Setting up your classroom: Displays

Independence displaySetting up your classroom

It is easy to be overwhelmed by how much there can be to do when setting up your first classroom. Here are a few starting points, based on my experiences in primary classrooms:

DisplaysHistory of games

  • Back your display boards and maybe fill some that are necessary all year, e.g. an independent learning board and a notice board.
  • I like to use bright colours, rather than pastel colours as I like them to stand out.
  • Use clear fonts – my favourite font website is – and make sure the font size is large enough to read from the other side of the room.
  • Back all writing. I like to have a border of at least 0.5cm but that is just me! Sometimes it is beneficial to laminate work for boards, particularly if it is in an area where people will walk closely past it, e.g. a corridor.WP_20150413_002 1
  • Laminate the letters for board titles, as you can always use them again in the future.
  • If your display will be filled gradually throughout the term with pupils’ work, perhaps adding some generic information about the display work that will eventually be produced (e.g. the topic being studied) or some images can make it less empty. It also provides pupils with an initial idea of topics that they will be studying so even adding only a title to the display is a good starting point.
  • Try to make your displays interactive where possible – my top tip is Velcro! I have a behaviour chart where pupils move themselves (a name or a picture of themselves) across from a smiley face, to a sad face, to a yellow card, to a red card. These fit in with my school behaviour policy and I find that pupils moving their name across means that they are fully aware of the consequences of their behaviour.whiteboard 2
  • I like to stick up a mini whiteboard on my class notice board so that I can add any important reminders (or pupils can). I do this with double-sided tape but I’m sure there are other ways. I also attach a whiteboard pen next to it using Velcro.
  • I also have a folder that I attach with Velcro to my notice board where any spare letters are stored. This means that if a pupils loses a letter or didn’t receive one, there is usually one that I can get hold of easily.

Setting up your classroom: Seating plans

Seating plans

Children like to know where they stand and structure is important to that. One way of achieving this is through where children sit in your lessons. I always have a seating plan – sometimes as many as 5 (Guided Reading, English, Science, Maths and then a general place for other lessons such as Humanities and Art) but it really depends on the children and it is important to remember that all children and groups of children are different and that what works one year for one group may fail with another group. Because of this, it is important to be adaptable so that you are meeting the needs of those in your class/es.

There are lots of ways to organise your classes and you may want a combination of them for different subjects. The most important thing is to know the children in your class as that will influence the way you teach them and the way you choose to seat them around the room.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Seat by ability
  • Boy-girl
  • Mixed ability

At the beginning of the year, there will probably be two scenarios:

  1. You are inheriting a group of children from a member of staff within your school. You may know some of the children in your new class so may have an idea of characters within them and who should or should not under any circumstances, be anywhere near each other.
  2. Your new class are from another school/schools. You may have data on them so may have a rough idea of ability. Transition meetings may mean that you have been told of their characters. You may have met the group and have started to make your own judgements.

Either way, you can begin the year with a seating plan and you can adapt it if it doesn’t work. Don’t be scared to do this. It is important that you remain in control and that the children know they will have to sit where you choose. If something isn’t working, don’t persist with it, aim to find a better solution and test it out.

Ability groups within a mixed ability class

These have their advantages and disadvantages.

  • It can make life easier when handing out differentiated tasks if the class are sat in ability groups. The learning in the lesson can start earlier if resources are handed out during the lesson. If resources can be handed out beforehand, it means that the lesson requires less preparation.
  • Classroom adults are able to work with a specific ability group in order to support their learning and push their learning forward. This is easier if pupils are seated with others of a similar ability.
  • Other people can easily hand out the work for you, if you have different work for different tables.
  • Sometimes the lower ability pupils will become too reliant upon adult support if they are seated together and will not push themselves. It can be beneficial to seat lower pupils close to higher achieving pupils as this can create a competitive element. This can be particularly effective if you have a supportive group of children, who are capable of this kind of peer support.

Obviously other issues are raised here, such as ensuring you are setting high expectations and how to differentiate appropriately, but these are going off topic slightly and probably more suited to a discussion of their own.

Organising your seating with boy/girl

  • This goes horribly wrong if you have significantly more boys than girls or vice versa.
  • This obviously is not an option in single-sex teaching.
  • It isn’t necessarily beneficial to seat children in this way. It very much depends upon characters. Sometimes an entire table of boys can be effective, especially if you can utilise the competitive element, where boys who are capable but lazy are sat with boys who are higher achieving. Especially if there is a good relationship between them socially, it can be effective as a way of extending their learning.

Mixed ability

  • You can utilise the idea of peer mentoring.
  • Are the highest ability always pushed forward in their learning? One advantage is that higher ability children are able to consolidate their understanding by explaining to others.
  • An effective way of using mixed ability is by creating mixed ability pairs and then seating them in a way that will work socially.

Personally, I don’t know the answer, or even if there is one. I recommend testing out different ideas. If something doesn’t work, change it sooner rather than later.

I would never start a new academic year without having already planned a seating plan of some kind. If it doesn’t work, I will change it. If parents complain that their child isn’t with their friends, stay strong – you haven’t done it to annoy them or their child. You have used your professional judgement to put their child in a position where you believe they are most likely to succeed. You don’t want the parents to think they can walk all over you, or the child to think that they can go running home to their parents about every little thing. This will undermine your authority. Although it is easier to give in, it will be more beneficial to you in the long term to stick to your guns.

How pupils know where to sit

I like to write a name on each mini whiteboard and place it with a whiteboard pen in their place. This means that as pupils enter the room, they have to find where they sit. It also means that you can have a task on the board for them to complete once they have found their seat.

Sometimes, I display the seating plan on the IWB. This is always interesting as you can immediately spot who and who can’t read a plan view. This is probably more appropriate with older primary-aged children. Those who are able to read the seating plan will often help others to find their seat.

Another thing I regularly do is to display laminated versions of my seating plans on the wall. As the term moves on, this is less necessary but it is helpful for any supply teachers who teach your class.

Setting up your classroom: Pupil Self-Assessment Drawers

Assessment drawersAn easy method of self-assessment that you can quickly and easily set up in your classroom consists of 3 drawers (I have a red drawer, a yellow drawer and a green drawer). Stick these labels on the front. At the end of every lesson, pupils place their book or sheet into the drawer to show how they feel about their understanding in that lesson.

My labels can be found here:

This helps you to assess learning, reflect on the lesson and plan for future learning opportunities. You immediately have an idea of who needs further support.

These work most effectively in an environment where pupils are regularly self and peer assessing and aren’t scared to admit that they need more time on a specific area.

Setting up your classroom: Class Behaviour Chart

WP_20150413_002 1Class Behaviour chart

It is important that your classroom systems are in alignment with the overall school behaviour policy.

I like to have a visual chart that all pupils can see clearly in the classroom. This helps them to take responsibility for their actions. They are aware of their progress across the chart and as a result, the consequences do not come as a shock.

It is important not to have an overly complicated system. Pupils need to understand how to be successful within the classroom environment and a clear class behaviour chart will help to support that understanding.

How my system works:

Behaviour chartMy system starts with a smiley face. All pupils begin the day on a smiley face so poor behaviour does not rollover to the next day. Each day is a fresh start. A first warning results in pupils moving across to a sad face. A second warning results in them moving to a yellow card. This has a consequence in line with the school’s behaviour policy. Moving to a red card results in a more serious consequence. It is important that pupils know what the consequences for each stage are. I have these displayed clearly above.

My chart is made with Velcro. I like pupils to physically move themselves across the chart as this means they are fully aware of the stage they are at during the day.

This works for me and I have found it to be an effective way of monitoring behaviour. You may find something similar also works for you. I like to reward children who remain on a smiley face all day with house points so that it isn’t only for tracking negative behaviour.

It is important that as well as clear sanctions, you also have clear rewards and although you will want these to fit in with your overall school behaviour policy, you may also want to have additional reward systems within your classroom, e.g. table points or raffle tickets.

Individual behaviour systems:

For those children who need a more personalised system, a lesson-by-lesson weekly chart with an appropriate award can be beneficial. This is helpful for younger children or those who need to be able to see a more short-term view, where they are being successful sooner and not over a long period of time. I find that a system like this is appropriate for a handful of children in my class. They get it signed or commented on each lesson before taking it home each night to get their positive behaviour reinforced at home, or the additional opportunity to talk about any issues with their families.


Setting up your classroom: DIY Registration

Interactive register

This is a simple way of registering your class on your interactive whiteboard. It is quite a visual way for both yourself and the pupils to see. They like to interact with the whiteboard and as long as they understand that they only ever move themselves across the board, then it is an accurate way of registering the class.

What you need to do:

  • Using your whiteboard software, create a new whiteboard that will be your daily interactive register.
  • Split the board in half vertically.
  • On the left side, write every child’s name. Alternatively, you could add a photo of each child. Remember to put the names or photos of shorter children lower down otherwise it leads to jumping to reach their name!
  • On the left side, write something to signify that those children aren’t in school (e.g. ‘Away today’ or ‘Absent’).
  • On the right side, write something to signify that those children are in school.
  • Save the file but don’t save it every day, as you will have to move all the names or photos back!

What the children do:

  • As they enter the class, the first task they do is to move their name or photo from the left side of the board to the right side of the board.

Pupils could be directed to do a task once they have registered on the board, e.g. read their book, or other early morning work (EMW) as part of their routine.

Using apps to improve writing and increase engagement

Epic Citadel
Epic Citadel
The sunners in Riven

Tim Ryland’s blog contains so many links to wonderful websites and apps. From here I learnt of the fantastic apps, Epic Citadel and Machinarium, in addition to Riven. These are fantastic ways of boosting writing skills and engagement. Pupils love to explore the worlds and are then able to use this inspiration to significantly improve the quality of their writing.

For children who spend so much of their time playing computer games and are able to relate easily to them, I would recommend the use of apps and games as a way of encouraging normally disengaged pupils. If you have a group of boys, whose writing is a concern, you may find (as I did) that their increased engagement has a major impact on their writing quality.

Epic Citadel

epic citadel appI built upon Tim’s ideas from his blog, and we used this app to focus on narrative writing. Pupils loved to walk around the empty city. It provoked questions about where the people had gone and it certainly stirred pupils’ imaginations.

This was a fantastic app to develop vocabulary and write descriptions of settings. I took screenshots from different places around Epic Citadel and pupils used thesauruses and word banks to gather language to use in their writing. We also developed our sentence structure using some of Alan Peat’s exciting sentences, so that we not only had a bank of great vocabulary to use but a bank of sentences to adapt and include in our writing. This was a fantastic way of scaffolding their writing and enabling all pupils to work towards improving their writing.


I built upon @GnuBee’s unit of work that had originally been used in a writing booster class to boost pupils from a Level 4 to a Level 5. We focused on different text types and included the following:

  • A description based on initial exploration of the islands.
  • An advert for a pod house.
  • A mystery story based around going through a gate on Jungle Island.
  • Instructions informing visitors how to operate the transportation system, the MagLev.
  • A non-chronological report based around the history and features of the MagLev.
  • A non-chronological report about the creatures on the island, known as sunners.
  • A complaint letter sent to the island after visiting and standards were not up to scratch.
  • Diary entries (before and after) about moving to Riven

All tasks were adapted from past SATs writing tasks. As the SATs writing test is no more, I decided to elevate the status of this writing topic to make it more of a project and I gave each pupil a brand new book to complete their work in. Here is my tube map learning journey that I created (Riven Learning Journey to map our way through our Riven project

Example of a learning journey
Riven Learning Journey

The quality of the work that was produced was fantastic.


machinarium-wallpaper-cover-1280x1024This is a lovely app with great artwork, based around a little robot in a steampunk world. We explored the start of the game together so that we were able to gather ideas and vocabulary about how the robot moved.

I used this app with a mixed Year 5 and Year 6 group of children as part of a blogging story writing project.

We began by looking at images of the landscapes within the game (I had a series of screenshots). I had A3 sheets of paper around the room with different images in the centre of each page. The class moved between the different images to gather vocabulary and phrases for each of the images that they wrote around the images. We kept all of their ideas for future lessons so that they could use any that they wanted to. We later did the same with images of the robots features in the game. I provided word banks with adjectives and adverbs, as well as thesauruses for pupils to refer to.

Firstly pupils wrote a setting description. The second writing project was a character description. We next used Talk4Writing story mapping techniques to plan out the quest narrative. The final part of the writing project was to write the story on the blog. We promoted the writing on our school Twitter account and encouraged other classes to read their writing and post comments. The group of bloggers also self-assessed and peer-assessed their writing on the blog.

How I structure writing projects, built upon Talk 4 Writing principles:

  • Explore the app
  • Gather vocabulary, phrases and sentences in pairs or groups
  • ‘Magpie’ ideas individually to ensure all pupils have a bank of ideas
  • ‘Cold writing’ of a specific text type
  • Look at examples of the text type and explore features
  • Story mapping including annotations of ideas already gathered
  • ‘Red hot writing’ (writing after having explored the text type) alongside a checklist of the features of the text type
  • Self-assess and peer-assess (use checklists)
  • Self-assess and peer-assess using WWW, EBI and Next Steps

Using QR code to increase engagement

The children we teach are constantly surrounded by technology. They are used to finding out instantly what they want to know at the touch of a button, as most of them will have a smart phone or tablet to hand. QR (quick response) codes can be used effectively to engage pupils, who may prefer to engage with their phones and social media as opposed to their work, especially for homework.qrcode

Some teachers may find the idea of introducing QR codes into their teaching as daunting, or perhaps even unnecessary, but when you consider how easy they are to generate, combined with the high interest from pupils that they generate, I would recommend their implementation as a fantastic way of increasing engagement in learning.

What are QR codes?

A QR code is like a bar code and it contains information. You can easily generate your own to show information you want them to see. When they are scanned by someone (a pupil) that information will be displayed to them.

How QR codes can be used:

There are plenty of websites that allow you to create your own QR codes. I use but there are many other alternatives.

I tend to use QR codes in two ways: to take a pupil to a website and to display a piece of text.

You can add printed QR codes to your displays to link to class blogs or additional information. Additionally, they can be used as a way of increasing engagement and communication with parents by displaying QR links to topics being studied in class. You could send home printed QR codes of these topics to parents if your classroom environment or school routines (e.g. maybe parents don’t wait by the classroom to collect their child) prevent you being able to display the QR codes in a place easily accessible to parents.

QR codes in lessons:

If you are fortunate enough to have access to a class set of iPads or tablets, or your school allows pupils to use their own devices, then a simple QR scanner app would mean that you could introduce QR codes into your lessons, instantly making them seem more appealing to pupils. You could be setting what could be seen by many as a fairly mundane task, e.g. answering questions, but the technology element would elevate its interest to your pupils.

You may have heard of QR treasure hunts, where pupils answer questions from QR codes around the school. Websites like this: make a QR treasure hunt an easy lesson to organise. The most time-consuming element would probably be putting the QR codes up around the school! Adding a small incentive for completing the task first, (e.g. house points, raffle tickets or something that fits in with your own school’s behaviour system) you may find that pupils who would normally struggle to complete tasks, will be more successful in this activity due to its competitive nature and the added element of moving around the school.

QR codes for homework:

You can use QR codes in a similar way to how you would in a lesson. One way would be to give them a sheet with printed QR codes that lead to questions being displayed. They then bring their answers back to school or write them on an answer sheet that you provide them with.

I find that pupils are much more likely to visit a website that I provide to them in the form of a QR code, than as a URL. You avoid typos this way and the time spent in accessing the homework is reduced (something that will also appeal to your pupils!).

Sometimes I produce a sheet of QR codes that lead to additional websites that aren’t necessary to complete the task but are related to the topic we are learning about. I find pupils are more likely to engage with this additional information when they can scan it on their smart phone and browse at their leisure than if I give them a list of websites. If you provide a list of websites, pupils will have an idea from the URL what it is you are asking them to access. However, if you provide a sheet of QR codes with no additional information about where they lead, they will be far more likely to visit all of them, therefore engaging with far more material than they might initially choose to.

Flipped or blended learning

If you are in an environment where you are able ‘flip the classroom’ (supportive parents, engaged children, home access to internet etc.), you may find the use of QR codes a useful tool.

You could generate QR codes that link to videos, photographs, websites or texts and if not providing a hard copy of these to your pupils, you could always add the QR codes to your school’s VLE (if you have one) so that they are stored for future use.

Using mind maps to reflect on learning throughout a topic

I am a big fan of using mind maps as a way of tracking learning and understanding. I always use mind maps in Science lessons and we always create a new mind map at the start of each topic. I encourage pupils to use their mind map as a ‘working document’ and to be constantly updating them throughout the topic.

In order to track what they have learnt, we do our mind mapping in stages.

Start of topic:

  • We begin our mind map by adding anything we already know about the topic.
  • We highlight or shade in with pencil crayon anything we have added.
  • In a corner of the page, we write WINK (What I Now Know) and the date.

Research-based lessons:

  • At the end of (or during) a research-based lesson, pupils have the opportunity to add anything new that they have learnt about the topic to their mind map.
  • Again, we highlight or shade in with pencil crayon anything we have added, but in a different colour.
  • In a corner of the page, we write WINK (What I Now Know) and the date.

Throughout the topic:

  • I provide opportunities at the end of lessons to update the mind map.
  • The updating is always in a different colour and I always emphasise the importance of writing the date with WINK.

End of topic:

  • A final opportunity to reflect on their learning throughout the unit or topic takes places (again in a different colour).
  • The result is a somewhat colourful mind map that should be full of key words and essential information that can be added to and used for revision purposes.

Why I like using mind maps throughout topics.

  • It isn’t resource-heavy (just highlighters or colours, a ruler and something to write with and on).
  • It is an easy way to track learning. I can see what has been learnt when.

5-4-3-2-1 Summary

Independence displayThis is a really quick way for pupils to summarise their learning. I tend to use it at the end of a lesson where I have introduced a new concept. At first pupils find it hard, but they soon get the hang of it. I have used it in a range of subjects and find it an effective reflective tool for pupils that requires no additional resources (I have a little sheet to stick in but this isn’t necessary) or much additional time – pupils can do it before they hand in work.

All pupils do is summarise a new concept or a topic in 5 words, then 4, then 3, then 2, then 1. Simple! It makes them think about the key points and what is most important. Hopefully they are then more familiar with it when we revisit it later in the topic or they come across it in another context.


More exciting than learning from text books!

text bookI recently read an article by Doug Belshaw (5 ways to make’ textbook lessons’ more interesting) which made me think about what I do in my classroom.

Text books contain a wealth of information that shouldn’t be overlooked. A more ‘old-style’ way of learning (‘turn to page 27 and answer all the questions’) can be turned into a far more exciting experience with a competitive element.

You can do this type of activity with any subject. I have used it in Science, History, Geography, RE and reading comprehension (making answering mock SATs reading questions more interesting).

To make this activity more competitive, provide the questions one at a time and reinforce the idea that they can’t have the next question until the first is correct.

How I do this in my classroom:

I take questions (perhaps from text books; perhaps some of my own) and have a set of them for each group cut up so that each question can be handed out individually. I also tend to have the questions on brightly coloured card (partly because I am a primary teacher; partly because it makes it easier to track which question each group is on).

I have a range of information that I arrange around the room. The information contains the answers for the questions, so there is no reason why all pupils can’t achieve. I have information on tables (maybe text books) and other information (from the internet) on walls, doors, and any other space I can find around the room.

I provide all groups with the first question. They then need to answer this and either tell me or write it on an answer grid before showing me. If correct, I then hand over the next question. There are obviously many ways of doing this, but one way I like to engage the lower ability pupils in mixed ability groups is to assign them the job of telling me the answer. I normally give them some kind of title (e.g. ‘the question collector’), as this elevates their importance within the group, and seems to increase their competitiveness.

Bizarrely, pupils don’t seem to realise that all they are doing is reading through information and answering questions, and instead become really engaged and extremely competitive. They really want to ‘win’ and beat all the other groups. They improve their skimming and scanning skills when it comes to finding the information; they learn what they need to know and are more likely to remember it as they will remember the activity. This activity allows them to take more responsibility for their own learning, increases independence and it is easy and quick for me to organise and facilitate.

This is an example of a style of lesson that easily adapts to a range of topics and subjects and doesn’t take days of planning to arrange.

With this type of activity, where I am trying to encourage effective teamwork, I will very often use a reflective activity at the end to evaluate how well they have individually participated, such as using raffle tickets, where I assign each group a number of raffle tickets or house points (more than children in each group) and they have to discuss who deserves them. I find pupils to be very honest and realistic when doing this, but obviously this takes some training.