LA GRANGE – About halfway through the summer, Amanda Dahlin starts sketching a plan for her classroom.
As the start of the school year approaches, she spends days putting the plan to action – cutting out paper letters for displays, hanging posters, collecting supplies, organizing bookshelves and laying out every foot of the space her students soon will know as well as their bedroom.
“I would say [I spend] a solid week just getting things set up and organized,” said Dahlin, a third-grade teacher at Spring Avenue Elementary School. “And that’s working all day.”
Dahlin isn’t the only teacher who puts so much effort into setting up her room, but she might have the science down as well as anybody. Each area in Room 106 is designated for a purpose: reading, writing, spelling or math. Books are filed in rows of different colored baskets; underneath are more baskets with the names of each of Dahlin’s students for the year.
“You want your room to feel like home to them, but you also have to have some sort of structure and organization,” Dahlin said.
Once a week, she transforms the reading corner into a small stage with a curtain for a bistro-type setting where students share writing they’ve been working on.
Beyond the noticeable posters and checklists and organizational features, the room is set up to leave an open space at the front of the room, where Dahlin’s class gathers each day for a morning meeting. It’s part of the community environment Dahlin said she and fellow teachers try to create. An example: Instead of individual desks pushed together, students sit at one edge of a hexagon-shaped table.
“Especially for those students who maybe are struggling but can’t come up with an answer right away, they can kind of think [through a problem] with a neighbor,” Dahlin said.
Before the year, Dahlin collects all the supplies bought by her students’ families. They can keep special folders or pencils (like with cartoon characters on them), but items such as glue and scissors go into a community bin. It saves time students normally would spend searching for their own supplies and adds to the community feeling.
Dahlin has a desk near a corner of the room, but she hardly uses it and wouldn’t mind if it weren’t there. Most of her time is spent helping students or meeting with them in the open area at the front of the room.
In addition to the morning meeting, Dahlin will hold meetings on days when her students struggled to behave at lunch or recess. She’ll remind her students the rules they created at the start of the year together. At the end of each day, she has them close their eyes and give a thumbs up, middle or down to evaluate the day.
“I think the biggest part is the kids’ ability to reflect on themselves and their classmates,” she said. “They are very honest about it.”