Do You Need a Classroom Theme?


In Four Note Opera, there’s a bit where the tenor sings repeatedly, on a single note, “And the tenor hardly has a theme.” While post-modernist light opera spoof may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re trying to choose a theme for your classroom, there are some situations in which you may hardly have a theme:

  • In your school, it’s the custom to use alliterative themes based on the teacher’s name. In this case, you might have to skip the jungle, Hollywood, and ocean themes that are trendy this year and go with Mr. Tedeschi’s Titans or Mrs. Amaka’s All Stars. We know a teacher who resorted to Mrs. Schumann’s Shoppers, dressing up her classroom with paper bags and “Math Bargains.” It was sad.
  • Your school has a group theme. Maybe your mascot is the mustang and you all have to use Western themes every year. Maybe you’re in the Champions Pod, so it’s all about sports. This can be great, as you add to your collection of decoratives and activities, but for some of us it can become so boring that we kind of give up after a while.
  • Maybe you think your students are too old for theme classrooms. Maybe you’re not the theme classroom type. Maybe you carry your classroom around on a cart or in a briefcase and use different rooms all the time. Maybe your school has decided that overstimulation is a problem and everyone has to go with pale blue walls and nothing but a SmartBoard to look at.

Whatever the reason, we have some words for those of you who aren’t joining in the annual theme choosing fun:

  • You probably do have a theme. I once told a friend that I didn’t like theme Christmas trees. I explained how my family lovingly chose an ornament when we went on our family vacation and then made ornaments in the fall. She rolled her eyes. “That’s a theme,” she said. Your theme might be “Welcoming Classroom” or “Excitingly Jumbled Science Lab.” That’s okay.
  • Choose something unifying. If you don’t want a theme per se but feel dissatisfied with what you have, you can pick a favorite color, a favorite type of storage container, or a decorative element that you really like. Decorate your classroom as you would a room in your home, by considering the colors and the arrangement of the furnishings.
  • Let a theme emerge. It’s important to welcome young children with a classroom that looks exciting, or at least reassuringly interesting. A completely undecorated room makes kids worry that they’re in the wrong place, or that they’ve gotten a Mean Teacher. But we know teachers who like to involve kids in decorating the classroom. Bulletin boards neatly covered with paper and clean desks can look like a nice, blank slate ready for the class to make its mark — if you are there waiting for your students and welcoming them.

I taught last semester in a room containing some skeletons (I think the nursing students had it on the weekends). The walls were an institutional green — the sort of color that makes me think they were expecting violence if they didn’t keep people calm. Someone had posted all sorts of vaguely threatening reminders about correct behavior. When I arrived on the first morning, the furniture had all been shoved into the middle of the room and there were big pieces of cardboard on the floors.

The experience reminded me that the look of a room has an effect. Even on teachers. If, for whatever reason, you’ve decided not to choose a theme this year, don’t let that keep you from creating a good workspace for yourself and your students.


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  1. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want a theme.

    When you don’t have a theme you look like you either don’t care or like you do want your students to be dropped into a prison environment.

    “Fare thee well, my little Inmates!” says the staunch teacher as he or she cackles madly from the door.

    Why would you want that!?

    • I see your point. I remember taking my youngest son to 5th grade on the first day. He had a “no theme” teacher, and in fact the room was dark and the bulletin board looked like one of those utilitarian bulletin boards you find in a laundromat. He was scared — I could see it on his face.

      On the other hand, lots of high school teachers don’t decorate, or only in the most rudimentary way, and some schools have really gotten strict about decoratives.

      I’m doing a Happiness theme this term (referencing the latest research, natch) and I currently have the most fun class ever. There may be a connection.

  2. I’ve had years with a theme and years without. What I’ve noticed is that my students just plain get more engaged in school and feel more connected to their room when there is a theme. They love to make connections to the theme and their own lives, bring in things that go with the theme, write on-theme stories, the list goes on. Themes are a lot of work but well worth it, and I’d strongly encourage anyone considering a theme to choose one they personally love (the kids will pick up on that, just as they will if it’s a theme you don’t care about).

  3. Not to mention engaging multiple learning styles. Everything works better if you diversify, right?

  4. I’m starting my first teaching position in the fall for a 1st grade classroom! I’m very excited and am starting to think of how I want to decorate my classroom. What are your thoughts on a “theme” versus just decorating the classroom? I feel like if I go with a full-blown theme like sports, jungle, etc, I can’t change up the bulletins and I’ll be bored with the room after a few months. I was thinking of having a “busy bees” bulletin for jobs, “all about me” bulletin to introduce students, and just using colorful borders to decorate the rest of the room and be able to change it periodically. Thoughts?

    • I like themes, and I figure it’s worth changing it up after a few months anyway. Especially if you keep the more permanent things (labels for containers, etc.) to bright colors or geometrics, it’s easy enough to change out borders and bulletin board designs. First graders love art projects, and you can have them make things (we have a lot of suggestions like that on our theme pages) to hang from the ceiling or to put on the bulletin boards.

      That way, your theme becomes part of the learning process.

      And of course one of my favorite things about teaching — if you don’t like it, you can always do it differently next year!

  5. My favorite themed classroom employed different mini-themes per area with the overall theme being trees.

    I had a tree with apples that had each spelling term. Another tree that had Birds and Nests for math (equations on the nests, answers on the birds). One big tree that I could scatter little carpet squares under for reading or singing together.

    And I guess you could even get the season in there if you really got bored, haha!

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