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Physical Environments are Important for a Good Beginning

By Lynne Dorfman

The organization of your classroom sets the stage for learning. It should reflect your personal beliefs and values as an educator.Debbie Miller says, “Classroom environments are organic – they grow as we do. The best of them reflect the hearts and souls of those who inhabit them. They’re never really finished. They’re never really ‘done’.”  Debbie devotes the first section of her book, Teaching with Intention: Defining Beliefs Aligning Practice, Taking Action, to setting up the physical classroom environment and creating an energizing culture through the kind of interactions we value and nurture with our students. She suggests inviting a trusted colleague or two into your classroom in early September and asking him or her to tell you what the classroom environment reveals about your own personal beliefs as an educator.

Environments really do speak out in a loud voice. As a literacy coach, I was able to visit many classrooms. In Mrs. Lombardi’s classroom, students worked around two large tables and were able to partner with a student to the left or right. They could establish eye contact with members of the entire group.  Mrs. Lombardi often joined them at the tables. Students had access to myriad  materials and didn’t have to rely on the teacher to get a ruler, markers, paper, etc., avoiding unnecessary interruptions throughout the day. The displays and counters reflected the students’ work and allowed them to learn from each other.  Books were everywhere – not just in one place. Collective thinking was recorded through ongoing conversations on an anchor chart and posted for easy access by all students. As new ideas bloomed, the students simply added them to the appropriate chart. Mrs. Lombardi asked for student input to arrange and rearrange the classroom environment; thus, creating a level of ownership, creativity, and changing focuses. Sometimes the best ideas come from our students! After all, the students were growing and learning new things throughout the year. The environment reflected their growth in understandings and abilities.  You don’t need test results to tell you what the children in this environment were learning and were able to do – there was ample evidence everywhere!

The classroom environment helps create a passion for learning, giving students a chance to work in many different combinations of peers, and through these collaborations, students form a community of learners that have developed a trust and respect for each other’s thinking. A simple checklist may help you get started:

  • Post expectations for all students to see (created and charted as a class effort).
  • Cluster desks for working partnerships, group work, and easy student movement.
  • Place materials such as rulers, crayons, paper, and markers where students can access.
  • Make sure students have an area or desk to store their personal belongings.
  • Display student work at many stages – published or “work in progress” at a height where your students can read each other’s work.
  • Find an area for conferring and feedback other than at your teacher desk.

Books should be placed everywhere, not just in one location.  Some suggestions include a featured genre corner, a special  shelf for duplicates of mentor texts you will use for focus lessons, a possible area for nonfiction including newspapers, maps, manuals, magazines, etc., books collected for author study, a library arranged by genre or level of difficulty (easy – just right – challenging) or both.

How have you fostered the creation and advancement of an energetic learning community by designing an effective physical environment?  Are you thinking of doing something new this year?  Your ideas are welcomed here!


Lynne Dorfman is a co-director for PAWLP. Her new book, co-authored with Diane Dougherty, is Grammar Matters: Lessons, Tips, & Conversations Using Mentor Texts, K-6 (September 2014)

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