Class Aesthetics

We live in a world where design matters. Whether it’s the latest hip renovation at a local restaurant, the subtle texture combinations in a bride’s bouquet, or the painstakingly selected shade of perfection in a newly-painted kitchen, we’re all seeking aesthetics that capture a the right vibe. By “vibe,” I mean mood, idea, feel, environment, inspiration.

As I’m looking forward to preparing my new classroom, I’m thinking a lot about what vibe I want to send to my students and how I can use my love of design to help accomplish this. Come with me as I mentally meander through some of my thoughts on Class Aesthetics. (Or, if you will go so far as to humor me, “Classthetics”.)

A very dear friend of mine, who also happens to be a first-year teacher–let’s call her Ms. Matthews–made a brilliant switch in her class vibe during her student teaching placement last semester. Being at a school where extreme behavior issues and safety could be a concern, she had to implement a policy of checking each student’s ID at the door before allowing them into the classroom. Definitely a pretty strict practice for most high schoolers, this ID check could make the school seem like a prison. However, Ms. Matthews gave the situation a genius twist. She began to refer to her classroom as “Club Matthews.” With a simple name change, a prominently placed sign, and a dash of humor, she turned the line of students at the door from a group of inmates to a line of hipsters proving that they were worthy to enter this exclusive “club.” She promoted her classroom as a place that was desirable and cool–excellent vibe!

It’s this kind of attitude switch that I want to use the power of aesthetics to create. We have all been in classrooms plastered from floor to ceiling with informative posters about “How to Use Adjectives” (which nobody ever reads), those inspirational “You Can’t Have Success Without Effort!” pictures (usually featuring some white ten-year-old from the 90’s painting a picture of a dove), and some stereotypical cardboard apples with glasses-wearing worms popping out of them (by the end of the semester, everyone wants to take the smirk off of that worm’s face). What am I saying here? Am I decrying the long-held tradition of happy, squeaky-clean, educational posters in classrooms? Am I really going that far? Maybe I am.

Here’s my issue with the cute posters in high school classrooms–their vibe is false. Generic posters with syrupy messages do not reflect the dramatic inner lives of teenagers, nor do they give students the feeling that they are in a place that is interesting to them or even concerned about them. My point of view is this: give a classroom a personality and an aesthetic that is mature, inspiring, and genuine. Skip the apples. Students already know they’re in school. Often, they’re trying to forget that they are in school. So, I say, stop schooling them to death with school-related learning propaganda. Rather, enrich their visual environment for maximum inspiration and interest. Create a place that is organic, comfortable, fascinating, and true.

Go from this:


To this:

Now comes the tough part… HOW does one go about creating a unique and appropriate classroom vibe? It’s kind of scary territory to step outside of the educational poster box. So here are some helpful tips that I have for myself and others.


1. Determine the vibe you’re going for. Just as the teacher’s presence makes a huge first impression, so does the appearance of a classroom. What look are you trying to achieve? Serious and businesslike? Bohemian enclave? Spunky and colorful? Soothing and peaceful? Knowing theย  message you’re after will help you select the right images, colors, and overall organization.

2. Ditch the learning posters and replace them with beautiful and interesting fine art, photography, and student-created art/writing. Period. Display at will.

3. Attempt to create a more comfortable space, whether this means utilizing natural light from a big window, installing some colorful curtains, featuring some alternative seating in a specific area (bean bags, carpet, castoff armchairs), or incorporating colors that stimulate the brain and outweigh the otherwise overbearing off-white walls. The actual aesthetics of a classroom should draw students in and invite them to stay, rather than create a desire to get out as soon as possible.

4. Consider seating arrangement. Are traditional rows of desks best for what you are trying to achieve? Consider large tables, or pairs/quads of desks if collaboration is typical. You can also go for the classic discussion circle. I’ve also heard that a large V-shape with just two rows is great for classroom management because each student is fairly near to the teacher at all times.

5. Compartmentalize. If there’s enough room in the classroom, creating separate “stations” for computers, a classroom library, or writing center can add interest and offer a refuge for all types of students during study time.

6. Add new things or change aspects of your design periodically to keep the look fresh. Consult student input on any new additions in order to involve your class community!

7. Currently the most important tip for me… Find a donor who can help you fund your classroom aesthetic aspirations! ๐Ÿ™‚

Happy class designing!

  1. Ms. K said:

    Oh Ms. Harter, this is truly inspirational (as usual). I recently found myself browsing the notorious “posters” in The Learning Shop. As I flipped through the files of strategically featured athletes and simple cartoons, I found myself giggling. Suddenly, at the age of 23, I found myself appreciating these cheesy posters for an entirely new reason: their unintentional, satirical humor. I ended up buying this adorable turtle. This turtle is perched on his hind legs, and he is holding up a shiny apple. As I purchased this little buddy, the cashier asked me in a friendly voice, “Aw, what grade are you teaching?” I responded honestly by saying, “Well, 9th, 10th, and 11th.” She flashed me a strange look and completed the transaction. To get to the point of this story, I will try to explain the method to my madness with this turtle. I had this “incredible” brain storm a few weeks ago which involves a self-portrait project with my students. I plan to have my students decorate the classroom with their self-portrait projects, and as a continuation of this project, I am going to use the turtle as a weekly “talking point.” Each Monday (if all goes to plan), I will place the turtle next to a new self-portrait. I will ask the students to “find the turtle,” and write a short, creative piece about the turtle’s affect on the featured portrait. Now, I can only hope that this idea will produce as much laughter as I am hoping it will. ๐Ÿ™‚ And, to end this comment, I would just like to whole-heartedly agree with the dire need for relevant classroom environments!

  2. Ms. H said:

    Another quick and awesome aesthetic tip I learned from a teacher buddy–if you’re backing bulletin boards, use fabric rather than paper.

    -Doesn’t fade
    -Doesn’t rip
    -Relatively cheap and has cool patterns
    -Difficult to vandalize
    -Washable and reusable
    -No visible thumbtack holes
    -Gives a softer, luxe look!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *