When I was about thirteen years old, I decided to carve out a corner of the basement to make a rec space. A disbelieving relative told me, “You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse.” While this was literally true, I found the idiom figuratively defeatist and ignored it. One carpet remnant, some cast-off furniture, an old turntable and a 200-photo collage later, I had my silk purse.

We live in our classrooms, and so do our students. Spending time in a beautiful space has enormous emotional benefits, including lower stress and a sense of belonging. While some teachers are fortunate to walk into truly stunning classrooms, most of us need to do it ourselves. EL Education, the pedagogical network that includes my school, considers beautiful spaces as a design principle for creating effective schools. Here are some ideas from EL Education:

  1. Clean and de-clutter your space, and make a plan for keeping it nice. In a classroom, we can’t always get rid of all of our clutter – but we can often figure out a way to stash it out of sight. Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project suggests always keeping an empty drawer.
  2. Display high-quality student work. Classroom walls can tell the story of the school year. Commercial posters can’t measure up to students’ best work.
  3. Make access to learning tools easy and clear. An art teacher in my school posts photos of cupboards’ contents on their doors so that students can retrieve and store materials independently.
  4. Set norms for students to respect the space and everything in it.
  5. Think about what might make the entryway to your classroom – and the inside – truly welcoming. What would make you, and your students, feel at home? I get teased for this nerdy habit, but I’ll share it anyway. I like to make a diagram of a room with scaled paper models that represent each piece of furniture. First I measure the space and then I measure the furniture. I use grid paper and generally allow one grid square for each foot. It’s much easier to move paper rectangles than it is to move furniture, and I love tinkering with ideas until I get a configuration that I really like.


Classroom diagram

How students and teachers feel matters. When we spend our days in beautiful spaces, we feel better. It’s easier to clean up a classroom than it is to manage unhappy kids or struggle through our own gloomy moods. Beautiful spaces – clean, inviting, and focused on shared learning work – take care of us, socially and emotionally.

The Case for Beautiful Spaces

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