SAIC Art Education

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This chapter offers some ambitious ideas for decorating and designing your classroom.  As a CPS elementary art teacher for grades k-8, I have already been given the opportunity to set up my democratic classroom.  My classroom is a production studio; it is filled to the brim with supplies, posters, books, and student artwork which enhance the art making energy of the room. It is inviting and colorful; there is an abundance of objects and collections to look at. In addition to some school wide rules, I have established specific routines and expectations that help manage student behaviors which begins by making sure all students are an integral part of my classroom community. I see 850 students a week and 1480 by the end of the school year, therefore I am extremely organized and have a system for managing and keeping student work/materials.  As you can imagine, my very small classroom is crowed but cozy. I noticed that the author failed to mention that administrators will  have specific expectations for your classroom, so some of the “personalization” that the author mentions will be lost.  Some admins require lamps, curtains, word walls, rules, library check out system, objectives, and specific colors for bulletins boards so that each classroom will be consistence. Lamps and curtains are an excellent way to add a “homey” feeling. The administrators will come into your room with a team of 5 other lead teachers who will use a checklist to make sure you have everything; sometimes they will do this while you are teaching. f

While the physical environment of my classroom is important, it can be a facade or a superficial way of determining a democratic inclusive classroom. The atmosphere is the essence of the community I aim to create. The atmosphere of a classroom is the most important aspect of creating a democratic community space, is the nurturing aspect of teaching. I see many different grade levels with many diverse learners. It is extremely important that my personality is just as bubbly/inviting as the physical environment, maybe even more so.  I know it seems cheesy, but a smile can go a long way! I know veterans who say “Don’t smile till November,” but you can smile and still be an authority figure. Greeting your students at the door for every class sets the tone. Asking how their family/older sibling is doing is a way to show you are sincerely interested in their lives.  Calling home to say something positive is sure to help all students succeed.  I know a teacher who has special cards called “Call my Crib” and uses them when a student has a successful moment. Having an incentive program such as a classroom economy is a great tool for behavior management. Knowing their names is even better, but let’s be honest, I can’t possibly know 1,480 names.  It’s a scientific fact, your brain doesn’t have the capacity to hold that many names at once. I treat my kindergarteners very different from my 6th graders.   I make up songs for everything when teaching primary, this appeals to my verbal students and is playful. With middle school I like to engage them with silly catch phrases and “pair &shares.”  Additionally, “Wait time” is important for ELL and SPED students and is sensitive to their needs. Your mannerisms and nonverbal communication can say a lot about you and how you are feeling.  

What do your mannerisms and nonverbal communication say about you?  

What type of energy and atmosphere do you want to create? 

How will you create it?

What does my classroom say about the culture and environment I have created? 

If these walls could talk, what do they tell you about me and the way I teach?


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Comment by Jennifer Diaz on September 16, 2014 at 5:33pm

The architectural space is one aspect of opening the classroom door, but what about the pragmatic/intellectual space left for students and teachers in public education? 

We can disguise inequalities with smiles and colorful images, but we need to also empower the students to engage on a personal and academic level. Most students aren't interest in art as a solution to social problems. The first problem when opening the door is invested engagement. We need to reinstate art as an actively engaged dialogue. The rhetoric of art should open intellectual windows of current events. Art should be represented in the classroom as more than just skilled craft and a potential visual commodity. The art room should generate a safe place to creatively challenge social issues and intellectual thought.

Comment by Rita Crocker on September 16, 2014 at 7:02am

I think you have done a beautiful job organizing and decorating your space. You clearly are an experienced teacher who has honed a clear teaching style and persona. I am curious about how you developed your teaching methods: were they lessons learned on your own or advice from other teachers?  For art classes, class management techniques can be the most challenging, so if you have suggestions on where to look for resources, I'd appreciate the advice. 

I also agree with the limitations of ownership due to the administration, and that such efforts are probably routinely challenged. Working within CPS, are there any patterns you have noticed about the challenges you've faced? Thank you for your article and the corresponding images!

Comment by Rachel Campbell on September 16, 2014 at 1:26am

First of all, your classroom is gorgeous!

While reading this article and contemplating ownership and personalization, I couldn't stop thinking about how easy it is to add warmth and color to the art room as opposed to other subjects.  I think as artists we take for granted how easy it is for us to add vibrancy to a space because it is the foundation of what we do.  While there are obvious restrictions or guidelines about how to take ownership of the space, we are able to decorate by simply hanging our student's work (or our own work) on the walls.  Can you imagine if you did that in a math class?  

I also loved when you talked about taking ownership of your classroom by having a positive attitude and creating an inviting environment.  In addition to the teacher, I think it is just as important for the students to feel a sense of ownership in order to be comfortable.  We have the unique ability to showcase students throughout the year immensely strengthening their connection to the space.  To me, that helps to creates a democratic environment where everyone is highlighted.  

What are some examples of how to incorporated student artwork in your classroom decorations?

Comment by Anna Lentz on September 15, 2014 at 4:31pm

Wow, this chapter is very helpful for me in thinking of my current classrooms, which are varied in their environment and missions.  Perhaps the most challenging environment, in which I struggle to carve out a “home” for learning, is my Friday gig teaching in a small, Catholic elementary school in a far western suburb.  It is here that I am substituting for my sister on maternity leave.  Already my status is temporary.  Furthermore, the school building is small, and so, the art room doubles as the library and music room.  The multi-functionality makes for a crowded room in which 115 preschool through eighth graders divided among 7 periods make art for 55 minutes.   All that said, I want to take ownership of the space to make it a more democratic and humanized room. 

            I’m inspired to begin with identifying the core values of the classroom that the authors propose and derive from them classroom commitments.  Then, I’ll have to get creative with the built environment, which can feel oppressive and often blocks fluidity.  I’d like to create an environment that allows for discussion and instruction but also allows for individual “studio” space.  As artists we know environment is important in shaping our work.  It would be ideal if students had enough square footage to really focus on their making.  One simple way I’m thinking of laying claim as a class to this multi-purpose room is by designating a wall for inspiration and ideas.  I’d then invite students to post images, quotes, magazine clippings, sketches, etc. of things they are interested in or inspired by.  In this way we can begin to form unity, a group identity based on individuals, and possible concepts for dialogue and curriculum.  It’s a starting point.  Do you have any experience with classroom environments that were particularly successful especially when you were either an outsider (either as student or teacher)?


Comment by Diana Cadavid on September 15, 2014 at 3:22pm

Casey, good thing you had the opportunity to set up your classroom under the atmosphere you want to project to your students. As you say, it is inviting and welcoming to create and experiment with all the colorful resources that provides visually. And I also like the consistency of democratic values ​​that you teach your students through didactic signs and images you put on the walls. I particularly like the idea of ​​generating a personalized environment by the teacher where students can also intervene, but I doubt the feasibility of this when the teacher´s classes are in different spaces standardized by the institution. Something that I do like as I have seen that some professors do and I have also noticed at SAIC, is arranging the tables in a large rectangle, where everyone in the class can see each other and no one is ahead or behind someone. This is a good way to feel equality among students. But also I would try to see how a circle shape could be performed instead.

Something that struck me in the article and I find it very useful is the suggestion of embracing contradictions between social justice and the capitalist system. Casey, this reminded me one of your comments in the Social Theory class where you exposed your concern about the tension between the crucial need for human resources to build buildings, sanitization, and so on - and the belief of equal educational opportunities for all. I certainly believe that democracy is achieved from finding allies to work together and to build community. But on the other hand, I personally have a strong tendency for introspection and I enjoy working isolated as well. What part of the balance do you guys feel your personality predominantly belong, and how this can be in favor in your contribution to the world towards democracy?

Comment by Jennifer Yoo on September 15, 2014 at 3:13pm

Thank you for showing us pictures of your classroom! It really has a creative vibe, and seems like a great place for students to be inspired to express creatively as well. Going along with the reading, I think it's important to take ownership of the classroom, for both you and your students. I agree that based on each grade level, you need to have a different way of teaching, and I enjoyed reading through your example. I agree with you that because this is the beginning chapter of a book, it doesn't hone into many topics, but I think it was a valuable way to understand the importance of realizing what a teacher is and does.

In the article, it's often mentioned to understand the teacher's foundation as well as the needs of the students, and to reflect your values and methods in your everyday life. The conscientious teacher needs to look deeper into understanding the students in their unique ways. How do you differentiate working with students' needs and catering to their needs?

Comment by Mary Milliken on September 15, 2014 at 10:57am

I love that you invited us into your space by providing photos of your classroom. It made hearing about your experience so much more personal. It seems serendipitous that you were assigned this blog since you have such wonderful examples of your classroom space. I agree that the author did not take into consideration some very common and real barriers to truly personalizing one’s classroom, though I think you talked about personalizing it in a different way than its appearance. A system of organization, a demonstration of caring, and creating boundaries and expectations for your students seem to me to be ways that you personalize your classroom. I think you have some great advice that resonates with me, like, “you can smile and still be an authority figure.” If the walls could talk, I think they would point out that it seems like communicating and connecting with the students is the basis of your approach to teaching and that is something that is very important to me as well because, in my experience, that is what is important to the students.


I think it is important to be comfortable in my space to be most effective as a teacher. Is it possible to personalize a classroom that is not your own so you feel comfortable as a teacher? I am thinking about subbing for other teachers or working with a co-teacher.  I just read William’s comment after writing that question, so he may have some advice on how this is done. 

Comment by William Estrada on September 15, 2014 at 12:22am

Amazing images of your classroom Casey!

Teaching Towards Democracy is an amazing book!! The first chapter Opening the Classroom Door lays the foundation of what you should be thinking about when thinking about the space you will be teaching in, what rules are important to you and the students, and of course how the teaching that takes place will look like. The space we create within our classrooms is just as important as how we teach in it. My only dilemma is that I dont ahve m own room, I am teaching in other peoples teaching space. Although it is sometimes difficult to make changes to other peoples spaces, its important to make sure that the space you are working in changes when you are there. This can be challenging, but is important to work with the teacher to create a space for me and my students to make the work we need to complete. It's claiming ownership ove the spaces we work/lern in that allows for the creation of our community. Whether it is working in small groups or individually - creating different spaces to work /learn in (read, make art, chill out, take a break, research, etc.). 

I've dreamt many times of my own classroom, what would it look like? How would I organize it, would it be organized? When th time comes, I will definitely have to consider what was written in Opening the Classroom Door.

How do we address the differences in developing a democratic learning space and the expectations of the administration? Especially when they are on different parts of the spectrum.

Comment by Vera Xingyu Zhang on September 14, 2014 at 7:08pm

After reading this article, I felt this is such a good introduction to the book. The chapter is literally about “opening the classroom door”, it gives several points on how to prepare to be a teacher, how to pursue the class and so on. I really like the way the chapter talked elaborately about decorating the classroom. The classroom is like a second home to both the teacher and the students, because we will be spending so much time in this place its best if we do it right. Depending on the teacher, they will need to figure out what is the teaching environment like, what are the methods and how to pursue those methods. I love this statement: “build an environment that purposefully and intentionally displays what you value for yourself and for your students.” Everything the teacher does needs to have a purpose; a great learning environment can definitely help students to learn much better. I also love the chapter about creating a democratic culture, democracy is very important in todays life, young students needs democracy as well not just adults, they are human beings too, each and every one of them has unique thinking and behavior, the teacher will need to know how to work with all the students differently. Each students can have totally different personalities, different learning experiences, you as a teacher need to figure out what are the strengths/weaknesses does that individual has, and how can you help them in order to make them learn better and absorb more information from you.

Creating a democratic environment encourage students to think outside the box, discuss freely about the subject matter, you can’t force them to be obedient and at the same time ask them to be creative, it just does not work that way. I used to remember when I was in primary school back in China, my teacher always told us that we need to obey them, we can’t talk during lesson hours and so on. It simply blocked our imaginations and the ability to questions, because not everything the teacher says are right. The teacher and students needs to have a two-way conversation in order to learn, that’s what I think what learning is really about. I guess it’s a cultural thing; in Asian countries we don’t like students to be questioning the teacher for anything.

My questions are "How should a teacher design their learning environment? Does it base on the teacher themselves or the students?" and "How would you find the balance between obedient and democracy? Sometimes you want the students to think outside the box, and other times you want them to just listen to you lecturing."

Comment by Ariella Miller on September 14, 2014 at 6:08pm

Casey - Thanks for sharing images of your classroom! I love how you have personalized stools. Are there any favorite stools that your students fight over? I think that a successful art classroom is one that is visually stimulating but also organized. It seems like you have a great cabinet system with everything stored and labeled. I have seen a lot of art classes where there are just supplies everywhere, no organization, and not only is it messy and difficult to navigate, but it is also frustrating for students. For example, I observed a classroom last year where the teacher just had buckets with markers, crayons, pencils, and pens all mixed together. Not only that, but a lot of the markers were dried out, making it difficult for students to organize and plan their work. Hearing students complain about something that is so easily solvable is frustrating for an outside observer. 

In the reading I like how Ayers speaks to this idea of making the classroom a reflection of our own "preferences and priorities and expectations for your students and yourself". Additionally, you want to infuse your own personality into the environment that you teach in. Every aspect of your teaching, from the images you choose to put on the walls to the way you relate to your students is a reflection of yourself and your own values. 

One question I have is, for an art teacher who perhaps only interacts with each classroom on a weekly basis, how do you jump start this relationship with your students from the very beginning of the school year?  Teachers who teach "core" subjects like Math visit with their classes every day, and have more time to create a culture within their classroom early on. 

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