Inspire student creativity

What if the walls of a classroom changed the way students felt about school?

Photo of Hannah Walden

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Why are creative classroom so often the domain of elementary education teachers? What if freeing our walls from cheesy motivational posters could change the way our students approach the classroom learning space?

For the past five years, I've experimented with classroom design and the impact it has on student motivation. One year, my classroom became a tall ship while we read literature of the sea. Another year (and a different classroom) I designed a hobbit hole while we read Tolkien and played Lord of the Rings Online. 

When students enter these classrooms, they know something is different. Their interest is piqued. They are prepared for the unusual... and ready when I throw creative curveballs. 


Process:

- Designing my walls always starts with inspiration. Usually something hits me during the summer down time, and it all comes together. For example, I designed one wall in a Jungle theme the year I taught African literature. I didn't want my wall to look like an Oriental Trading magazine, but I wasn't sure exactly what I was looking for... until... a summer episode of Design Star! This one shot inspired my whole wall:

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Those blue stripes on the right wall hit the right note for me. And so they inspired this:

Wish I had a better photo - you can't see the live plants (IKEA, for the win). This wall was the front of my classroom, and I echoed it on bulletin boards around the room. It was not nearly as dark as it seems in the photo as the rest of my room was light-filled. 

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After the inspiration phase, I typically sketch out plans. Unfortunately I haven't hung on to those sketches! You can see throughout the photos how much my classroom furniture changed. I moved from desks to long tables to round tables to a combination of various tables. 

The year I built the hobbit hole I took my 2D sketch and transformed it with Google SketchUp. I had a hard time visualizing the space and therefore felt the need to take my design 3D. This classroom was quite small - it was a new room designed for the Basic Skills English program that I ran for a year. 

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13 comments

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Photo of Jon Snow
Team

The Natures Novel uses natural wool as fire retardant. This way the mattress passes fire laws and is not a fire hazard while staying healthy. Since its required by law, all mattresses must have a fire barrier. The law however does not restrict manufacturers from using chemicals as fire retardants, so most manufacturers take the cheap route.

Photo of Moss Pike
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Hi Hannah! How's the idea coming along in the "Evolve" phase? I really like the idea and would love to build it out a little more (perhaps in a Google Doc?). It'd be great for posterity's sake if we could expand on your "Process" above so that others could take the idea and run with it, especially as we're starting the year. If that sounds good to you, I'd be happy to work through some ideas with you!

Photo of Moss Pike
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Love this, Hannah! I'll second Emma comment on the influence of space on our thinking and think that your contribution here does a fantastic job of creating inspiring space for your kids.

What do the kids say about the space and its effect on their thinking? Do they get to design any space? It could be fun to see what they'd design using SketchUp or even Minecraft!

Photo of Hannah Walden
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I have included students in the design process before, but of course that's something that I could do more of. Here's an article about a wall project my students did: http://www.learningandleading-digital.com/learning_leading/201111#pg32
In general I like to surprise my students with wall design because it sets the tone for the year. But as for the furniture and layout, I'm open to discussion and we regularly move things around. Putting a couch in my classroom was the best decision ever - it's gotten so much use, and still looks good. The students naturally gravitate towards the couch.

Photo of Moss Pike
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Fantastic! Love the simplicity yet impact that a couch brings to a room. I'd warmly welcome this kind of approach with shared faculty space too, where we use furniture to inspire the tone of discussions we have. Nice work!

Photo of Hannah Walden
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The couch is crucial - it invites conversations. If only my couch could talk, it would have many stories to share.

Photo of James Campbell
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Hello Hannah

I love that you allow inspirations you have over the summer to influence your room design. I shared your your idea with the English teachers at my school. They are working this year on a design thinking challenge: HMW create a reading lab that generates excitement, student engagement and fun.
I wonder how much push back you receive when redesigning the spaces and how much of a financial investment this could be for an individual teacher.

Photo of Hannah Walden
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Good questions, James. I did not receive any pushback, but I tend to have an act now-ask later attitude. Most admin were excited to see what I would come up with each year. The cost varied. It was out of pocket, but worth it. I don't think I ever spent over $100 - usually closer to $50. I try to be creative and think of different ways to use materials. For example, the blue background for my ship design was made with $1 tablecloths. The beams for my hobbit hole were made with cheap wallpaper borders. The variety of materials inspires me to problem-solve and create something unusual - this reminds me to provide my own students with a plethora of prototyping materials for their own projects and take a step back to let their creative juices flow.

Photo of Old Friend
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Thank you. These images are so fun to look at. I love the feeling of extending outward into the world rather than the sense of being trapped in a box. It would be fun to start with some basic elements like mountains or water and have the students help imagine and create what else would be out there to form a magical space.

Photo of Emma Scripps
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Hannah -

This is great! Space and its influence on behavior (and willingness to try new things/take risks/etc). I would love to know more about how this idea works.

How did you design the space? How much time did it take? Did you use inspiration to help you build it out?

It would be awesome if you updated your post to even include a floor plan or something. Might help other teachers better understand how they could do something similar.

Photo of Hannah Walden
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Thanks for the suggestions, Emma. I'll see if I can find any of my old design plans I made in Google SketchUp.

Photo of Hannah Walden
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Done! Thanks for inspiring me to take a trip down memory lane.

Photo of Emma Scripps
Team

Wow! That's so so awesome. I love these photos. Thank you for adding!