Designing a classroom is more than a mere task that teachers do each year. It is a critical part of the curriculum. Students and teachers spend many hours a day in this room. This space can dramatically affect the quality of life and instruction. It becomes a personal statement of the people who live in it. A carefully designed classroom can provide students and teachers with a space to organize ideas, develop relationships, encourage creativity, have choices, engage in active learning, and thoughtfully reflect.
Because this process is so important, it must not be rushed. It must be recognized that this is a community space that is to be shared. The planning needs to be done through patiently observing, listening, and reflecting. Do not push for immediate results, it is an organic system where you must reflect and respond. Watch carefully how the students interact within the space. Look for areas that are overcrowded and areas that are underutilized. Listen to what the students are telling you through their actions and with their voices. Give them autonomy in helping to set up some of the space. Allow for modifications from the students. This shows them that value is given to their ideas. It will give them ownership in the space, resulting in student involvement in maintaining the room.
An arts-integration and/or arts classroom needs a variety of spaces with a variety of purposes. Theater, dance, and music require open, active spaces or at least easily movable furniture that allows for open space. Desks can be cleared away and placed at the perimeter of the room. You can simply use masking tape to delineate a theater or dance area. In the case of theater, music, and dance it is suggested that you use the entire room. The use of any flexible space for art allows a room to have multiple functions. These studios within a classroom may change from a reading library to a stage for theater. Within this space, you may use a shelf with various fabrics marking off certain areas for art supplies, a CD player, hats, various props, and a mirror. A table works well to define a space where visual arts projects can be created and double as a meeting space to foster interpersonal skills in problem solving.
Simple strategies can tell students that they are entering into a different environment. To set the mood for an arts experience, have music playing as students enter the room, allowing them to transition from using the classroom for one subject matter to an experience that uses the arts. For formal performances, there should be a dedicated theater or dance space with working stage lights, drapes, and a sound system.
Display artwork to inspire engagement with the environment. Showcasing artwork, both student and professional, allows students a mental and visual space to focus on in a learning environment. The wall space can consist of bulletin boards, frames, or easels. Some of the display area should be dedicated to photos, students' words, and artifacts from the unit speaking to the students and the community at large about the learning that is happening in the room. A display gives the students an opportunity to reflect on what they are learning. The wall space can teach by posting basic art skills in step-by-step instruction, examples of art products, elements and principles charts, and art history representative of a variety of cultures and time periods. For example, hanging the Picturing America series posters on the wall would allow for high-quality images of a variety of American art pieces that connect to core curricular areas.
As students enter into the world of art-making, they are taking personal risks by collaborating, imagining, and expressing. In order for students to successfully enter this realm, a safe space must be created. One way to create a safe space is to have students create a full-value contract in which they generate a list of rules for making art together. Some common items included in a contract are: respect for each other, minding each others' personal space, offering constructive comments in peer critiques, and being respectful audience members. As teachers, we have the opportunity to model excellent behavior by taking personal, physical, and emotional risks. Everyone is in this together. Provide students with opportunities for choice-based learning so they can discover their own strengths.
Meaningful art-making and/or arts-integration activities involve students working in small groups to learn skills, solve problems, create knowledge artifacts, and provide feedback. Introduce specific art-making activities in centers, small group workstations, in the lower grade levels. For example, in one classroom there could be a reading center, a puppet-making center, and a critique center. Upper grade-level students can work in small groups relatively independently once they are equipped with the necessary skills. Designing choice-based centers takes the emphasis off the teacher as the head of the class and shifts the focus to the student learner.