Beyond “Ditching the Desks,” 9 Creative Ways to Avoid “The Cemetery Effect”

Avoiding “The Cemetery Effect”

a collaborative post via Thomas Murray and Erin Klein


click here to download Erin’s FREE 18 page eBook with images, templates, printables, and more This first segment reads from the Voice of Thomas Murray: State and District Digital Learning Director for the Alliance of Excellent Education, Washington D.C.

A few months ago while driving through back roads in Pennsylvania, I came across a carefully laid out cemetery. Each stone was equidistant from the other. Rows were impeccably aligned, all seemingly facing the same direction. The plot of land was a perfect rectangle. With the exception of some updated landscaping, the space remained seemingly untouched for a number of decades.

My heart sunk when I thought about how this space – a cemetery – resembled the first classroom learning environment that I had created for my first class of fourth graders. No, the students weren’t zombies, nor were my thoughts morbid. The physical environment – the learning space – that I created early on as a teacher, would have looked almost identical to the cemetery if drawn on a map. Add some tennis balls to the bottom of the stones, a large, oversized, wooden teacher desk in the corner, an interactive white board and American flag on the front wall, and not only does one have the first classroom environment that I created; but an environment that resembles many of today’s classrooms. These classrooms are seemingly suffering from what I’ll coin, “The Cemetery Effect”.

Spaces like the one in a country field in Pennsylvania are not the only thing that have remained virtually the same for decades or longer. Side-by-side images of classrooms from 1915 and ones from 2015 yield eerie similarities, even after 100-years of life changing research and innovation.


1915 Image Credit: (via Google Images); 2015 Image Credit: (via Google Images)


During the industrial era where students were essentially trained to work in factories, “career readiness” meant preparing for jobs where a worker would spend hours a day performing the same task, often even spending his/her entire career at the same company. The one-size-fits-all, sit and get instructional model where the ability to regurgitate was the key to success, was a sufficient paradigm for that world of work.

But that world of work no longer exists in our nation.

With such changes, the need to redesign our students’ learning environments becomes not simply an idea from the latest Pinterest board, but one of necessity. How can schools and classrooms transform from an industrial era model yielding teacher-centric environments with desks in rows and all students facing forward, to ones that are student-centered, personalized, and leverage the power of technology?

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Classroom design consultant and Classroom Cribs co-founder, Erin Klein, shares the following tips to help educators avoid “The Cemetery Effect”. Thank you – Tom Murray

9 Creative Ways to Avoid “The Cemetery Effect” For All Classrooms=

Being a current elementary teacher, I strive to create an environment that is highly engaging and interactive for my students. The last thing I’d ever wish for is to cultivate a class culture that supported a factory-based instructional model where students sat in desks in rows, answered only when called upon via raised hands, and where I was the sole delivery method of content. Instead, together, we aim to develop a space that is different each year: one that suits the needs of each class. Because the class is different each year, the space must be flexible enough to adapt to the users of the environment with each changing year.

During our first few days together, we sit together to think about what would work best for our learning objectives. We discuss the value in creating a space where all voices are equal and sharing is an organic process: not one that happens only when we are asked to “turn and talk” at designated times during the lesson. My second grader’s voice is instrumental in the design process. After all, they are the ones who will be utilizing the square footage, so it only makes sense to consult with them regarding their ideas. They understand that in order to have the level of collaboration we want, we need to design a space that not only encourages conversation but allows for it.

As educators, we must realize that our traditional spaces will only continue to reinforce traditional teaching and learning. We have an opportunity to transform teaching and learning within the confines of our classroom spaces. What type of learning space would you want to learn in? What would you want for your own son or daughter?

Prior to becoming a teacher, I studied Interior Design for a number of years. As a designer, I’ve learned the importance of satisfying your customer’s vision. We all have unique styles; however, what makes one successful is when he or she can translate that customer vision into a shared, tangible idea which can be observed and felt. Stated differently, how can we take the ideas of our children and help them come to life in our schools?

The following tips are successful and simple ideas I’ve curated from students and educators over the years working to transform learning environments and enhance student engagement.

  • Incorporate the Student Voice

Think about your space. What is your student to teacher ratio? Who do we ask to do most of the work within this particular space? I start each presentation I give explaining how becoming a mother changed the way I teach. I paraphrase the famous quote, “Everyone in my classroom is someone else’s entire world.” It is important for me to let others know the reasons behind the decisions I make in my classroom. Parents send me their most precious joys each day, trusting that I will make the best decisions for their child throughout the year. I promise to be the type of teacher that I’d want for my own Jacob and Riley. That means I vow to give my students my very best each day; however, part of what I’ve come to realize is that sometimes (most times)… it’s not actually about me at all – it’s about the kids.

Before I was a parent, I was the teacher who had “the perfect classroom:” all set up and ready to go weeks before the first day. Name tags were on desks. Desks were perfectly organized into rows or small groups. Posters were laminated and displayed on every wall. Copies were made weeks in advance. Lesson plans were written for at least the first month. And… my name was proudly displayed outside of my classroom door. Now, I cringe at how I launched those early days of my career.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m an advocate for being prepared, planning ahead, and taking pride in one’s work. Being clinically diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it’s in my nature to be such teacher. However, the day my son came home from school so excited about being able to pick his own seat, add his art to the classroom wall, receive a “cool, meaningful, authentic” classroom job, and being used as a model for good ideas shared during a class discussion was the day I began to think differently about my practice as a classroom teacher. Thank you Mrs. Fleer!

Jacob has had many wonderful and inspiring educators in his early years of school, but what Mrs. Fleer did for him was give him voice. His ideas mattered. It wasn’t “her classroom;” it was their classroom. This was evident.

I encourage you to hold off on finishing your classroom library. Allow your students to help separate the books into genres. I bet they’ll be more willing to put the books back in the correct spots. How about leaving some walls blank, encouraging a space for students to add their contributions. What if we didn’t have name tags on desks on the first day of school? Instead… students picked up their nametag and selected a spot around the room where they felt comfortable – whether in a desk, rocking chair, or cozy nook in the corner. What if students got to share their learning goals on the first day of school instead of “being taught the classroom expectations” or “putting their names on their supplies and finding out where you want them to go?” How would those small changes set the stage for the remainder of the year?

Ann Landers once said, “It’s not what you do for your children but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.”

  • Ditch the Desks

I’ve written a lot about removing the desks from our classroom. Our space use to be a music room. The room is long and narrow. No matter how I arranged the desks, I could never navigate my way to certain areas. Thus, some students naturally received less personalized support. Once we received a cart of iPads, it became logistically impossible to encourage learners to collaborate and share since the furniture inhibited the ability to be flexible within the space. That’s when I knew I had to not only “ditch the student desks” but I had to remove my massive desk that was merely a counter to hold our computer, printer, document camera, and stacks of papers. Doing so allowed for increased flexibility when working together, in small groups, or independently.

Vast amounts of research has went into determining what sort of design works best for learning in various settings. My favorite research supports what I believe “just makes sense” for kids.

  • Carefully select colors and patterns

Creating a space that is gender neutral is important. Boys and girls alike should feel welcomed in their space. As tempted as we may be to outfit our rooms in hot pink chevron patterns, we must be cognizant of the student’s needs and level of comfort. Patterns should also be minimal in effort to not distract student’s attention from the content displayed.

  • Save energy and headaches with lighting choices

When possible, eliminate the use of harsh fluorescent lighting. A darker room will not only reduce the glare on your boards but may also be a more relaxing space to focus. Natural light is best. However, incandescent lighting (lamps) are easier on the eyes than bright overheads.

  • Eye level displays

Who loves to sit at the theater – front row, neck stretched, objects distorted? When we place items, like number lines, to border our ceilings (and laminate them) not only does a massive glare prevent us from seeing the resource, but the height makes the information inaccessible for learning. Bringing objects eye level allows students to touch, see, and use the materials to support their understanding.

  • Indulge their senses

Prior to having a son with a sensory disorder, I may not have paid much attention to this tip. But think about it… when you go to the spa, how are you able to relax? How does the environment affect the way you feel? When you walk into a children’s play facility like Chuck e Cheese, how does the environment change your actions? What colors do you see? What sounds do you hear? How does it smell? If you walk into the children’s corner of a Barnes and Noble, what does it look like? What is the clear focus of the space? Can you tell what is valued in the space? How is the environment setup? What are children doing?

  • Declutter.

Our classrooms aren’t a storage space for teacher supplies. They are a workshop for student learning and should reflect such. If there are more teacher files and binders seen in the classroom than games, manuplatives, and work areas for kids to create, collaborate, and share, what message does that say about what we deem valuable for that space? Whose space is it?

  • Flexible seating

Not just children, but all people, enjoy choice and comfort. Because students are spending a significant amount of their day in our schools, they should be afforded the opportunity to be comfortable as they learn. How do you focus best? What does your “just-right” work-space look like? feel like? Do you naturally gravitate towards blue, plastic chairs tucked tightly under a hard, small rectangular surface with limited space for your belongings?

  • Continue Professional Learning

As students suggest ideas, it’s up to us to have a professional toolbox comprehensive enough to know how to transfer their creative ideas into tangible applications to enhance curriculum and instruction.

How do we continue to learn professionally when time is a factor? We are all very busy. How do we attend various conferences or continue to learn when budget resources are limited?

What about once you’ve overcome the time and budget factors, how do you decide what conference to attend or even once there – which presenters to see or sessions to go to with so many choices?

These are questions I’m often asked by fellow educators across the country. I always start by recommending their state reading association conference or state technology association conference. I also recommend attending an unConference like an EdCamp which is free and led by the participants who attend. Then I share a few of my favorites like Miami Device in November or one I’m excited about such as the What Great Educators Do Differently conference coming up in October. As far as which presenters to see once at a conference, I start by recommending sessions led by actual classroom teachers. This way, you’re more likely to see examples of what’s actually happening daily for kids in order to elevate their understanding and engagement. I also enjoy sessions by members of the National Writing Project because they tend to be more demonstration based on strong pedagogy and less tool or device focused. Lastly, my “must-attend sessions” always include my favorite authors. I’ve learned so much from attending sessions by incredible authors like Donalyn Miller, Troy Hicks, and Kristen Ziempke. But above all, it’s important for educators to know that now more than ever professional learning can happen anytime, anywhere.

  • Anytime/Anywhere Professional Learning

– Books – an oldie but goodie:

Some of my favorite titles that have changed the way I teach or impacted me professional are:

There Are No Shortcuts
Best Year Ever
The Book Whisperer
Leading Professional Learning
Assessing Students’ Digital Writing
anything by Maria Dismondy
Passionate Learners
A Child Called It

  • Twitter – check out this full list of Twitter chats and times

Some of my favorite chats are: #edchat, #edtechchat, #miched, and #ntchat

  • Periscope – watch educators share conference highlights, classroom practices, and teacher tips live

Here are some great educators to follow on Periscope! You can find me @KleinErin on Periscope.

What’s Periscope? You can click here to read more – awesome post and beautifully illustrated through images!

  • Voxer – set up or join groups to discuss ideas, trends, and content that is related to your practice. I invite you to view the list of educators already Voxing that Joe Mazza has curated.
  • TED Talks – sit back, relax, listen, learn, and enjoy!

A few of my favorite Talks include:

If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.
-Ignacio ‘Nacho’ Estrada

How will you decide to teach your children this year? What will your learning space look like? How will you continue to model lifelong learning?

Connect with Erin and Tom Throughout the Year

As Tom and I travel the country, presenting, consulting, and coaching, we will share insights from inside classroom spaces along with what leadership teams and fellow educators are doing to transform their learning spaces for teaching and learning. Be sure to also connect with our two Classroom Cribs co-Founders: AJ Juliani and Ben Gilpin. If you’re interested in contacting us for any speaking engagements or consulting work, please reach out to either of us via the contact pages on our blogs. We’d love to work with your school or district!

Lead Image Credit:
Cemetery Effect Images: (via subscription), altered


Mother. Teacher. Keynote. Author

Erin Klein is an award winning educator, national keynote speaker, author, and mother.

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