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7 Essential Elements Every Elementary Classroom Needs

Friday, July 28, 2017 -- McKenna Wierman

When it comes to the elementary classroom, it seems like every teacher has blogged, pinned, tweeted, and posted about their no-fail organizational lifesavers, foolproof filing systems, and picture-perfect classroom layouts.

But, just like every teacher is different and every group of students is different, every classroom has different needs too. Organizing the modern elementary classroom isn’t always as simple as slapping some cute printables on plastic shoeboxes and throwing them on a bookshelf. The 21st century elementary classroom is more dynamic than that.

Before you head back to school to unpack your boxes and gear up for the new school year, consider these seven key elements that every elementary classroom needs to have to be successful.

Classroom Library

A classroom library is a must-have in any elementary school classroom. Not only do classroom libraries encourage literacy and reading for pleasure, they also provide a kind of haven for students who need a little break from class without leaving the classroom.

Classroom libraries should feel cozy and safe for students, with comfortable seating so that students can stay focused on what they’re reading. Some teachers like to go all out and incorporate different themes to deck out their libraries, but if you feel like your classroom library decor could become a distraction, opt for a more traditional book-nook vibe. Use a soft (but easy-to-clean) carpet or rug to define your library space, and provide a little padding for students if they need to get on their hands and knees to browse the bottom shelves. Toss some comfy throw pillows or plush chairs in to make the area more reader-friendly.

As for placing your classroom library, try to position it somewhere that lots of natural light reaches, with shelves positioned so that students can browse the books without getting in the way of other students and without feeling rushed to pick out a book. If you can’t fit your library near a window, be sure to include some floor or table lamps in the area so that your little bookworms have light to read.

Learning Centers

Learning centers are a great way to get your classroom up and moving during the school day, and they provide a more hands-on and personalized learning experience for your students. But, they can easily get a little messy. There are a million different ways to organize manipulatives, lessons, and materials when it comes to learning centers, so take time to find one that works for you. The key to keeping your learning centers neat and organized will be consistency.

Whether you decide to make a separate tub for every activity, stacked in neat plastic boxes, or prefer a method using modular drawers, make sure that you are using a consistent system to keep the areas organized. Chaos is guaranteed if your class must remember a different procedure for each area. After modeling and practicing the expectations for learning center setup, cleanup, and transitions, post them in each center to help students hold themselves accountable.

Flexible Seating

Flexible seating is one of the latest and most popular classroom organization trends. More and more educators are reducing (or, in some cases, eliminating) traditional seating in their classrooms to make room for seating stations students can choose themselves. These options allow for fidgeting, better focus, and more physical activity during the school day. Plus, flexible seating layouts can promote the kind of fluidity and adaptability a 21st century classroom needs.

Also, if it’s your first year of implementing flexible seating in your classroom, to make sure that you have a strategy for the first few days of school. With all of the chaos that comes with the first days and weeks of school, traditional seating might be a safe bet, allowing you time to explain classroom procedures for each new seating option.

Word Wall

Vocabulary lessons tend to illicit more than a few groans from students, but they’re important, and they don’t have to be painful. A word wall is staple feature when it comes to teaching vocabulary in elementary classrooms. For younger elementary students, a nice way to spin the traditional word wall into a more engaging activity is to have students draw pictures representing the definition of the vocabulary or sight word. Coach students on how to use the word wall, and you’ll quickly see the “how do you spell” questions start to disappear. Your class will love watching the word wall change and grow as the year goes on and you add more words.

For upper elementary students, alter the traditional word wall to become a “root wall,” using roots, prefixes, and suffixes in place of vocabulary. You can still add a graphic element to this twist by having students illustrate words containing the root.

Supplies Storage

Finding storage for all of your classroom supplies, papers, project materials, and everything else can often be a daily struggle. When it feels like all of your classroom supplies and materials are taking over, what can you do to combat the chaos? There are many strategies that can help. Here are just a few:

  • Of course, there are always the traditional cabinets and shelves, neatly organized and labeled. If you’re in need of extra supplies, check around your school to see if there is anything unused floating around that you could rescue. Or, check out your local garage sales and resale options to see if there is anything you could use for extra storage space. Just be sure that when you organize, you’re putting supplies students might need to use in an accessible place where they can easily be found.
  • Having community supplies is a great way not only to teach your students about sharing and respecting community property but also to eliminate the need for individual supply storage. Instead, consolidate the class supplies your students will need to complete their assignments somewhere that all students can easily (and non-disruptively) access during class. Small table storage centers or one larger community storage shelf should do the trick.
  • You can also go the route of the ever-popular crate seat, which features built-in storage or take it a step further and throw an outdoor bench cushion across a horizontal shelf and call it a bench. In fact, many flexible seating options can double as storage space.
  • Going digital is another great way to clear away some clutter. It might take a few days to cull through all of your papers, and it may be harder than you think to part with some stuff, but once you have all of your files neatly organized and accessible digitally, you’ll wonder how you ever managed with all of that paper before.

Backpack/Student Storage

Having a place in the classroom dedicated to student storage will not only give your students a healthy sense of ownership over their learning, but it will also provide them with a space to store potential distractions during the day. Again, consistency and routine will be your friends when it comes to finding a system that works. Use labels to designate a special area for each student to put their coats, backpacks, lunchboxes, and other items during class time. If possible, have students store these items near the entrance/exit of the classroom—that way, it will be harder for students to accidently leave things behind when they rush out of the door at the end of the day. Use cubby storage as a place to keep students’ personal notebooks, folders, and other small personal items like library books. If you’ve already dedicated that storage space to something else, seat sacks are a great alternative.

Technology Area

In the past, “technology centers” in classrooms meant maybe one or two bulky desktop computers that took 15 minutes to boot up and could only be used for the occasional computer game. Now, many classrooms include technology stations complete with cutting-edge mobile devices for students to share or, in some cases, for each student to use individually. If you are trying to organize your 21st century technology station in a classroom where space is already limited, make sure that you invest in proper storage for your devices. Avoid stacking any electronic devices directly on top of each other if possible or leaning them against one another. While it may take some time, effort, and money to pull together your classroom technology station, it’ll be way cheaper than replacing or repairing broken devices that were stored improperly.

Your creativity is the limit when it comes to organizing your classroom. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to keep open space for students to go about their day, and you may need to clean out things every now and again. But, with a little elbow grease and your passion for educating, you’ll be on your way to the best school year yet in no time!

Looking for a few extra tips clever classroom organization? Check out this blog post on 4 Key Elements of 21st Century Classroom Design!