Who Are You Creating A Classroom For?

Posted: July 23, 2017 by Lindsey Nagorski

It is of utmost importance that we are creating a classroom environment that ALL our students feel welcome, supported, accepted, safe, cared for, comfortable, and engaged.  This starts with our classroom environment.  Use the hashtag #OURclassroom2017 on social media to provide the teaching community with examples of how you are being purposeful and mindful when setting up your learning space.

The following blog post is an excerpt from my Guide to Becoming Culturally Responsive.

Set the Stage…

While it should not be news to any educator, students thrive best in a positive learning environment that is inviting and welcoming both physically and psychologically.  The issue goes back to our own cultural experiences and how we (most of the time) unknowingly project them into our classroom setting.  What the teacher may view as welcoming, positive and inviting may indeed appear to be uncomfortable and exclusive to some of the students.  Moos (1979) states that “ for students of color and families of immigrants , their initial assessment of their acceptance into the school environment depends on whether or not they perceive pictures, symbols and other visual representations that remind them of their homes, communities, and values.”  Simply put, do all of your students see themselves represented within the walls of your school and/or classroom?  In the majority of public schools across our nation the answer is no.

In his book “Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning” (2012) Sharroky Hollie identifies 8 key elements that help to create a Culturally Responsive learning environment.  They are as follows:

  • Print Rich Environment
  • Learning Centers
  • Culturally Colorful
  • Optimum Arrangement
  • Multiple Libraries
  • Technology
  • Relevant Bulletin Boards
  • Displayed student work and images of students

Again, while many of these elements are not new to educators, the goal is to be culturally mindful and aware while implementing them.

A Print Rich Environment

All learners will thrive in an environment that is designed to stimulate their language development and literacy acquisition, but it is especially important to create this kind of environment rich with text and symbols for our underserved students (Hollie, 2012).  Signs, posters, symbols, labels and especially word walls are essential to all learners whether you are teaching in a primary elementary classroom or a content specific class.  Be sure to steer clear of commercially created items.  Often times images are not truly cultural/ ethnic reflections of your students, but are merely a “colored in” version of an individual with “white” features.  Actual photographs or images that accurately depict ethnicities are better suited if they are to be used.  Be highly critical of these elements and the message that they are sending to you students, your students are staring at them every day.  In order for you students to take ownership and truly see themselves in the environment the majority of the materials should be student created.

Learning Centers

The key aspect here is to think beyond the traditional content area centers of reading, writing, math, science, etc.  “Centers that feature culturally related speaking and listening activities are welcome additions to the traditional centers (Hollie, 2012).”  The research has been well documented showing how effective music is at stimulating the brain, the addition of cultural music at a listening center can be beneficial.  Dr. Hollie (2012) also suggests the addition of a “cultural center” where items from students homes can be brought in and showcased.  The purpose of this center is to act as a living museum for the students and their families to tell their story.

Culturally Colorful

Many of us have little control over the color of the walls and floors (even furniture) in our classrooms. If your school and district allow it, try painting over the often “institutionalized” colors that can be found in our aging classrooms, but please make sure you get an approval before picking up that paintbrush!  The goal is to have classrooms that are dynamic, lively, exciting and inviting, so if you can not get rid of those drab walls there are many other ways of creating a culturally colorful environment.  Please note, I do feel as though there is a delicate balance here and that again, you need to know your students.  I am not suggesting that you over colorize your classroom, you need to be purposeful and mindful just like everything else.  Many students (especially the younger ones in my experience) may become over stimulated by a dramatic use of color.  Shade, Kelly, and Oberg (1999) state that native American cultures seem to prefer earth-tone colors and in some cases bright yellows and pastels which are also colors supported by a lot of the current brain research.  The use of ethnic cloths and patterned papers (if you are unable to use cloth due to fire code), prints and artwork are other ways to tie color into your classroom in a purposeful manner.

Optimally Arranged

Almost every teacher goes through the same scenario in August when walking into an empty room with everything piled into the corner, “how am I going to arrange everything?”  Having tables can make the task somewhat easier, but for those with desks the potential arrangements can seem endless and choosing the “right one” is a daunting task.  There are a few key features to keep in mind when arranging your space it should be one that;

  • promotes movement
  • encourages student collaboration
  • enhances viewing capabilities
  • allows for students to connect with the teacher individually or in small groups

Multiple Libraries

How to organize a multitude of books into a classroom library has been another challenging and ever changing task over the years.  Dr. Sharroky Hollie (2012) suggests formulating multiple libraries by organizing books into categories such as genre, authors, topics or  reading levels.  He also notes that it is important to display the books in such a way that it appeals to students.  Clearly labeled and easily searchable baskets (or another organization method) that are within the students reach are generally more inviting to students.  I would also include that explicitly teaching students how to navigate the classroom library, as well as giving them the time and encouragement to do so is an important factor.

Use of Technology

In todays classrooms there is a definite push for the use of technology.  As teachers of 21st century students it is our job to make sure that we are being purposeful and responsive with how we set up and use technology.  There is a tremendous amount of potential for technology use with our students but often times you will walk into a classroom to find it collecting dust.  I implore teachers to utilize the technology that they have in their rooms and seek out opportunities to let it help you be culturally responsive.

Relevant Bulletin Boards

I would like to highlight the word relevant in this heading.  All to often I see educators using bulletin boards as a decoration or space filler that becomes old and stagnant.  Let us be reminded that the purpose of bulletin boards is to highlight and connect to the content being discussed or overall theme of the lesson/ unit.  There are endless possibilities when it comes to creating bulletin boards and there are wonderfully inspirational sources out there.  Whatever the you use your bulletin board for, make sure to do it purposefully, through a cultural lens, and please change it several times before June.

Displayed Student Work and Images of Students

Perhaps the easiest and yet most prominent way to reflect the learners in your environment is to display their work and images.  Just like bulletin boards, it should be changed out frequently (in fact, bulletin boards are a great place to highlight your students!), at least once a month.  As Sharroky Hollie (2012) states, this is the classrooms version of having your students’ names in lights, so it should be completely inclusionary while also maintaining high expectations for exemplary work.


Hollie, S. (2011). Culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and learning: Classroom practices for student success.  Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education.

Gay, G. (2010). Cultural Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice (2nd ed). NY: Teachers College Press.

Griner, A., & Stewart, M. (2013). addressing the achievement gap and disproportionality through the use of culturally responsive teaching practices. Urban Education, 48(4), 585-621. doi:10.1177/0042085912456847