George Lucas Educational Foundation
Learning Environments

Elementary Classroom Hacks: Big Ideas at Little Cost

With things like old keyboards, inexpensive aprons, free paint store supplies, and a little imagination, you can creatively customize your classroom environment to maximize learning.

August 3, 2015

Editor's Note: Samantha McBurney – Mrs. M. to her students – is in her first year as a first grade teacher at Francis J. Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket, RI. In this video, Mrs. M. shares her school hacker mindset and explains how she came up with successful low-cost ideas that have positively impacted her students. 

It was my first year of teaching in my own classroom, and I was learning that teaching first grade requires a lot of creativity. It was also pretty clear from the beginning that customizing any classroom for teaching efficiency and student engagement could easily cost a lot of money. This is why I started to explore and practice the amazing and amusing art of classroom hacking.

Tools and Techniques

The Keyboard Station

At the start of the school year, I didn't have any computers in my classroom. Since I wanted my students to gain the skills necessary for the technological world that they'll be part of, I figured that they should be learning the keyboard. In a light bulb moment, I thought, "Those keyboards don't need to be attached to a computer!" Our school's IT department had some old keyboards lying around, and they even cut the cords off for me. My biggest piece of advice? Just ask. School IT departments, family members' workplaces, and computer recycling places are usually inundated with keyboards and are happy to give some away -- especially to help little minds better themselves.

When I introduced the keyboard station, the kids were so excited. I found a direct correlation between the amount of time that my students had spent in the keyboard center and their typing ability once we finally got computers in our room. The kids felt like rock stars because they knew where all the letters were. They even started challenging themselves to type faster than Mrs. M!

Organization Aprons

This hack I totally stole from Pinterest, a black hole that steals your time but rewards you with inspiration on rainy and lazy days. When I saw this idea, I swear I heard music! The organization skills in my class were seriously lacking, resulting in more lost or broken crayons and pencils than I knew what to do with. As a simple add-on to the back of each chair, these pocketed aprons provided a home for all the little stuff that students need to have easily accessible and unbroken. At 77 cents apiece, it was a huge discount on what customized chair backs would have cost. I was delighted to teach my students organizational skills while keeping my sanity and some of my paycheck.

Academics in Motion

I'm a huge advocate of getting my students moving as often and in as many ways as possible. I think it's silly for us to expect kids of any age to sit in their seats and stay focused on their work when most adults are unable (and not expected) to accomplish that same task. Students need that same freedom. I like to refer to it as a controlled-chaos setting. Movement in my classroom comes in various forms and across subject matter, plus a daily exercise break. (I was fortunate enough to attend a professional development on exercise breaks in the classroom.)

Along with dedicating a 15- to 20-minute block for movement activities, either all at once or broken up over the course of the day, I try to incorporate movement in other ways as well:

  • I typically introduce new math skills with a song that involves some pretty sweet movements.
  • For new spelling words, we get out of our seats, raising hands for consonants and hitting the floor for vowels.
  • We practice our counting with some sort of movement, whether jumping jacks or toe touches.

I've found that incorporating any form of movement, even in two-minute spurts, helps the kids stay focused, engage more in their learning, and remember academic things because they're also remembering when we had a "dance party" in the middle of class.

The main things I'd suggest are providing variety and some very clear ground rules for maintaining safety. I was nervous about this at first, due to some behavior and personal space issues. But all it takes for most students is one time sitting out for not having a "safe body," and they learn what is and what isn't acceptable. For those who need additional assistance with this idea, my classroom "rug" is actually made of commercial-grade foam rubber tiles. Each student has a square that they can move for exercise breaks, and they have to stay within that square. These tiles are also handy for helping the students understand personal space during small-group work and independent reading time.

Organizational Hacks

Paint Swatches for Computer Passwords

In our classrooms (and probably in yours), each student has many unique logins and passwords for the websites that they use. At the beginning of the year, I found that I was spending way too much of my intervention block helping my students login. Again, thanks to all those creative and thrifty Pinterest members, I discovered using the paint swatches for login information. Each child has a color, and each different shade of that color represents a website. I created one set for each computer, putting all of the cards on a ring. Now the students simply go to their name to find the correct website and all of their necessary login information. The best thing? This idea costs virtually nothing because the swatches are free from paint stores, and the rings are about two dollars for a ten-pack.

Numbered Paint Sticks for Classroom Libraries

After spending countless hours setting up my library, I needed a solution for my first grade kids to keep it organized. I asked the paint guy at Home Depot if I could have 30 paint sticks, and without batting an eye, he gave them to me for free! I spray-painted them in pretty colors and added a laminated number to the end. Each student is assigned a number and puts his or her stick in the basket where the book came from. For the most part, the books returned to their correct homes, and the students loved the freedom of the library.


We teachers tend to be hoarders -- especially if we teach first grade! You never know when you may need an old coffee creamer bottle, a handful of beads, or a set of division flashcards. My problem was that I had nowhere to store this stuff. Thanks to endless hours scouring Pinterest and the blogs of so many creative teachers who give me classroom envy, I found the idea of putting a cushioned seat on top of those plastic filing baskets. It's a standard back-to-school item at Target and Walmart, but a little tricky to find at other times of year. Making them is easy, however. Measure your crate top, go to a hardware store that has inexpensive plywood and a machine for cutting it, and have them make several rectangles that fit onto the lip of the bucket. Cover them with foam and a fun fabric, and voila -- kid-friendly library seating on top of generous extra storage.

Benefits of Hacking

I truly believe that, as a community, we teachers are some of the most resourceful, creative, and hard-working individuals out there. Thanks to the wonders of technology, we can access each other's ideas on Pinterest, blogs, Teachers Pay Teachers, etc. When something that I see online gives me a light bulb moment, I modify it for my personal use. Teaching in an urban environment with a student population that may have limited access to resources, I believe that my job includes creating a learning environment to foster whole-child learning: academic, social, and life skills that will empower them to be the best version of themselves. Each of the hacks that I've described lets me instill a love of learning through engaging their brains in logical and creative ways. Being organized also allows for more learning with less time spent searching for things needed to accomplish a task.

What are your favorite resources for finding and modifying hacks? What are the benefits? 

The BIF Student Experience Lab partnered with the Hewlett Foundation to produce a free, online space for educators to discover and share creative ways of repurposing existing resources to give students opportunities for deeper learning. Go to School Hackers to find more school hacks or share your own.  

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  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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