George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Do you have mystery objects that attract the curiosity of students, leading them to ask questions that foster meaningful conversations? Is your classroom visually stimulating for the students? Does it cultivate creativity, and more importantly, is it filled with objects, images, and even props that help your students learn -- even when they think they're not learning?

Like most teachers, I decorate my classroom with posters and objects that help promote learning, but that also lend a little pizzazz to an otherwise humdrum learning environment. It is typical, for example, for science teachers to have full skeletons and periodic tables in the classrooms, or for history teachers to have maps and portraits of famous historical figures pinned to the walls. However, the best teaching props are the ones that are not so obvious and that help the teacher reach students in unexpected ways.

Why is that Map Upside Down?

One of my favorite classroom props is the "south up map." This map is oriented in a way that many would consider to be upside down in that the southern hemisphere is at the top of the map, and east is to the left. Of course, we know that the earth doesn't have an actual top or bottom, up or down. Students are immediately curious about this map, and more importantly, a teachable moment about history, power, and cultural assumptions can be started in the best way possible -- driven by the curiosity of the student.

Another item that provokes conversation is an art object that I purchased at the museum store that consists of a dollar bill enclosed in a cellophane package and priced at 99 cents. From this one prop, I have had countless conversations about money, value, irony, and yes, contemporary art, with students who casually notice it and ask me about it.

Curiosity and Wonder

In short, you want your classroom to be more than just a visual showroom of your particular subject. Here are some suggestions that will help make your classroom into a palace of curiosity and wonder:

Objects that tell stories: Often, a time or thing that possibly inspired us to love what we teach doesn't necessarily fit into our lesson plans. I keep an old, metal film splicer on my desk. It both teaches students about how film was edited in the days of 16 mm celluloid reels, and reminds me of my days training as a filmmaker. This type of object allows students a different insight into your discipline and also allows you to share a bit of your biography with your students.

Toys: These are great to have in a classroom. Toys that tie into your subject are ideal, and show a sense of play and humor about your subject, but not all toys have to be subject-centered. Some toys like foam balls or fidgets have been shown to help students who are easily distracted concentrate by allowing engage their hands and thus more easily focus their attention. Nostalgic toys can tell something about one's background but also a bit about our cultural history.

Pop culture connections: I have the Inception movie poster on my classroom wall, and while this is not my favorite movie, I noticed when students often mentioned this as their favorite movie. So I chose this movie poster because it allows me to talk about surrealism and the nature of dreams to my art student in a way that that can better understand. Pop-cultural references that are posted in your room also is way for you to connect to the interests of your students so that they see you as a bit more human and aware of the world outside the classroom.

Curiosities and conundrums are always useful. I like old textbooks. I have textbooks over 70 years old that in their photos, language, and exercises reflect the cultural biases of another era. Typewriters, old political posters, and archaic learning tools like slide rulers are also worth having on display. Other objects are interesting just because they have become outmoded. Not surprisingly, for younger generations, this includes many analog technologies like typewriters and turntables.

Change is good so it is wise to periodically change your classroom environment. Simple changes and rearrangements can create an atmosphere that feels fluid and alive -- and never predictable for students.

What are the objects in your classroom that tell a story? Please share in the comments sections below.

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Faggend's picture
Teacher of mathematics in a UK school

I am always envious of teachers who have something they refer to as "my classroom". *My* classroom is used by other teachers for more than half the lessons in the week. Still, I try to have my little corner, in which I leave interesting objects, usually these have been left by previous pupils. My favourite is a full sized plaster-of-paris goose, but I also have my various posters and odd bits of artwork that students have drawn and given to me scattered around. They invariably fail to get an unexpected conversation started.

Barbara Dijke's picture

I have a guillotine, made by the father of my of my former pupils, in my classroom. Every pupils (and parent btw) is curious about it. It's always a good subject to start my lessons with. Just like the huge poster of The Hobbit with all the dwarves on it. I've started many lessons about industrialization about, making the link to the Hobbit and The Lord of the rings.

Lymarie Carl Baldesco Raganit's picture

A classroom is what an environment that must catch an attention of the learners, as I experienced a student want to learn in a room which is more in a proper arrange materials, clean and also a quite place to discuss with.

But a classroom must also have its main role in learners mind like the quotes that are being design to the walls of a classroom this will get the attention of the learners and may ask their teacher why did they put it in their. So the curiosity of the individual is in their and is present enough that can motivate him i=or herself to learn and listen well.

Corah's picture

I have several cross sections of trees that my father sanded and clear coated so my students could see the tree rings, both hardwood and softwood. I teach 4th grade in an urban school so many kids have never seen a tree be cut down. I also have a giant microbe brain cell hanging on my board with a sign saying 'we use our brain cells in this class'.

Shakeena D.'s picture

Thank you for this post. I will start teaching as a kindergarten co-teacher this upcoming school year and have been thinking of ways to bring out my future student's curious nature. I not only want to teach required content in the classroom; I want to be able to answer any question are interested in having answered. Thought provoking classroom decorations could aid in this by getting the children to question the "why" behind the objects. I look forward to passing this idea along to my colleague.

jensenbrice's picture
Building a better and more successful classroom by gamifying educational content.

Thank you, Goodman!

The classroom needs to immerse the student in the content. I started a Mission to Mars theme with my 9th grade physics classroom.

The environment needs to be well thought out with little distraction (don't fill the walls completely with posters). Also, it needs to be kinetic (change over time and be flexible).

Thank you again for sharing and for everyone else commenting!

ybarke's picture

I also do not have my own classroom. I go into teacher's classrooms and help with integrating technology, and when I do I always bring my iPad with me. I try to put a different photo on my lock screen and background so that it can be a conversation point. Sometimes, it is a personal photo, or a place I have been, a piece of art or whatnot. I usually try to make them personal because it is one of the only times I have opportunity to make connections and build relationships with the students. I like to have them get to know me as a person and this is one way that ignites conversation on a personal level.

Robin Zaruba's picture
Robin Zaruba
7th grade math teacher, Denton ISD

I have some toys, miniature objects, larger than life objects, geometric paper shapes hanging from the ceiling, random cartoons, images, and advertisements with math connections, a life-size rag-doll, and a giant red biplane kite hanging across the back of my classroom. My room is very busy, colorful, playful, & makes me happy - it should since I spend so much time there.

Lane's picture
Grade 7 ELA

I have a spongy toddler bat and ball for the poem "Casey at the Bat" and a pestle and mortar for the story Fever 1793. It's not a lot, but it's something. Furthermore, I use Google images and YouTube videos to make vague concepts concrete.

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