Responsive Teaching Mindset: Setting Up a Physical Classroom Environment for Learning

The year has started! Hopefully you (or your teachers) have already fallen in love with your students! I hope you have the kid that makes you laugh, and the kid that makes your heart bleed, and the kid that is trying to please you so badly. I’m sure you have the kid who is already driving you crazy, but you were given her for a reason, so lean in!

The basis of being a responsive teacher is being proactive to the needs, backgrounds, cultural differences and learning strengths of your students. It can be a lot, I know. But a great place to start is the physical environment.

When we are thinking about being responsive in the physical environment of a classroom, I’d like for you to think of this in two ways: culturally and academically.

A great definition for the word “culture” is found at

A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.

A student’s culture defines how they look at the world and learn about the world! When we can tap into the culture, we will help the student make deep learning connections that stay with them! Culture can be traditions, beliefs, ethnicity, music, and values – just to name a few. When these cultural points can be included in the physical environment, students will take a huge step towards taking ownership of the learning.

Here is a good rule of thumb: Represent your students first, then yourself. I’ll never forget walking into a 5th grade classroom last year that looked right out of Pinterest – camping Pinterest. This room had camping decorations from top to bottom. Clearly the teacher liked camping. But there was not one representation of her students’ likes, culture, or even work.

Let’s move to academic representation now. I want to give you 4 ways to set up the physical classroom environment in a way that promotes learning.

  1. Have visual vocabulary posted. This can be in the form of anchor charts, word walls, or simply vocabulary lists. It needs to be clear, readable from every seat in the class, and only the vocabulary that students are learning currently.
  2. Have a learning objective for the day (or class period) posted. I know that learning objectives can seem like “one more thing to do” , but giving the students a clear learning target to hit in kid-friendly (but academically appropriate) language is so important. For example, being able to say, “Today, before you leave second period, you will be able to list and explain 3 events that led to World War II.” It also gives you and the students something to measure their learning by.
  3. Have sentence frames posted. If you are wanting students to produce language in writing or speaking (which you should), giving them sentence frames can be hugely helpful for producing language.
  4. Have directions posted. You can lower the affective filter and set students up for learning when they have directions to read and refer back to. Think about it – if someone is giving you more than two-steps worth of directions, isn’t it helpful if you have it written down as well?

So to sum it up, we want to represent our students culturally and set up our classrooms to be the best learning environments they can possibly be!

If you want to take your staff into a deeper dive on responsive teaching, reach out at, or head to for more information!

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