As educators, we know how important it is that students feel seen, valued, and welcomed in our classrooms. There are many ways to create these kinds of spaces within the walls of our schools, but one strategy I have always relied on is “family” photos. Not only do these photos help students explicitly see that they belong, but they can help you solidify some of your favorite memories from the school year.
By family photos I mean intentionally curating and posting photos of the classroom family you’ve created. We often talk about our students as “our kids” and our classrooms as “families,” so, in the same way that you would post photos around your own home, you can post photos in the classroom.
When students enter the space, you want them to see a visual reminder that not only do they belong, but they are part of something bigger; they are a critical part of the classroom community you’ve created and have an opportunity and responsibility each day to positively impact that environment.
In my first classroom, I was a resource teacher who conducted small group sessions for students with exceptionalities. Because I had only a small group of students, it was easy to dedicate a full bulletin board to student photos. I started by bringing my Polaroid camera into the classroom and allowing students to capture moments throughout the school day that meant something to them: earning a particularly high mark on an assignment, completing a difficult project, or giving a presentation.
Teachers with a single group of students, whether a small group or more than 30 students, can apply a similar approach of dedicating one single space to photos. This might be a bulletin board in the classroom or a full wall that you tape photos to throughout the year.
In my next classroom, I was teaching multiple classes of more than 30 students, so my approach had to change. I used colorful tape to create four quadrants on one large bulletin board and dedicated one to each of my classes. I found it important to keep the family photos separated by class in order to reinforce the sense of close-knit community in each separate set of students.
Those who teach multiple classes will likely be able to adapt that same approach to create space for family photos in their classrooms. Depending on the amount of wall space, teachers may be able to use a full bulletin board for each class, so it’s important to consider what are the most critical visual components to display in the classroom when getting started.
For your family photos to have the greatest positive impact on your classroom, there are three key considerations to keep in mind: promoting community values, ensuring that every student is seen, and keeping yourself consistent all year long.
Promoting Community Values
The photos you choose to display should serve a specific purpose; they should reinforce the community values you want to emphasize in your classroom. Rather than just posting randomly selected pictures of students, you can instead be purposeful in selecting photos that best exhibit values like collaboration, persistence, or kindness.
In my own classroom, I strove to get photos of students working in groups to reflect our focus on communication and collaboration. Additionally, a major focus in my classroom was on independent reading, a task that many of my students found quite challenging. To help highlight their persistence and determination to finish challenging texts, I would take photos of students with their books once they were done. My students loved to have these photos taken and posted as reminders that they could find and finish books they truly enjoyed.
Depending on the values you hope to promote, and the specific activities you prioritize in your classroom, the photos you seek out may be different. Whatever photos you hope to capture, remember to consider the message they promote, as you will likely have to get selective as you begin to fill up your dedicated space.
Ensuring That Every Student Is Seen
Family photos as a classroom-decor concept only works if every student is represented and seen as part of the family.
One way to make sure no one is left out is by starting with a class photo. I would either use the official class photos taken at school, or take one myself of the entire class and post that in the middle of the bulletin board as a starting point for family photos. Not only did this quickly ensure that every student was seen, but it centered our class as a whole, reinforcing the sense of family.
Throughout the year, you’ll need to continually monitor your family photos display to make sure it feels balanced and represents all of your students, especially if new students join your classroom later in the year.
Lastly, you’ll need to stay consistent with maintaining and updating your family photos display for it to continually add value to your space. I dedicated one day per quarter to update my own display, during which I would replace older photos with new ones to reflect the most up-to-date version of my students and our classroom community values.
As I took photos down, I would move them into a box in my desk to save. Some students wanted to take photos home, and others were happy to just look through them as the year progressed. Not only were students excited to look back on their school year in photos, but I had students return just to look through the photo box even after they’d moved on from my classroom.
While family photos can take a bit of initial planning and the whole process requires consistency, it’s an incredibly effective way to help every student see that the classroom is a space for them to show up authentically each day. You might be surprised to see the positive difference it can make in your classroom and how students feel about the community you create.