Setting Up Your Classroom: 10 Must Dos for Any Upper Grade Teacher

It’s that time of year again…pre-Back to School season! This is the time of year when teachers hit up Back to School sales, get out those dusty curriculum guides, and start mapping out their classrooms. Some of you reading this, flip flops on, iced tea in hand, laying out on a beach somewhere, are holding onto summer for dear life. I am sure you have seen this image from my all-time favorite show Friends:

I know this image has been used about a million times to demonstrate how teachers feel when they are trying to squeeze every last drop out of their summer break, but the truth is, this image says it all…I HAD to use it in this post. 😛

On the other hand, some of you out there have been back to school shopping, have your classroom mapped out, and may even have your first week of school planned. I would bet that some of you may even be attending back-to-school professional development meetings already. Regardless of where you are at, back to school is just around the corner, and it’s time to start thinking about what you want your classroom to look like this year.

For those of you that know me, I am definitely a planner (to say the least haha). So, I already drew out a map of my classroom and am in full classroom prep mode. Every summer, I take on a big classroom job. This summer, I tackled my classroom closet. Imagine a junk drawer but in closet form. You know the one that you close right away so nothing will fall out? Yeah…I conquered that this year. I bought a ton of clear, plastic drawer organizers and went to town with my label maker! Having everything organized and labeled brings me teacher joy, for sure. If you are anything like me, take a look at the pictures below. Your organized teacher heart will go pitter-pat.

That brings me to our topic today: must-dos for your classroom set-up. Although this post specifically targets upper-grade classrooms, most of the information here can be used in ANY grade level. There is so much to think about as we prepare to return to school. Your classroom set-up can make or break the overall management of the school year. I always recommend setting up your classroom with your routines and procedures in mind. Consider these questions:

  • What will my students do when entering the room in the morning? How will they clean up at the end of the day?
  • Where will students turn in papers? Store supplies? Sharpen pencils?
  • How will I keep track of when students leave the classroom for the restroom, nurse, office?
  • How will I communicate the schedule, small group tasks, and independent learning assignments?
  • If I have a small group table or intervention area (highly recommended for any grade level), where will I keep my teacher supplies for this differentiated instruction?
  • How do I want to arrange the student desks? In groups? Flexible seating?

There is SO much to consider when setting up your classroom. It is truly a home away from home for both you and your students. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to take the time to plan it out. I know, I know…you’re thinking, “What time?” With professional development, meetings, planning your year of curriculum and standards, connecting with your grade-level teams, and decorating your room, there does not seem to be a whole lot of extra time. However, trust me, a solid classroom set-up will make all the difference in the world.

An organized classroom is a happy classroom.

Lucky for you, I have created a list of MUST-DOS for you to consider when setting up your upper-grade classroom this school year.

#1 Classroom Layout

First, let’s chat about classroom layout. If you look up “classroom layout”, you will find tons of variations. Rows, pairs, small groups, flexible seating, a combination…the list goes on and on. What I would encourage you to do is reflect on your teaching style. I wholeheartedly believe this should be done FIRST. Every teacher is unique, and there are pros and cons to virtually any arrangement of desks.

I recommend listing your top three values as a teacher. What is most important to you in the classroom? My three are as follows: differentiated instruction, student ownership, and collaboration. These three values have influenced practically every aspect of my classroom setup. Allow me to elaborate…

  • Differentiated Instruction: This is a big one for me. I incorporate small group learning all day long. What I have noticed over the years is that small group learning becomes more scarce as kids get older. Upper grade teachers, I am talking to you…it is possible, I promise. Small group learning does not necessarily have to take the form of rotations, where you need four distinct areas for students. It can, but it does not have to. I won’t get too deep into how I facilitate this type of learning, but I will discuss this in a future post. What I will say is that I dedicate a section of my whiteboard to communicate what each group will be working on during their math block, for instance. That way, while you are working with a small group of students, the others can work independently without shouting the teacher dreaded, “I’m done! Now what?”
  • Student Ownership: Especially as an upper grade teacher, I really want to enstill some independence in my students. I want them to grow into organized, independent learners. For this reason, I setup my classroom so that students have access to pretty much anything we need to be successful in class. Ran out of pencils? Not problem! The pencil monitor will replenish. Time to deep clean? Our cleaning crew grabs some new wipes and distributes them. No more tissues? Our teacher’s assistant is already on it. The list goes on and on. My classroom layout reflects this value, as I make sure to arrange my furniture in such a way that the students can access these supplies. There is a specific teacher area, and the rest is in the student area. By allowing students access to our supplies, it frees me up to focus on helping students. In addition, I make sure that students have some choice as to where they work. Although I do not use flexible seating 100% of the time, I make sure that students have the opportunity to move around the classroom.
  • Collaboration: I use strategies such as “turn and talk” all the time. I also award team points. I want their to be a team mentality in my room. Therefore, I arrange my desks in groups. Each team has a leader who helps me with group supplies, collecting papers, and organizing student supplies. I keep this in mind when arranging student desks. I also want my students to work with a variety of partners. Sometimes, I want them to work with a student at the same academic level, while other times, I want them to work in mixed-level pairs. I pre-assign these and post them on the whiteboard. (I usually post student numbers rather than names.) Students have one partner (same level) and separate partner (mixed-level) for both ELA and math, 4 different partners total.

#2 Classroom Library

The heart of my classroom is my classroom library. This is my true pride and joy as a teacher. Last year was heartbreaking because all of my library books were in storage. I am SO THRILLED to be able to set up my classroom library this year and to once again be able to instill a love of reading in my class. When organizing your classroom library, consider the following:

  • How will you organize your books? By genre? By author? By reading level?
  • How will students check books in and out? This is very important. Make sure to have a solid system, so you avoid losing too many books, especially if you allow your students to take the books home to read.
  • Will you have reading awards? A point system?

Since reading is such an important part of my classroom, I spend quite a bit of time organizing my library. I include a cozy rug and moveable seats, so my students can have a quiet, relaxing place to read. It is truly the best part of my room. Students read for pleasure and earn points for completing books. We chat about the books and share our love of reading throughout the year. When I set up this area in my classroom, I make sure to include library cards for all of my books. This is how to check books in and out. My library monitors check that each student still their books once a week. This is when students “renew” their books. I also make sure that there is a celebration board, where students sign their names as they reach different reading milestones. (This has to do with the number of pages/books read, not their individual reading levels.)

Make sure to check out my upcoming Reading Workshop blog posts. The first one will post on September 4, 2021.

This resource has everything you need to get started. Learn how to level books, organize your classroom library, and celebrate students’ successes.

Click here to check it out.

#3 Classroom Jobs

As mentioned before, when you set up your classroom, you should keep each classroom job in mind. Even though not every job requires a dedicated area in the classroom, it is good idea to brainstorm your class jobs prior to finishing your classroom setup. Here are some jobs that I typically assign in my classroom, as well as suggested supplies needed for each:

Class JobDuties and ResponsibilitiesSupplies Needed
Teacher’s Assistantassists with every part of the classroom and checks in with other jobschecklist to mark various areas of the classroom (technology, library, group supplies, etc.)
Substitutechecks attendance board and takes over a job if another student is absentpost-its to write down the numbers of students who did not check-in (will also be verified by the teacher)
Morning Meeting Managerruns Morning Meeting
(Check out this digital Morning Meeting resource!)
an area to post the daily morning message and/or discussion topic
Team Leadersencourages group particpation, submits assignments/homework, and organizes all group suppliesorganizes group supplies and access to wipes to clean group areas every week
Pencil Monitorsharpens pencils and replenishes pencil supply when neededan area where extra pencils are stored, access to an electric pencil sharpener
Paper Monitorspasses out papers to students and/or fills weekly folders a container that holds papers to be distributed and/or student mailboxes
Librariansorganizes library and “renews” library booksa worksheet with all student names where they keep track of the books that are checked out / post-its or notebook to inform the teacher when a book is damaged
Technology Monitorcleans technology area and makes sure devices are plugged in at the end of every dayaccess to wipes and devices

NOTE: The above list is not an exhaustive one. In fact, I have a whole set of digital class jobs separate from the ones listed above. The important thing to remember is that classroom jobs should help encourage responsibility and ownership.

Click here to view our Digital Classroom Jobs. It includes a template for a classroom newspaper. Your students will LOVE being on the class newspaper team!

#4 Intervention Area

In addition to differentiated instruction throughout the day, I recommend having a set time to do targeted intervention. It is so important to set aside time to teach foundational skills and fill-in learning gaps for your intervention kiddos. I usually set up some teacher supplies here, as well. I include everything I would typically need to teach small group intervention (i.e. whiteboards, dry erase supplies, manipulatives, intervention curriculum, etc.). That way, even if you only have a 15-20 minutes block set aside for intervention, you can do so efficiently without a ton of setup beforehand.

Intervention does not only need to be for your struggling students. Consider also using this space to offer direct instruction to your gifted students. This would be an opportunity to offer a challenge to those students who often do not receive specialized instruction, unfortunately.

I also tend to use this area as another space for independent work or collaboration assignments. Students love being able to decide where they work. It definitely helps them stay focused! It is quite difficult for anyone to stay in one place over a long period of time.

#5 Small Group Learning

Although your intervention area could definitely be used during small group core instruction, I recommend having a separate area if possible. For me, I use my library for ELA mini-lessons and a small space in front of my whiteboard for math small group lessons. The reason I do this is that this allows me to teach more than five or six students at a time. For math, for instance, I typically teach my grade-level and gifted students during the same lesson. This usually allows me more time to spend with my struggling learners. If you are only able to teach six students at a time, which is typically how many will fit in the intervention area, it would take you way too long to get through an entire class of 30-36 students. I will go more in-depth about how I run my small groups during my math block in a later post.

For me, I set a rug in front of my whiteboard. This is where I meet my small groups during our math block and sometimes during ELA if I need to conference with a group. I simply call up a group, and they bring their clipboards up to the rug for a mini-lesson. They are also allowed to grab a chair or an ottoman from the library if they prefer not to sit on the floor. This area requires very little setup but makes all the difference in the world when differentiating core instruction.

#6 Routines and Procedures

Another thing to consider when setting up your classroom is the routines and procedures you will implement during the first couple of weeks of school. Make sure the room is set up with these important procedures in mind:

  • morning and afternoon routine – How will students check-in, complete morning work or bell ringers, and clean-up/pack-up at the end of the day?
  • leaving the room to go to the restroom, nurse, office, or another classroom for pull-out instruction
  • sharpening pencils – Have a spot for pre-sharpened pencils. Your pencil monitor can replenish this area daily. Don’t allow your students to use an electric sharpener during direct instruction. You’ll thank me later.
  • turning in assignments – Think about if you want to separate them into student groups or subjects.
  • no name papers – Have a designated container for these. It will save you from papers floating all over your beuatifully organized classroom!
  • graded papers and important information – Do you send home weekly folders or newsletters? If you are lucky enough to have volunteers prepping these for you, make sure they have a designated work space and filing system.
  • Academic/Behavior Support Providers – If you have a push-in teacher who provides specialized support for some of your students or a classroom aide, make sure to have a designated spot for them. That way, they can have access to the supplies needed when they arrive.

#7 Student Supplies

Your students will most likely keep their own supplies in their desks. If they are not able to store anything in their desks (perhaps you have collaboration tables rather than desks), I recommend grabbing some seat pockets for them. Trust me, it’s a life-saver! As far as group supplies, however, that will take a bit of planning. I usually have a place in my classroom where each group box is stored. Those boxes house group supplies, such as markers, crayons, extra pencils, post-its, glue, etc. The team leaders are responsible for taking those out when needed. They also clean and organize them at the end of every day. There is nothing I hate more than messy group supplies. LOL Having the students take care of these supplies not only teaches them responsibility, it keeps you from having to look at a messy classroom all year!

#8 Teacher Supplies

Make sure to have an office area for yourself. This could be as small as a teacher stand that rolls around the classroom or as elaborate as an entire section of the classroom. I have had both. I even went one year without a desk of any kind! (I do not recommend doing that though.) Whichever you have room for, dedicate a quiet spot where you can keep office supplies and grade papers. (Upper-grade teachers, you know how much time is spent grading! Make sure you have a dedicated spot in your classroom where you can crank out these grades after school.) I am fortunate enough to have a corner of my classroom just for teacher supplies. Check out the images to find out how I organized this area.

#9 Classroom Theme

Is there nothing more exciting than choosing your classroom theme? I ABSOLUTELY LOVE IT!!! There are so many places to look for inspiration: TpT, Instagram, any teacher supply store… I like to change up my theme every so often, just to keep it fresh! What I recommend doing is think about the atmosphere you want to create in your room. Do you want your classroom to be bright, cheerful, and full of energy? If so, maybe choose something with neon, bright colors. Polka dots are always cute! Maybe you want a relaxing atmosphere where students can be at peace. If so, select a theme with calming colors. Perhaps pastels? Rustic and wooden designs always create a relaxing, homey classroom environment.

Whatever your selection is, have at it! Students truly appreciate the small details when it comes to decorating. If you choose a bumblebee design, for instance, perhaps your job board will be called “Worker Bees”. (This is my go-to theme for primary by the way. So adorable!)

Looking for some ready-made classroom decor? Check out the packs from Learning N Progress! Our graphic artist put together some of the cutest designs that are sure to bring smiles to your students’ faces.

Click here to check out our Bumblebee Classroom Decor Pack.

#10 Bulletin Boards

Last but not least…your bulletin boards. Now, I know there is a huge debate in the education world around bulletin boards. Should they be completely finished by the time school starts? Should the kids help create them? Should they be decorative, aid with instruction, or showcase student work? There are SO many decisions!!!

To me, there are three purposes that bulletin boards serve: decorations, teaching tools, or evidence of student learning. The beauty of it is you could have different boards serve different purposes or have all of them serve the same purpose. The choice is yours! Let’s explore each purpose, so that you can make a game plan for your bulletin boards this year.

Bulletin Boards as Decorations

This is perhaps the most common purpose for bulletin boards. Social media is full of posts showcasing the most beautiful boards you have ever seen. I often find myself browsing other teacher’s posts to see what they have come up with…bulletin boards are fun!!! They can be used to welcome students back to school, to celebrate being together (especially after the last year we had), or to simply bring a pop of color to a classroom. Even though I think bulletin boards are a great way to decorate your classroom, I would encourage you to also explore some of the other ideas listed below. As for me, I usually like to have different boards serving different purposes in my classroom. There is no right or wrong way to set up your boards, but sometimes it is nice to have a bit of variety, either from board to board or year to year.

Bulletin Boards as Teaching Tools

Bulletin boards, although decorative in nature and rightly so, can actually enhance student learning. Over the last several years, I have gravitated to use bulletin boards for more than just decorations. They make for excellent reference during lessons and can even be used for collaborative activities. Below is a list of ideas for how you can use your bulletin boards to help deliver instruction.

  • Display anchor charts and vocabulary (both academic and subject-specific). These can act as reference points for your students. I often refer to them myself while teaching.
  • If you use PBL projects in your classroom, consider dedicating a board to help track progress throughout the unit. For example, setup a KWL (Know, Wonder, Learn) chart. I have even put up laminated sheets and checklists for students to write on. Students would use it during PBL time to ask and answer each other’s questions.
  • If you incorporate Genius Hour, this board is a MUST MUST MUST! Use it as a place where students can post possible research questions and/or get student feedback on their projects. This gets a lot of buy-in from students. They love the collaborative nature of this type of board. It is a living and breathing board that changes throughout the school year. You could even have a class job be to monitor this board if you wish.

Bulletin Boards as Evidence of Learning

First off, proceed with caution on this one. This work will be on display for all to see. It should be something that the kids will be proud of, something that showcases each student’s unique talents. I would be cautious about posting assessment scores or anything graded, as this is private student information. I would also hesitate to post assignments where it is very clear that some students, particularly struggling students, are well below the abilities of their grade level peers. When showcasing student work, I would encourage you to display group projects or activities that do not directly relate to a student’s academic levels.

Having said all that, I am completely in favor of using bulletin boards as a way to showcase student learning and achievements. Students of ALL AGES love seeing their work on display! It is a great way to celebrate their accomplishments. Here are some ideas on how you can display student work in a positive way.

  • Have a board showcasing work that the students select. Have students decide which assignment/project they would like on display. The students could even be responsible for changing out their work from time to time. (That’s one less board for you to manage!)
  • If you want a board where work is showcased for every student in your class but do not want students to select different assignments, consider displaying artwork. I like to have a board where we display our seasonal art project. We change this artwork every couple months. I make sure that the project is something where every student can be successful while bringing his/her unique artistic choices.
  • Select which assignments to showcase. You can even make this an honor or award in your class. If a student’s work is selected, the whole class applauds or some kind of small award is given. Students really seem to like this, as it gives them a great sense of pride when their work is chosen. If you choose to go this route, be mindful not to select the same students each and every time. This is harder than you think because you will always have those “renaissance students” who seem to be talented at EVERYTHING. As a teacher it is always exciting to see what those students come up with next, but make sure that you give other students opportunities to have their work on display, as well. I like to keep a log of which students have had work on display. For struggling students, I usually check their work first. As soon as I find an assignment that is their best work, I make sure to select it that time. It is human nature to want to be recognized and to feel successful. For struggling students, those feelings are often far and few between unfortunately. Make sure to recognize their successes too. It makes a HUGE impact! You never know the difference a small recognition like that makes.

I am reminded of one student in particular. I was teaching fifth grade, and we were studying a poetry unit at the time. Each student wrote a poem using figurative language that would later be compiled into a class book. This one student, who had struggled in school since Kindergarden, had written the most beautiful poem. This was by far her best work. I read the poem out loud to the class, with her permission of course, and pointed out exactly what I appreciated about her word choice. The class gave her a round of applause, celebrating her success. During writing workshop later on, I overheard several students approach her, asking for her advice on their poems. She smiled from ear to ear. What I did not know at the time, however, was how much that meant to her. Her mom later told me that she could not stop talking about her poem that night. She even wanted to call her grandparents to read them what she had written! Her mom explained to me that she had never seen her daughter so excited about school. Her daughter was eager to go back to school the next day because she said and I quote, “I am a poet. I want to discuss poetry with the other students because that is what writers do.” That story still brings tears to my eyes.

Wow! There is so much to consider when setting up your classroom! Don’t feel overwhelmed though, just as with anything else in teaching, finding the perfect classroom setup is a process. Your layout will continue to grow and evolve year after year. I would love to hear about your classroom setup. Make sure to comment below to share ideas and ask questions! I love hearing ideas from our Learning N Progress community.

Now that your classroom is ready, it’s time to plan! Click here to read my blog post that will help you plan a fun, stress-free first week of school. This is a MUST-READ!!!

Other Blog Posts to Help You Get Ready for Back to School

10 Must-Teach Classroom Routines and Procedures to Start the Year Off RightIncludes Ideas for the
Second Week of School
5 Goals of Reading Workshop:
Is Reading Workshop Effective?
Instill a love of reading in your classroom. Trust me, this is a MUST-READ.

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

2 thoughts on “Setting Up Your Classroom: 10 Must Dos for Any Upper Grade Teacher

  1. I like the idea of students choosing their own work to display. I’m struggling to find a location that they can reach. All my under the whiteboard spaces are taken and I don’t have a lot of room elsewhere. Lots to think about!

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