Spring Cleaning

Got Clutter?

Ever wish they had one of those home makeover shows for classrooms? I used to be the clutter queen until I took an amazing HET (highly effective teaching) class from my friends at Lone Tree Elementary. The class was built on the foundation of brain research. Here are a few tips I learned from them about keeping my classroom organized and clutter free:

  • Decorate your classroom the way you would decorate your house. Would you splash bright blue, yellow, red, and green on your walls at home? Then you shouldn’t do it in your classroom either. Pick 1-2 main colors and an accent color. Make it something that makes you feel comfortable because you do spend 7 hours (ha! Usually more) a day there. Use color to draw attention to what you want your students to focus on. When that learning focus is over, take it down and highlight something new. The novelty of changing what you hang on the wall keeps things interesting and it keeps students attention. I wasn’t sure about this at first. I’ve heard it all before, but I was sure my students liked all the bright colors and stuff on the walls, and they probably did. But if my purpose is to emphasize a particular skill or concept, having lots of “stuff” everywhere wasn’t helping me accomplish that. Too much visual clutter can be distracting and then students don’t use it as a teaching tool. Effective teachers focus on one concept or theme to make a students’ understanding deep, not a little bit everything all at once. Our rooms should reflect that as well. But you can still express your individual style! Check out how these teachers used the same advice but used their own unique style to make it work (run your cursor over the picture to see whose classroom it is):

Not sure where to start? Brain research expert, Eric Jensen, suggests using a warm yellow on 3 walls and a light blue color on the other wall for a positive impact on student behavior and cognition. When designing your classroom, keep in mind that according to Jensen, warmer colors such as red and yellow stimulate students, and cooler colors such as light blue have a calming effect.

  • Cover the Clutter. We’re teachers. We have lots of “stuff”. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think it was a big deal to have my “stuff” stacked tidily on a shelf–until I saw pictures of it. I was looking at pictures from a classroom party, and in the background I saw all my “stuff” stacked tidily on a shelf. I thought, “That’s what my room looks like?!” From the pictures you couldn’t tell that my filing system was (somewhat) organized and that I could put my hands on what I needed whenever I needed it. (I guess that’s why our closets at home have doors!) We need to have our “stuff” on hand, but you can cover it so it is not distracting. It can be as easy as purchasing an inexpensive curtain at Target that matches your room. Check out the pictures to see what you can hide behind the curtains. You’d be surprised what a big difference it makes!

  • Take time to add subtle little touches. Brain researcher Eric Jensen states, “One of the first things students do when they walk onto school campus is look around. They also listen, breathe in the air, and form judgments about the environment. Students then decide if their surroundings feel familiar, safe, and friendly–or not.” (Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2005.)

Homey touches. Adding homey touches such as a center piece in the middle of student tables, plants, pillows, and lamps make your classroom feel comfortable and inviting.

Smell. Plugging in a $5 wall flower from Bath & Body Works may be subtle, but it makes a big difference. I have had parents, students, and teachers alike drawn into my room this year by the subtle smell of cotton blossom. I have had so many people take a big sigh of relief and tell me how much they just love being in my room. They say it just feels like a comforting place to be. Stick to a subtle and clean smell to keep your environment soothing. Stock up on peppermint at Christmas time because peppermint is a smell known for stimulating the brain. If you want a smell that packs more of a punch, get it in a spray bottle. When students are taking a test, you can spray your “brain smell,” (as my class calls it) to stimulate students brain.

Sound. Eric Jensen (2005) emphasizes the negative effect of ambient noise, reverberation, and other acoustical problems in a learning environment. The soothing sound of white noise, such as classical music, nature sounds, a desktop waterfall, and fish tanks can mask the sounds you have no control over. Using fabric on the walls can muffle those ambient sounds too. A few years ago, the PTO at my school purchased sound systems from Front Row for each classroom in our building. It is like having surround sound in the classroom. The teacher wears a microphone allowing all students to hear equally well throughout the classroom. There is also a connector for my ipod so I can play music or an audio book through the speakers for everyone to hear.

Go Digital with Evernote

Are your filing cabinets overflowing? No where to put all those lessons you worked so hard to create, but don’t use anymore? Can’t let go because “someday” you might use them again? It’s OK–go digital! Scan a copy of the things in your filing cabinet and save them to your computer. Many copiers can send a copy straight to your email. Check to see if your school’s copier has that capability. You’re more likely to find them that way if you ever do need them again.

Use Evernote to organize your files. Evernote is a great FREE resource to save and organize anything you need. It saves notes, attachments, pictures, and it even lets you record voice notes and saves it in the “cloud” (virtual space on the internet). This means you can access it anywhere in multiple ways. You can open evernote on any computer, smartphone, or ipad and have access to your files. No more lugging your computer back and forth, saving to the server, or a thumb drive and hoping you have it when you need it. Evernote even has a “web clipper” that allows you to clip something interesting you find online, and it instantly saves the page and the URL to evernote — it’s that simple! That’s how I save my favorite websites that I like to use in the classroom. You can “tag” your files in multiple ways, so it keeps you organized and everything is easy to find. For example, I clipped a website that had great interactive science games for kids, and I tagged it “education,” “website,” and “science.” I can click on any of those tags and find it. Then I can open that website on the student computers and bookmark it. Evernote is going to be teacher’s new best friend!

Click here for an evernote tutorial

Find a good home for your old favorites

How long has that rain forest unit been collecting dust in the basement? If it’s been 5 years or more, it’s time to let go. That doesn’t mean you have to trash it though. There are many craigslist-type sites just for teachers. By targeting other teachers (rather than just having a garage sale), you can be sure to find that well loved unit a good home. The whole country is tightening its belt, so this is the best time to recycle those old resources. Here are a few of my favorites sites for selling old resources:

  • District resource — my district has a craigslist-type list where anyone in the district can advertise things they have for sale. This is nice because you know the people interested are local. That makes it easier to deliver things to them.
  • Teacher Pay Teachers — This scholastic-sponsored webiste has many resources made for teachers, by teachers from all over the country. If you sell on this site, the shipping is paid for, but you have to share a percentage of your profits.

Good luck with your spring cleaning!

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind second edition. Alexandria, VA: ASDC.

31 thoughts on “Spring Cleaning

  1. Another FABULOUS post, Emily! There is so much detail here. I also really appreciate the inclusion of photos and videos. I get excited every time I get an email alerting me that you have created a new post.
    Keep up the excellent work! You are creating a wonderful resource!

  2. Hi Emily,
    I recently discovered your blog and I’m so impressed (now a follower!). I have been a teacher for 24 years, presently teaching third grade in Massachusetts. Thank you so much for this post…you have succinctly nailed so many wonderful points. I am a HUGE believer in the fact that the classroom environment can have such a positive impact on learning when done well~
    Beth 🙂

    • Thanks so much! I’m so glad you’re a follower now! Of course each group of kids is different, so I can’t say for sure that they have reacted differently in the new environment, but I know that I have. It feels better to me, and I spend so much time there, that is worth a lot in itself! I do think my room (since the makeover) has made learning more focused and purposeful. Instead of trying to throw up a little bit of everything on the walls & hope they get it, we narrow in on the important skill or standard we’re learning at the moment.

  3. Thanks for these great ideas. I am actually changing the color scheme in my room, and I’m glad to hear I picked a calming color them. I also just made some pillows for that homey touch.

    • They aren’t actually gutters, but I have done that before! My husband made those out of wood, but before he made them, I did use gutters. We attached them by drilling a hole through the gutter & into the wall. We used a drill first to make a hole (and we had to ask permission to drill into the walls!)

  4. Please tell me how you made your awning over the bulletin board or where I can find directions. I’d love to do something similar.

  5. This is AWESOME. I have a highly sensitive son who is way more able to learn in an organized environment. I love that teachers are thinking about it. But you misspelled “profits” like the homonym meaning religious guys who spread the word of Christ. I guess teachers are allowed to make mistakes too.

  6. I LOVE this! Wish I had classrooms like this growing up! When I go in my kids’ rooms now at school I feel so overstimulated. I think that having it more like your home atmosphere is a great idea and the samples in your pictures look so inviting. The only thing I’d disagree with is scent…for some people it is difficult to have a scent in the room and it isn’t something that you can block out if you are one of those people. I get migraines and nausea from room fresheners and it hits me almost instantly. I have two kids with autism and they are very sensitive to smells, but aren’t always able to verbalize it. Just something to keep in mind. GREAT ideas!!!

    • I agree with Tamie. Great ideas, except for the smells. Our district actually banned teachers from using them due to children with respiratory sensitivities. Being a severe asthmatic, I can attest to how serious this is. Thanks for the other great ideas!

  7. LOVE LOVE! I am constantly working to get a space that is calming. I think I have it and then something isnt work for me! ha! I LOVE the colors!! I just need to put in for a paint choice and I always chicken OUT!! eek! But I do LOVE your blue & darker colors!! LOVE LOVE! I may have to get brave this year! I also LOVE the curtains! THat is something I can do NOW! Thanks for being great!

  8. There are some great ideas here, but I would caution you to avoid using synthetic fragrances. Fragrances give a lot of individuals migraines. I got migraines all the time as a child and couldn’t figure out why until I was in my twenties. I teach high school and some of the teachers in my school use a plug in fragrance and it makes me sick to be in their room. (I have to use all fragrance free or essential oil products–believe me, it would be much easier if this were not the case!!) I know things like that smell ‘nice’ and people have the best intentions while using them, but I just want people to be more aware of the issue.

  9. This is great advice to a Teacher in Training, I will take this information into account when I do eventually find my own classroom.

  10. I just discovered your site and love your classroom ideas. I work mostly with students with learning disabilities. Looking forward to trying some of these ideas in my room.

  11. These are all great ideas, however some are not allowed in our school due to the fire marshal and his rules! We can’t cover anything like you’ve done with the shelves. We also can’t use any fragrances in the outlets. We can only cover a small percentage of our walls, so the bulletin boards can’t have a background. We can’t cover doors or have anything hang from the ceiling. It’s very frustrating. I love looking at all these organization blogs, though.

  12. Hi Emily,
    I just discovered your site; I’m a second year 5th grade teacher. I agree with you that our classroom needs to have a comfortable and lean/fresh smell; thanks for sharing your ideas.

  13. I LOVE LOVE LOVE your ideas! I teach middle school special ed and I feel most classrooms are too jam-packed with…everything! Words, ideas, colors, etc. I LOVE your post! My question is this: does anyone have an idea for scents that don’t plug in? We can’t put any wax melter things or plug ins.

    I also had some of my light bulbs changed from florescent to full spectrum. It has really helped!

  14. I heartily agree that classrooms should be “decorated” more like a home and less busy with loud colors and clutter everywhere. I used to have three lamps in various places in my classroom and wished for good, battery-operated ones to put in the center of each of my 6 classroom tables until last year when my district sent the message out that we all had to take our lamps home because of the costs of electricity. UGH. We also were told that we could no longer have scented anythings plugged into our outlets because of fragrance sensitivities and allergies. Darn it. I really grieved over losing the lamps. 😥

  15. Good evening, I teach in Switzerland to 6 and 7-year-old children. I wish to say to you one thank you! It has been several days since I look for an idea to organize my bookcase… And when I saw yours wow! Fabulous! Then thank you very Much for the Sharing! Beautiful suite, kind regards, Sylvie Sawadogo

  16. I’m wondering if you could tell me more about your district “Craigslist” I’d love to set something like this up in my county! Thanks!

    • You bet! I don’t know how many details I have about the logistics of how it runs, but there is a place online that is just open to district employees (it might be a google sight). When teachers have something they want for their classroom or something to get rid of, they post it there. Someone in the district can contact them about meeting up to see it and/or buy it. It makes it handy to have the right audience for that locally. Hope that helps!

  17. Very interesting article. I too am not comfortable with all the bright colors and all the different displays in some classrooms. This summer I took a course in classroom design online from someone knowledgeable about Reggio Emilia and Waldorf schools. She suggested natural colors, a major colour with minor accents, in muted tones either light (pastel) or dark (jewel). She also recommended introducing natural fibers and adding a variety of shapes, materials and textures. This helps rest the eye. I took down all my turquoise and black . I put brown craft paper on the bulletin boards and covered it with burlap, adding both a new material and a new texture. I add a couple of potted plants on the big counter under the windows and two floor plants that I got cheaply at IKEA. IKEA also provided me with a small wall mounted lamp, a standing lamp decorated with bird decals, and a bug leaf to hang over my little library area. The is a wicker basket fur birthday books, some framed pictures, and conch shells on various shelves. Because we have a year long pirate theme, I put a blue oval tray (IKEA) on the counter by the classroom door. I added some sand, small seashells, a small plant that looks like a Palm and a sign that says, Ahoy,matie! The children sometimes quietly run their fingers through the sand as they wait in line. Your idea of natural light is a great one.

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