The topic of minimalism has been popping up all around me the past few years. According to the website The Minimalists, “minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” Eager to find out how this movement could impact my own life, I picked up some books on the subject from the local library and set out on a journey to downsize, declutter, and make way for more living. I’d like to share with you what I learned and how these concepts might help you as teachers design more organized, vibrant classrooms!
Shannon Kaiser, author of "Find Your Happy: An Inspirational Guide to Living Life to Its Fullest" taught me the connection between decluttering and happiness: “the importance of downsizing is significant. Whenever you take a stand to unclutter your life and downsize, you are sending a loud and clear message to the universe that you will remove unwanted things from your life. It may seem silly, but when you clear out space you have more room to play, laugh, love and live.” She’s right. Even though I love art, and trinkets, and even a few kitschy knick-knacks, I find I feel more peaceful and more present when I have less to look at as I enter a room. Now, I try to choose two or three items to be the focal point, and I let go of the little things that don’t make an immediate impact.
From Marie Kondo, author of The "Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up", I learned to accept her somewhat hilarious realization that “storage experts are hoarders.” Yep, that one hit home! Especially because I’ve spent so much time (and money) trying to find just the right shelving units, storage baskets, and creative tricks to keep all of my stuff organized—rather than acknowledging that maybe my stuff is the real problem. The bottom line is that organized clutter is still clutter, and let’s face it, clutter does not stay organized!
I think the reason I (and so many teachers I know) tend to hold onto things is that we work from a mindset of scarcity. Shrinking budgets means less…of everything. Sooner or later, this sense of scarcity creeps into even our most basic choices. Rather than throwing out that tattered book with missing pages or the fading Crayola markers with mismatched caps, we think, “maybe someday I’ll need this” or “it’s better than nothing.” The most important thing we can do is learn to declutter our classrooms, our homes, and our lives, from a mindset of enough. We have to trust we will have what we need. We also need to declutter with the present in mind: if the things we have are not routinely used or do not routinely bring us happiness, we need to trust ourselves to let these things go.
With these ideas in mind, here are some simple, concrete ways to declutter your classroom starting today:
1.Take Photos of Student Work
We all know the benefit of sharing student samples when we introduce new projects each year. Rather than keeping the actual projects, take some great photos of those paintings, 3-D models, drawings, and posters. Better yet, include the student in the pictures so they can be remembered along with their project! Taking pictures and then returning the items to your students saves room in your closets and allows you to organize the images into “Hall of Fame” PowerPoints to share with future classrooms of creators and inventors!
Tech Tip: You can use this same strategy with your own paper files. Even if you’ve switched to digital storage, do you still have file cabinets of older worksheets or paper-based resources? Download the free phone app Scannable and start converting those resources to digital files. Scannable lets you snap a photo of a print-based document and convert it to a PDF. Easy!
2. Curate Your Classroom Library
If you keep a classroom library, try creating a rating system to keep track of the books your students actually read and enjoy. That way, you can remove unpopular books every year or two to make way for new gems. Try this: put a post-it note inside the cover of each book. When students finish the book, ask them to rate it, and then record this rating along with the date they read the book on the post-it. As you add new books, you can then remove the “duds” from the collection. Try not to take this process personally. It was hard for me to see that my worn copy of "Jane Eyre" went unread for years, but I had to accept that my students had new and equally important interests!
3. Let Your Students’ Work Be the Focus of Classroom Decor
Instead of storing large seasonal or topic-based displays from year to year, start asking your students to contribute more! You might start with a basic bulletin board and then let students bring in images to share. You can also buddy up with other teachers to rotate decorations from year to year. Even if these displays aren’t as polished as the ones you could design yourself, you’ll be reducing clutter and fostering student pride and ownership in your classroom!
Here’s another great tip: don’t feel obligated to cover every area of your classroom with decorations. Yes, we all get “Pinterest-envy” from time to time when we see great classroom displays, but as my friend and colleague Susie pointed out to me recently: “it’s good to have blank space, too. It gives your eyes a place to rest.” For students that have attention or anxiety issues, less decor can actually be more energizing.
4. Keep a Donation Box Handy At All Times
Tuck a cardboard box labeled “donations” into a convenient area of your classroom. This way, anytime you (or your students) come across an item that is no longer useful, you can place it right in the box. You can then drop the box off at your local Goodwill or offer it to other teachers, but make sure you commit to emptying it completely. If you let other teachers know it’s available and no one bites, don’t feel bad—and definitely don’t tuck it away “just in case someone needs it someday.” Let it go!
5. If It Must Be Stored, Make It Count
As teachers, even when we eliminate unnecessary clutter, we are still left with a lot of important stuff. Vibrant and engaging classrooms are filled with creative art materials, books and writing materials, maker-space stations, and tech devices—to name a few! When it comes to caring for these important resources, take the time to organize carefully. Invest in the best materials you can afford to save replacement time in the future, and don’t be afraid to sacrifice style for function. A few years ago, I removed my colorful bins of varying shapes and sizes, the random buckets, and repurposed oatmeal storage containers and replaced them all with clear storage containers from the same manufacturer. They are not quite as cute, but they make my life so much easier.
Here’s to more living and less stuff!
If you are looking for some additional tips to organize your materials, check out this collection of ideas I’ve discovered over the years: Smart Storage Ideas to Organize Your Classroom.