from last year have come to visit and they were really amazed when they saw the different layouts. My students have told me how much they love our classroom and the bright colours which makes me so happy!

What is the biggest piece of design advice you can provide for someone who is just starting to think “outside of the box” in terms of classroom design and classroom theme ideas?

Sometimes it can be really hard to work with what you’ve got! And moving furniture can take a lot of time and energy. It’s a good idea to draw up your classroom to scale with pieces of paper that are your movable furniture so you can play around with different layouts before you actually move your furniture! It’ll save you a lot of time and effort. Also, teaching Instagram pages have some really valuable tips and ideas!

Mikaelah Cash is a year 5 teacher in New Zealand. You can follow her on Instagram @teachinginchaosandharmony.

Student-Centered World Podcast Transcript

Below is the transcript for the Student-Centered World Podcast Episode 46: “The Student-Centered Classroom”

So, we’re going to start off by looking at the five characteristics of student-centered learning. And basically, that means, how do you know if something is truly student-centered? So, you might do an activity and you might think this is great, they’re on their own but is it truly student-centered learning or is it the kids are just working on something? There is a really distinct difference.

Just because students are working without guidance or direct instruction from the teacher does not mean that it’s student-centered, and I can’t harp on that enough. Again, a lot of the articles and stuff that I have read, that kind of said student-centered learning, it’s not good. They think that this misconstrued notion of what it is how it goes, and it is not. So, the first piece of it is that there is a high degree of student engagement and the keyword here is engagement. 

So, people often say, well, if they’re sitting there, and they’re doing work, how in the world would that not be engagement? I always say, think about it as if you’re reading a book. Okay, everybody is reading. But sometimes your mind gets a little bit distracted, and it goes off and you know, thinks about something, next thing you know, you got to go back and reread what you did.

Okay, you read it okay, but you didn’t understand it. You didn’t remember it, you had to go back and do it again. So, were you reading? Yes. But were you reading with engagement? No. Okay. But we’ve all been there where we’re reading something, and we get absolutely lost in it, we see ourselves in that scene, we can picture it happening, and you’re really, really engaged in that book.

So that’s the difference if you want to think of it in those terms. Are they just going through the motions? Or are they really immersing themselves in what they’re doing? All right, and that does not have to look the same for every student. 

So, this is something that makes people take a step back and say, well, I don’t really understand what that means. Okay, the first idea is that it’s really an outdated concept in this day and age, that everybody should be learning the same thing in the same way. We know that there are different learning styles out there. So, what might work well, for one person isn’t going to work the same way for another one.

But we know they all have to get the same information and if you kind of think about it, we’re told all the time as teachers that we do need to differentiate. So, how could it be that we’re expected to teach everybody that same thing in the same way, if we’re also expected to differentiate for our different students, their learning styles, any special needs they might have, so on and so forth? So, when you think about it that way you need something that does that naturally, and student-centered learning actually differentiates naturally in your classroom? 

So, let me explain. Again, putting a thought out there. Think about if you’re trying to teach your students to dance. Okay, love this movie. What you have here are two students dancing but are they dancing the exact same way? No. Okay, you can’t say they’re both dancing, they understand that you have to go with the music, and there is a beat, and there’s movement, and this and that, but you have two very distinct ways of dancing here.

So, even though it’s not the same for everyone, they are still dancing. They still understand the concept of what it is that they need to be doing, and how to do it but it doesn’t look the same for each one of them. wrap your head around that for a second. Okay, and backing up, think about what it’s like grading. If you’re grading the same thing over and over again, it gets monotonous.

We’ve all been there but if you have all your students working on a concept and showing the different ways that they understand that concept, it’s never going to get boring for you because you’re going to be seeing different things that are maybe sparking your own interest in the subject in different ways that you didn’t think of. There’s a lot of learning that happens from your students to you, as well as your students learning from your lessons. 

Something else, not every student needs to be working on the same thing. This is another thing that people say, I don’t understand. I have a lesson plan I need to stick to it. Well, that’s a little bit about that differentiating. So, obviously, there’s a curriculum that you have to cover, every student needs to know, X, Y, and Z, okay. They have to have the baseline info to make sure that they are all on the same page. Now, what I would suggest, and I can get into this, later on, is flipping the classroom.

So, instead of the traditional idea where the students learn content in the classroom, and then they take home homework to reinforce it, the homework is learning that baseline information. So, learning the very basic idea of whatever the concept is, and then in class, you’re doing things to further their knowledge. A lot of data is saying that’s actually a better model because most of the time when students have questions about what they’ve learned, it’s when they’re home doing their homework and the teacher isn’t there. 

So, if they have questions, they bring them into class, and you can guide what goes on in the classroom-based off of those questions. Flipping the classroom is great. There’s a lot that goes into planning it out to make sure that it works. But again, that’s something that I could get into later. So, what they end up doing in the classroom, when they are all together, it should reflect their own learning style.

Okay, so you have visual learners, you have auditory learners, kinesthetic learners, we know the different types, you probably know right off the bat, what type of learner you are, okay, but you would come up with different activities that reinforce the material, but the students can choose from to figure out which one they can adapt to the best.

So, for instance, if a student has a really strong desire to build things, maybe you can come up with some type of activity for whatever the lesson might be, where they can be hands-on actually crafting something.

If they have an interest in it, and they know that it’s something that they excel at, they’re going to dive into the project a little bit more, dive into that assignment. They’re going to have a stronger level of engagement, if then if it’s something that they really have no interest in doing. With that, a student should always be able to tell you why they’re doing what they’re doing.

This is a little bit tricky, okay. A lot of times as teachers, we sit back, and we come up with these lessons, and we say, Oh, this is going to be amazing and they’re going to love this, and they’re going to do it, and it’s going to be great, and they’re going to learn what they need to. But was there enough lead into it that the students get, okay, this is why we’re doing this. 

All right, this is really key and for a number of reasons. Number one, you know that the outcomes are going to be appropriate for your students. Number two, it’s great if you get observed just kind of throwing that out there. I don’t know about you guys, but I know every time that I have been observed, the supervisor has walked around and sort of asking the kids what are you doing right now? What are you learning? When they know exactly what they’re doing, it’s it really shows well for you and reflects back well.

So, a student should be able to say, you know, I’m working on this Edpuzzle right now, because I didn’t have a chance to finish it for homework so I’m finishing it now because then I’ll be able to do the scavenger hunt activity that is planned and I’ll understand the different points that are being needed in that, or we’re currently building structures with toothpicks and Play-Doh trying to show different columns and pillars to display how difficult Renaissance architecture was to design. 

It might seem like, oh, my goodness, you know, obviously, those are higher-level answers for older students, younger students would be able to do it on their own terms. But they want to be able to say, okay, we’re doing this for a purpose, not we’re just doing this because. So, you want to make sure that they, in fact, can do that. Okay, and on with that, there should always be movement in the classroom. Now, obviously, this GIF here is ridiculous, but I saw it and it made me laugh. So, I felt the need to put it in here.

But gone are the days where we are in an industrial model. So, when education first began, it was to teach students how to become citizens. Okay, so you had rows of desks where they would sit down and they would be quiet for the whole time they were there and they would do exactly what they were told in the exact way that they were told, and there wasn’t a question of it. We’re not in an industrial society anymore. So, trying to teach them the ways that worked for that society doesn’t really pan out anymore. 

So, moving around, being able to get up and move to a different spot in the classroom. If you want to sit awesome if you want to stand and do your work great but having a variety of ways for the students to be comfortable in doing their work will have way better benefits for what they end up giving to you. I explained this concept at back-to-school night, one night, and the parents came in and I had yoga balls and pillows and regular desks and tables, and everything all set up.

I explained to them, they come in and they sign up where they want to go, depending on the activity that we’re doing, and they get themselves situated and the work that I’m getting from them is so much better because they’re comfortable. Personally, if I’m working on something generally I’m sitting back but my legs are straight out like on a couch or whatever. That’s where I work best.

My husband has to sit at a desk and that’s fine. But we work in very, very different ways and neither one of us is as productive if we are doing what the other one is doing, that they’re more comfortable. The one mom had a complete revelation. When I said that she goes, you know, every day when I get to work, I get my cup of coffee and I get settled in the seat. I turn on my radio station and I get myself together and then I can get started.

She goes if I have to do that as an adult, I can only imagine that they need to do that as kids when they’re still learning how to function like that. It made me really happy because that was exactly the purpose of being able to have the movement and move around. Honestly, you will get better results from your students if they’re in a more comfortable environment than if they are uncomfortable in what they are doing. 

Then lastly, the teacher is the biggest reference material in the room. So, another notion about student-centered learning, which actually will segue nicely into what we’re going into next is that the teacher kicks back and can just hang out while the students do all the work. That’s absolutely not the case whatsoever. So, the teacher’s job in a student-centered classroom is to be facilitating.

So, there’s a lot of work on the back end to make sure that you have the activities ready, and you know where your students are, so you can guide them on where they should be going. You’re judging how long things should take and if some students finished quickly what else can they do to extend their learning, so on and so forth. All that is with constant monitoring of your classroom. 

So, whether you have mastery guides, or you’re following online data as they’re completing assignments, you’re always aware of where your students are in the classroom. So, even though it might look like you’re sitting at your computer, you could be analyzing data. With that data, you’re determining where this class is going to go. So, if they get really, really into an assignment and they’re going to need more time to do it, right, you’re going to automatically adjust to create the time.

Deadlines, even though sometimes they need to be firm, obviously, because we all have a curriculum to get through, can you wiggle it a little bit to give them more time on this thing that they’re really, really engaged in, and work it out differently later on. You’re literally structuring everything that you’re doing based on what you’re seeing. If they’re not engaging in the activities that you have come up with something that they will, in fact, engage in. 

Maybe it just needs to be tweaked a little bit or explained in a different way or maybe they should actually be working in small groups. You have to try to gauge your students to figure out what’s going to work belt work, you know, best with them. If you’re not analyzing data, you should be mixed in with your students, sitting down with them at their desks or on the floor or wherever, and kind of asking them questions.

As they ask you questions, you should be responding with questions or guiding them to answers as opposed to just giving them to them. Because the harder they work for it, the more they’re going to understand it, and the more they’re going to remember it. That’s what we want to make sure that we’re doing in our classrooms is making sure that our students remember what they’re doing as opposed to cramming it, which is what a teacher-led classroom often lends itself to. You should also always be available. 

So, even if you are working with a group or if you’re following up the data and trying to figure that out, you should really know what’s going on. I always had help boards on my walls. So, if I was working, a kid could write their name, that they need assistance with something if the people that they’re working with or around weren’t sure. That way I knew, Okay, next, I need to go over to them to make sure that they’re on the page that they need to be on.

A lot of times, they just need confidence that they know where they are. So, you’re always available no matter where you are and you’re really still the biggest reference. So, even though you’re not telling them what they need to know, you’re still guiding them to find out what it is that they need. 

That, as I said, leads to some common myths of student-centered learning. So, obviously, that the teacher kicks back and does nothing is one of them, which obviously is not true. A lot of work, to prep for the course. But again, once you have it set, you don’t have to necessarily reinvent the wheel, you can kind of just tweak it and go, as future classes come forward based on the students that you had.

But the first one that I always get is, this won’t work for my students. You always have somebody that says, oh, no, this will never work, they need structure, and they need to sit, and they need to be quiet and this, that, and the other thing. All the data right now is showing that we’re working in the classrooms with Generation Z. So, the millennials are gone, and we have Generation Z, and they are very engaged and hands-on, and tech-savvy. 

So, if a kid wants to know something now they go right to YouTube, and they can find it out in three minutes and they know their answer and they can move on or they can find out more. We need to make sure in our classrooms, we’re matching what their natural learning is. So, going with a model that worked for people who had 20-minute attention spans back in the day is not going to work.

Now when the average attention span is like seven or eight seconds. That’s a big, big difference and we need to make sure that if we’re teaching them the best way possible, we’re doing what works. Now with this, okay, number one, I’m going to tell you right now there will always be that kid. Okay, there’s always going to be that one all year long you’re trying to unlock, and sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t.

So, you can’t say that this method obviously isn’t working, because Bobby over there, he’s just… Well, Bobby’s like that for everybody. So, if you can get through to him, awesome. 

I’ve been able personally to get through to some students that nobody’s ever been able to work with because of the method here and being able to talk with them one on one when they’re doing stuff and finding out what they like, and creating assignments that appeal to them. But don’t throw it all out because there’s that kid. Also, there’s always going to be pushback in the beginning when you first start this, especially if they’re not used to student-centered learning in general.

At first, they think it’s great and then they realize they’ve got to do the work in order to understand the information to get what they need to move from Part A to part B, and you get a little bit of pushback of, she doesn’t even teach. We don’t do anything, we always have to be doing stuff and dah, dah, dah. I always laugh when that happens, because I know it’s coming. But then all of a sudden, you just start seeing a tipping point where like, another kid gets it and buys in, and then another kid gets it buys in.

By the end, again, you might have a couple of you know, those kids around, but most of them get it and they really appreciate and get it especially if you keep up with it. 

Looking at demographics. This study here was done by Stanford which is pretty great. I would suggest looking up the article, if you’re interested, it’s very fascinating. But it shows that student-centered learning helps close the opportunity gap. We know as educators, that’s something that we really want. We want all of our students to be on the same page. But often, that’s not the case, just because of varying external circumstances that we can’t control in our classrooms.

But by doing this, and engaging each and every student and not letting them slip through the cracks, and sleep in the back of the classroom, because they can, it really helps encourage them to get hands-on into what I like to call learn by accident. That is huge, with the reason that we’re all teachers, and we all want to be able to accomplish. So, it really does work for your kids and it will and might take a little bit of adjusting, it might take a little bit of training but once they’re in it like they’re in it to win it. 

I enjoy this one too and these cats also cracked me up. The students will learn as much this way it’s all for show. If I’m not telling them exactly what they need to know, then how are they going to know it? I understand why that might be a mentality because you are the expert in the room, you know, the information, you’re in the field. You have a degree in being able to teach that but being the sage on the stage is not going to get through to every single kid.

We’re not in that generation anymore.

You can’t talk at them for however long and expect it all to sink in and then to understand it. They might get it, they might remember it, they might cram it, but do they really understand it? You don’t understand unless you do. You can read everything there is to read about riding a bike but that doesn’t mean when you get on the bike, you’re going to be able to ride it. You have to practice it, and you have to do it and you have to put all of the things that you’ve learned into practice in order to be able to finally ride that bike. 

By giving the students choice, it piques their interests, and they become more engaged without realizing it. My favorite is I’ve had in some of my lower-level classes, knockdown drag-out arguments between kids over content, and their interpretation of it because they were learning by accident and they were engaging themselves in it. It’s mind-blowing kids that other teachers walk by and ooh, man, you have them, good luck.

Really getting into the material because of how it was presented to them and it never had been before. To go with that, just some feedback that I’ve gotten before from some of my students. This one, I actually almost cried when she said it to me. But we were getting ready for exams and she said, for the first time ever, when it was exam time, I wasn’t nervous at all. I already knew I knew the information. It was incredible. 

They sit back and they say I’ve learned more in this class than I ever have in a class before because they’re engaged in it. They’re not just being told what they need to know. They’re learning it on their own. Then another student said to me, once your method of instruction is brilliant. They had never experienced it before. They went through that adjustment phase, they gave it a shot, and they realized this is the real deal. This is how it goes and that’s again, just absolutely huge. 

Then the last one, and we’ve already touched on this for a minute, I don’t have time to learn a new method of instruction. Some of us might have just graduated from college and you know what you know and you’re just trying to stay above water. Some people are more seasoned, and retirement is on the horizon. We just don’t have time with all of the paperwork and the lesson planning and the classroom management and all of that.

We just don’t have time to do this and I absolutely get it. Nobody has time for anything and who wants to try to figure out something new, that might not work. Who wants to take the time to have something just not work itself out, I took that time and it legitimately took me five years, five years to finally find a method that worked.

Again, there’s nothing out there that says this is how a student-centered classroom should be. It says students should be doing things on their own but there’s not a lot that says try this and try this, and try this, and do it this way, and do it this way, and do it this way. So, for five years, five years, I tried it out before I figured it out and found a system that works consistently, as much as it possibly can, all the time.

But you don’t have to learn it like I was forced to.  I imagine that in itself, is why Student-Centered World exists.

I’m so passionate about this method of instruction and that I wanted to go out there and make sure that other people had the opportunity to learn how to do this in a manner that they can implement right away to know there’s a 99% chance it’s going to work out. With a tweak, it’ll definitely work,  everybody’s classroom is different but it’s going to work out and I really wanted to put it out there so other people can do this because I believe so much in it. 

So, thank you guys, for all coming out. I hope you learned a little bit of something, and it’s got your wheels turning and you’re ready to sort of jump in and switch the model into a fully student-centered classroom. Anytime you have any questions, We’d be more than happy to talk to you.

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This article was originally published on January 30, 2020

After moving from a teacher-dominated classroom to a truly student-centered one, Jenn found herself helping colleagues who wanted to follow her lead.  In 2018 she decided to expand outside of her school walls and help those out there who were also trying to figure out this fantastic method of instruction to ignite intrinsic motivation in their students.  Read more about her journey with Student-Centered World at

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Student-Centered World