Teachers at Yates Elementary on Wednesday enjoyed quiet halls and sporadic meetings, as they put the final touches on their classrooms and awaited Thursday’s influx of students.
Each teacher’s room is the result of careful efforts to maximize space, minimize stress and cater to the particular needs of students and the class's educational goals.
In Chris Rakus’ third-grade room, he unpacked plastic rulers while a student teacher sorted through dozens of books, dividing the texts based on complexity.
Across the room, literacy specialist Kathryn Lamica organized students’ reading notebooks, in which they will take notes, answer questions and reflect on what they are reading.
“In third grade, there is definitely a bigger push for independence, so we want to start that right away and establish that from the beginning,” said Lamica, who moves between classes to increase teacher attention during literacy lessons.
The desks were arranged in rows spreading out from the front of the room, an arrangement that uses space more efficiently than small groups of desks, Rakus said. Such efficiency is a must for a teacher expecting a room of 28 students.
“They were in groups last year; everything has its advantages and disadvantages,” Rakus said, explaining how the rows of seats make it easier for the teachers to work individually with each student. “You can have a one-on-one conference with every kid in the room because you can get to their desk.”
At each desk, a small packet of get-to-know-you questions waited for students to arrive with pencil in hand. One such question Rakus’ third-graders will be asked to ponder on day one: “What’s your favorite thing in the whole world?”
There’s a bit of a science to how teachers set up their rooms. It’s part city planning – assuring traffic patterns don’t cause delays or unneeded stress – and part muse – trying to find the right environment to inspire learning and creativity. The layout of a room can facilitate lessons and routines or foster tensions among students not suited to being deskmates.
Teachers, who sometimes can’t access their rooms until the waning days of summer, spend days or weeks before the start of school rearranging desks, organizing books and laying out precisely what each student will need for the first hour of the first day of school.
Each grade level calls for a different classroom layout. Down the hall, in Amber Shippey’s pre-kindergarten class, sections of the room were clearly divided: block play in this corner, dramatic play in that corner. The classroom library sits on shelves that divide the class rug area from the writing center on one side and the “calm down” area on the other side.
The class rugs, which teachers in most early grades use, serve as a central meeting place for read-aloud lessons, daily calendar activities and free time. For the youngest students, the rugs – which cost hundreds of dollars – impart lessons about colors, shapes and personal space.
“You learn this is your space when you are sitting here,” Shippey said as she stood on her multi-colored rug, which was divided into individual squares.
The first couple weeks of school for Shippey’s class will largely play out as a slow reveal of the room. Shippey said she gradually introduces students to new styles of blocks and other classroom materials, so they can lean how and when they are used and where they belong.
Almost everything in the room gets a label: the tub that holds the blocks and the shelf the tub sits on, the stove in the play kitchen and the sand table on the other side of the class. Shippey also enlists the students in maintaining and cleaning the room, a way of teaching them the value of teamwork.
“The kids need to know what to expect – a routine,” she said. “Things being the same makes it a lot easier for them to learn if things are not chaotic.”
The teachers also stock their rooms with folders, pencils, crayons and other supplies that prove indispensable once class starts. Teachers regularly spend money from their own pockets on such supplies, or they reach out to churches or use other fundraising tools. Some Schenectady teachers use DonorsChoose – a website that allows teachers to post fundraisers for classroom items – to source basic supplies.
Central Park Middle School sixth-grade teacher Greg Rice and his wife have benefited for the past decade from summer supply drives at their church, Immanuel Lutheran Church in Niskayuna. Last week, as he unpacked and organized a half dozen bags overflowing with supplies, Rice said some students make it to school on the first day with everything on their classroom supply lists, while others come with few or no supplies. So once he determines who needs what, Rice will discreetly slip notebooks, folders and other supplies into their desks.
“I’ll say, 'Don’t forget what’s in your desk,'” Rice said. “It’s one less barrier to education for them.”
Carrie White, who teaches in the same Yates classroom where she student-taught a dozen years ago, is staying put this school year but will teach second grade for the first time. Most of the students joining her in second grade were also in her first-grade class.
She still spent part of her summer redesigning her room, so the students will return to a space that feels new and different – more second-grade, less first-grade.
“I wanted it to be different for them, so it didn’t feel like returning to first-grade baby room,” White said. “Having it fun and warm and inviting for them is really important.”
She created more of an open space, flowing from the pods of tables at the center of the room to the reading rug and other corners of the room. Last year, different spaces – centers where students cycle through different activities – were more defined, White said. This year's open layout points to the expectation that, in second grade, her students will be more independent.
White is also using DonorsChoose to raise money for flexible seating that would allow her and her students to easily shuffle desks into countless permutations.
With the floors as shiny as they are likely to be for a long time, the two dozen chairs in her room sat empty. But at each desk, a name tag and a roll of Smarties with a note titled “Hey Smartie” waited for students to arrive. The Smarties party, however, will have to wait until the end of the day, White said.
“It’s something they can look forward to all day long,” White said. “It’s a little something so they know I was thinking about them.”