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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Classroom Canvas that Encourages Community

The smell of permanent marker is in the air; books are piled neatly on each desk; brand new posters and charts hang peacefully on the walls; pencils are sharpened to needle-like perfection. And in the distance, new sneakers beat the pavement with anxiety and excitement about the first day of school.

Ten years ago, I felt the same way. I wanted my room to look crisp and clean for my students. And it always did. But after many years of teaching, my store-bought decorations and props started to feel fake, a bit superficial. I wanted my room to be more kid created. I felt that if I let my students create the room, it would give me more of a chance to get to know them and for them to get to know each other, which lays a solid community foundation right from the start. Now, I begin each school year with a blank classroom canvas. The kids bring the color. The kids bring the creativity. The kids bring the heart and soul to the community. Super Duper Pow!

"Knowing the children we teach -- individually, culturally, and developmentally -- is as important as knowing the content we teach."
-- Responsive Classroom

Painting the Classroom Canvas

Jamie Schwantes, first grade teacher in West Deptford, N.J. (and good friend of mine), says that whatever he uses in the classroom, whether it's furniture or decorations, should always have three purposes. Well, here's a little activity I love to do in the beginning of the year that has three purposes. Mr. S would be proud. I call it "Mapping your Classroom Community."

  • Purpose 1: Getting to know each other
  • Purpose 2: Writing topics
  • Purpose 3: Kid created decorations

A Map Can Take You On a Marvelous Journey

Students need to write about what they know. It puts them in a comfort zone, which will promote risk. "Without risk, it is nearly impossible to grow as a writer." Vicki Spandel said that and I totally agree. But, a fresh answer is needed for this question: what do students really know? Out of all of the books I've read on writing and teaching writing, Stephen King's "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft," has made the largest impact on my life. And this very activity was born from reading King's book. To be exact, from this very quote: "If you are a plumber, you know plumbing, but that is far from the extent of your knowledge; your heart knows things and so does your imagination." Boom! It hit me then and there. Maps!

Heart Map

Credit: Gaetan Pappalardo

Brain Map

Credit: Gaetan Pappalardo

Imagination Map

Credit: Gaetan Pappalardo

Heart Map

If you teach writing, you have probably used Katie Wood Ray's heart map activity. It's self-explanatory: you list things you love inside of a heart hopefully creating writing topics. My take on it: I split the heart into two sections -- the "loves" section and the "bugs" section. Instead of love and hate, I use loves and bugs. You can't have the lovey-dovey stuff without the ugly in the world. And sometimes the things that bug you can bring about some darn good writing. This is where you'll find out that it bugs Johnny to share a room with his younger brother, but he loves running through the sprinkler.

Brain Map

With the plumber from King's quote in mind, I then created a brain map, a huge, puffy, marshmallow-like brain. Kids know stuff and love sharing it. This is their chance. The brain map might hold science facts, sports records, or state capitals. One year I had a student who was obsessed with bugs. He identified and listed every single insect that resided within our classroom. Cool, if you like bugs.

Imagination Map

The last map, the imagination map, is my favorite. This is the map I would have loved to see when I was in third grade. The imagination map can be anything. I've used dragons and monsters, but I think the shield with the capital "I" in the center is my favorite because there's more area to fill. Anything and everything fantastical can be listed on this map. Goblins, witches, aliens, and of course completely original "things" like the Oooby-Nooby can be showcased on the I-Map.

Extra Tips

I like making the maps black and white and super-duper-sized to hang on the wall. Let the kids fill them up with color and community building info. I have also made them small enough to glue into a notebook or journal for privacy. We all know that writing can be very private at times.

Your students' factual, emotional, and creative intelligences are set free, which builds community during the early stages of the school year. Good luck!

Comments (13)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Betsy Stone's picture
Betsy Stone
fourth grade teacher, PA Writing and Literature project fellow

I also do a neighborhood map. The kids draw a map of a place they love and mark places or objects that spark stories and memories. Jerry Spinelli and Ralph Fletcher both have maps in the front of their memoirs. This is probably a strategy from one of Fletcher's books.

I have used the brain and imagination map for a few years now thanks to you Gaetan!

Stephanie Andrus's picture
Stephanie Andrus
5th Grade Teacher

Thank you for sharing your article. I agree that building community in a classroom is one of the most effective ways to create a caring and comfortable classroom environment. I enjoy holding morning /afternoon meeting s with my class to reflect on the challenges ahead or the challenges of the day. I also incorporate many team building activities into my lessons. However, I never really thought about creating a classroom environment is not only about building relationships but about building a student centered room. I always tell the students "this is our classroom community" but when reflecting about the decor of the room I noticed laminated posters, old cutouts, and teacher bought decorations. I thought to myself that this does not look like our classroom community but a classroom built on the teacher's ideas and decor. I have decided to take community to a whole new level by having the students decorate our classroom with their writing pieces, art projects, and class projects. I am excited to use your idea of the brain map in the classroom. My students love sharing what they know with others and this will be a fantastic way to display their information around the room and give others the chance to learn new things. I cannot wait to see my classroom grow with student work and notice the change in a more student centered environment, thank you.

Rachel McClain's picture

Thank you for sharing these wonderful ideas! As a fairly new teacher, I am always looking for new ideas to incorporate into my classroom. I love to scrapbook, so I decorate my classroom with the idea that it is a big scrapbook page, but I never considered using student work as my only decor. I plan to make more of an effort to display student art work and daily work to let the students know that I value who they are. I also love the idea of having the students write about what they know in the brain map. It is so important to establish good classroom community and this activity will certainly help as my students share with their peers. I look forward to using these activities in my own classroom!

Rachel McClain's picture

Thank you for sharing these wonderful ideas! As a fairly new teacher, I am always looking for new ideas to incorporate into my classroom. I love to scrapbook, so I decorate my classroom with the idea that it is a big scrapbook page, but I never considered using student work as my only decor. I plan to make more of an effort to display student art work and daily work to let the students know that I value who they are. I also love the idea of having the students write about what they know in the brain map. It is so important to establish good classroom community and this activity will certainly help as my students share with their peers. I look forward to using these activities in my own classroom!

Cheryl Mizell's picture

I love the idea of starting out in a room as a blank canvas. The students are what the classroom is going to be. I love walking into a classroom and seeing the art work, writings, and other things accomplished by the people that stay in there the most(other than the teacher)-the students. It is after all their room for the year too!

I really love the idea for the "heart map" and "brain map".

Kellie Berlean's picture

What a fabulous idea! I know that we are well into the school year but I love this idea! I struggle at the beginning of the year with trying to decide where to put things and what to include on my classroom canvas. Being that I am a teacher who is all about my students, I love the idea of including the classroom canvas and making it 100% student centered. What a wonderful way for the students to get to know each other and form a stronger sense of commnity together. I plan to implement this idea next year for certain but even sooner if I can! Thanks for the wonderful idea!

Lisa Allison's picture
Lisa Allison
first grade teacher

Coming up with a topic to write about is difficult for first grade students. I love the idea of putting up the heart, brain and shield as classroom decorations. What a great idea! Not only would they be interesting student centered decorations but they would also be useful tools to help build writing fluency in the room. If all of the students contribute to the decorations then they would take ownership of the classroom. What a great way to build a community and encourage writing at the same time. I think I would also add the map of the community and possibly the world map depending on the amount of space I have in my room. The more ideas the students have to write about the more confident they will become in their writing skills. Thanks for the ideas.

Angela's picture

I absolutely love the idea of beginning the year with blank walls. As a teacher, I feel that it is so important for students to act as a family and take ownership of what is theirs. The idea of letting them decorate their space is a wonderful way to start the school year. I love it.

Renee' Williams's picture
Renee' Williams
1st Grade Teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana

LOVE these ideas!!!

Thanks for sharing! I hadn't been exposed to any of the three ideas, but I am completely on board with student-centered and student-created classrooms. I can see my first graders using the heart map. I especially like it as a beginning of the year activity...when I want to get to know them and they need to get to know each other. This is a great community builder. I can't wait to share it! I want to use the brain map with a KWL purpose. At the beginning of a unit each child would get a brain. They will write what they know about a particular topic...EX: butterflies. As they learn, they could add to their brain. My first graders would really like this! I would probably do this as a whole class in the beginning of the year, because I know they would need a lot of modeling!

Awesome =)

Renee'

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