Physical Space: Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment

Grafton High School, Room 205

For the first eighteen years of my teaching career, Room 205 was my home. It was a traditional high school classroom. Student desks were lined up in six rows, each with five seats. The teacher desk was in the front of the room and, eventually when the school became overcrowded, there was another teacher desk in the back of the room. When students worked in groups, they moved desks as needed. When they shared responses to questions or gave presentations, they would go to the front of the room. On occasion, we would use the overhead projector for notes or to project a student essay in order to provide feedback. Except for the science rooms that had those black, heavy lab tables, it looked like most of the classrooms in the school.

After years of overcrowding and many meetings and votes, a beautiful new school was built and its doors opened in August 2012.

Everything about my new classroom was different….. the shapes of the desks, the furniture….. Whiteboards had replaced chalkboards, movable tables on wheels replaced metal teacher desks, an Apple TV replaced the overhead projector, and a wireless copy machine replaced the printer that had been on my metal teacher desk. And because I was in a corner room, the shape of the room was a triangle… Needless to say, I had to reconsider how I would arrange my classroom.

Although I was grateful and excited for this new physical space, it was a bit daunting to figure out where things should go. With that said, some options were limited because of the structure of the classroom itself. There were two places to set up my computer– in the front of the room near the window or in the back corner of the room. I opted for the front. I decided to keep students’ desks in rows, with some minor adjustments such as fewer desks in each row. It was familiar and –at a time when everything else was different– including a new curriculum– familiar was good.

After I settled in to our new school , our new curriculum, and my new classroom- probably during my third year- I decided to make some changes. While I enjoyed having my desk near the window, I felt disconnected from the students; I felt that it conveyed the message “I’ll stay over here and do my work and you stay in your seats and do yours.”

I thought about the variety of activities I do in my classes– individual work, group work, whole class discussions– and I decided to put the desks into two semi-circles. I positioned my desk in front of the two rows, right in the middle, so I was able to see all students easily and they could see me. It was also flexible; students could rearrange their seats to work in groups and they could easily move the front row of desks and form a circle for class discussions.

I remember enlisting the help of the students; I explained what I was envisioning, and they arranged the desks as I described. Once we figured out where to position the rows and the desks, there was no doubt that both the students and I liked the new layout. They also liked it because, at the time, most classrooms were in traditional rows, so it was different. It created a friendlier atmosphere than my previous set up, one where students felt more at home.

After I moved my desk to the center of the room, I decided to rearrange a book shelf and file cabinet to create a bright work space where students could move chairs to work in groups. I would have liked a rug to put there, but I did not want to spend money on yet another item for my classroom. I could make do until I could come up with an alternative.

At home that night, I remembered that my sons had had a small rug in their bedroom that they no longer used. My mother-in-law had given it to them years before. It was a “game rug” on which there were bright colors and circles intended for playing marbles. It wasn’t ideal, but it would fit in the space and it was free. I also brought in a couple of pillows and threw them on the floor next to the rug. Before long, it felt like a relaxing space in which to work.

Corner with Game Rug: Small area in which students could work or relax. Great place for me to relax for a few minutes on afternoons when I would stay in my classroom to get work done.

In 2017 during February vacation, I had a sort of epiphany. I love doing jigsaw puzzles at home, especially during the cold winter months when we are nestled inside. For some reason, I thought, “I wonder if I could have a space in my room where I could leave a puzzle out on a table.” Maybe there were others who loved puzzles just as much as I did. If I could just get a table, I would give it a try.

Upon return from vacation, I reached out to the head custodian to see if he had an extra table available and explained why. “I LOVE puzzles!” he said and proceeded to reminisce about time he spent in his younger years making puzzles. By the end of the day, he had gone to another school to secure what would become “the puzzle table,” which I placed in the front near the window, a bright, cheery spot. The next day, I brought in a 1,000 piece puzzle and announced to my classes that they were welcomed to work on it before class begins, during the last few minutes of class if they had completed their work, or during their 25-minute extended block.

The Puzzle Table

I was shocked by the effect that this puzzle table had in my classroom. I thought it might be enjoyable for students (and teachers) to work on from time to time, but I did not anticipate the impact it had on many students. You see, one student would start to work on one corner of the puzzle then, before long, a second would start to work. Eventually, the two or more students who had decided to work on the puzzle started to interact….Students who usually kept to themselves….. Students who had nothing in common…..They would either talk about the puzzle itself or start talking about an entirely different topic. Sometimes they enjoyed working next to each other without saying a word. Sometimes when I would go over to the puzzle to add a piece, a student or two would join in too. I had not expected the puzzle to generate so much conversation among people. It really was social emotional learning at its best.

The Puzzle Table…. One of my favorite puzzles!

In fact, before long, other teachers would come by to work on the puzzle for a few minutes. Students were completing puzzles rapidly, so it didn’t take long to go through them. I purchased a few more puzzles, but the cost was adding up quickly. Thankfully, as I tweeted a picture of a completed puzzle or posted a picture of one on Face Book, I started to receive messages and e-mails from colleagues, retired teacher friends, and non-teaching friends along the lines of “I found some puzzles while cleaning over the weekend. Some are still unopened. Would you be interested in them for your classroom?” On occasion, unexpected puzzle-filled bags with my name on them would appear in the office. I was excited and grateful for people’s generosity and their outpouring of support for this idea.

In no time, the puzzle table just became part of the culture of the classroom. It was a physical place within my classroom, a place for people to go. Sometimes students would ask to stay to work on it during lunch to work or swing by for a few minutes before school because they were “almost done with the border” or they “needed to finish the section with the sky.” It was therapeutic. It was a way to unplug even for just a short time. It was a way for them to slow down.

Although I have always tried to create a positive environment in my classroom, I could feel something was different, more positive because of the puzzles and the change in the physical layout of the room. However, I didn’t want to make more changes for the sake of change; I wanted the atmosphere to evolve….. So things stayed status quo…. and I enjoyed the benefits of the changes I had made.

In August 2018, I decided to splurge on a bigger, nicer carpet for my front corner work area. I wanted to make a more inviting atmosphere, one where students would want to work. I personalized the area by posting student work, hoping they would find the corner a place that was comfortable, inviting….

Fall 2018 Upgrades to the Work Space

For most of the rest of this past year, my classroom remained the same… until late spring when I was I organizing posters and various items that were in the back of my room. While doing so, it hit me that there is actually quite a bit of space there, much of which is wasted; there had to be a better way to use it. So, I started experimenting and moving furniture around to see if I could create more work spaces, more areas in which students could work alone or in groups, depending on assigned tasks.

I moved a shelf here… a file cabinet there…..The moving book cart that had been against the wall now served as a divider, creating a little library area….The folding kids’ table with the alphabet around the edges–another item my sons had used when they were younger– was just the right size for the cloth checkerboard I had bought but hadn’t yet used….Right before my eyes, my room was evolving….. changing to a much more appealing learning space, though it was still missing something…..

I reached out to Matt, the head custodian, who is also a former student. I told him what I was trying to accomplish and asked if he would keep me in mind if he came across any more shelves. Because I was so enthused about the changes I had already made, he came by to check out the room. He probably thought I was a little crazy for being as excited as I was about the changes, but I really was so happy. I had created areas that could be used in many different ways…. station work, group work, quiet work, a place to decompress…. The possibilities were endless . As he left, I added, as an afterthought, “Oh…. and if you happen to come across any rugs, I would love to have more. I already bought one, but I just can’t keep buying them.” Especially because he has several family members who are teachers, he understood what I meant.

Bright and early the next morning, Matt was back with squares of carpet. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t think he would actually have any…. But he did….enough for each of the three areas I had created…..

B204: Back left corner area.
B204: Back middle area.
B204: Back right area.

I was elated. With the exception of the carpet squares, my classroom had been transformed by using what I already had. Although I had purchased the initial rug for the front of my classroom earlier in the year, that was the only expense…. another reason why I was elated. I was able to use the resources I already had to create a classroom that was more inviting, more appealing…..

I knew the students would like the changes, but I was surprised and happy by their positive response. When an assignment didn’t require students to work at their desks, they had choices as to where they could work. A larger group might work in the front of the room in the large rug area while a smaller group might pull up another chair and work in the checkerboard area…… A student who needed quiet space might work in the back middle area while sitting in the chair while another student might be sitting in that same section on the floor, using the pillow supported by the file cabinet…..Some students preferred to stay in their own seats, especially because, in many cases, when other students moved to another area, there was more personal, quiet space.

I think my favorite part of this transformation of my classroom is that it finally captured the message that I want to convey to my students from the moment they walk into the classroom… that they are welcome…..and safe…..that I want them to feel comfortable in their physical space in the hope that it will allow them to feel comfortable emotionally and perhaps take a risk academically….. answer a question, share an idea, work with a new person…. whatever they consider a risk….. again, an easy, subtle way to incorporate social emotional learning…

I want them to know that our classroom is about participating in discussions, working collaboratively, honoring individual differences, respecting one’s physical space….I want them to see that learning is multi-faceted…. Yes, sometimes you need to work at a desk but other times a quiet corner of the room is more conducive to another task…..

Like everything about teaching, my approach to classroom space is a work in progress. It has changed so much since the days in 205, my old classroom, and even in the time I have spent in B204. I am sure I will continue to find ways- including through instruction, the curriculum, and types of assessments- to convey to students that I care about them, that I want them to learn about English as well as about themselves– especially if they are in a positive environment.

Food For Thought: What does your classroom- intentionally or unintentionally– say about you? Do you like the physical layout of your classroom? Are there parts you can change? What do you hope to accomplish through those changes? Are there others in your building/district who might be able to help?


2 thoughts on “Physical Space: Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment

  1. What great ideas for your students!! I wish there were dedicated teachers like you when we were growing up. You certainly portray how much you love teaching. Your students are blessed to have you!!


    1. Thank you so much, Barbara! I feel blessed to have a career about which I am passionate. I am sure we both had some excellent, dedicated teachers, though the approach to education overall was different. I feel grateful to have been exposed to older and newer ways of doing things and trying to find the best of both worlds!


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