A peek inside my classroom space

My first day with students is this Monday.  I am sitting here on a Saturday night exhausted after prepping all week and also working twice at Minnesota’s State Fair at our Math On-a-Stick booth.  You all from other states need to be jealous of our amazing event for 12 days each year – you can check out a video of our event HERE or search @MathOnaStick on twitter to check out all the great things going on this year.  The amazing Annie Perkins was our visiting mathematician today with Annie Fetter on doc for tomorrow.  Here are a couple of photos from today’s event.

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Despite my exhaustion, I wanted to add my submission to the amazing Julie Reulbach’s Sunday-Funday blogging challenge for this week – Organization tips for your classroom.  On Friday I took a ton of pictures in my classroom.  I’ve been teaching for 25 years and what I value in my classroom has changed a lot.  I thought I would start with a video tour of my classroom and then tell you about a few of my favorite organization tips in my classroom.    First a tour of my classroom….

I have lots of favorite parts of my classroom. In no particular order, here are a few thoughts on a few of them…


Back in the day I did all kinds of things to organize extra handouts & homework to get to students who were absent or lost their assignments.  Most of my methods added more work on my side than I liked.  At my most organized My bin of assignments looked something like this one:For the last many years I’ve found a magic solution that is almost no work on my end.  I have one plastic bin that I put every extra handout and assignment in at the end of class each day. (Note:  When I make copies I have found adding an extra 10% is sufficient to cover loss assignments so I rarely if ever have to go make more copies).  I do not file the assignments in folders – I simply plop them down on the top of the pile.  The bin contains the mess and is sort of like the rings of a tree telling the story of our class from top (most current) to bottom (oldest handouts).  After a simple explanation to my students of the system, I have had almost no problem with students finding what they need on their own.  They simply dig down – but most just need the ones on the top.  I’ve taught them to rely on their peers (look in their notebooks or ask) for what they missed.  I also give them a list of assignments for each unit in a 1 page (pink) calendar.  I place this bin by the classroom door and students know they can enter my room anytime (even during other classes) and dig out what they need.  I’ve rarely had this be an interruption to my classes.  At the end of each quarter, I recycle anything left and start over.  It has been amazing.  For you uber-organized sorts, trust me – letting go of filing extra handouts is something that gains you time and you lose nothing in terms of students finding what they need quickly.  I’ve slowly turned even my most control freak teacher friends on to this and they love it too.  My friend, Morgan has 4 different types of math in her classroom, so she has 4 bins side by side.  


I have several favorite organization supplies in my room.  I blogged about my love of VELCRO for your classroom HERE.  I always keep ‘Command Hooks’ (my friend Greta learned about my love about them and blogged about them HERE), magnets & superglue in my desk at all times.  I also keep a ton of medium and large binder clips around at all times.  I use binder-clips to clip together handouts & homework I will use in class soon.  I use large binder clips to clip together class sets of tests or whatever else I want to contain (vs using folders).  Recently I made 3 sets of numbered large binder clips with the digits of my class periods on them (so I did not have to keep putting post-it notes saying ‘2nd hour’ on clipped papers.  I LOVE them!  I love them so much I make sets as presents for my teaching peers.

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I LOVE them!  I love them so much I make sets as presents for my teaching peers.  To make them you only need large binder clips, clear packing tape and the numbers.  I’ve made it easy for you and you can use my Word-Doc to make a set of your own: Binder Clip Labels (simply cut inside the rectangles).  If you can’t tell, I teach 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 7th hours this school year.


 One of the biggest requests I get from other teachers when they visit my classroom is for the document I used to create my GROUP SIGNS.  The bad news is I made these years ago and have lost the file.  (update – Good News – A former student teacher, Megan Rubbelke made a version you can get here: Group Number Signs)  I’ll recreate it sometime and post here if I do -but I thought I’d tell you why I love them.   Greta Bergman made group signs up to 10!  You can get her version HERE.

#1:  I love to label groups ABOVE each table, so when students are (visibly & randomly) added to a group, they know to look up to quickly locate the group.

#2:  I’ve learned to attach my group table signs to the ceiling with magnets.  Back in the day I would time them up there with fishing line -but when they fell down it was annoying to retie them up there.  Then I realized that in every classroom I’ve been in the ceiling tiles are joined by metal strips – and the solution was easy – magnets.  If a sign falls, I simply stand on a chair to put it up.  If I move my group locations, I just slide the signs via the magnet to a new location.  Easy-peasy.

#3:  They are a bit mathy – each sign has a number on one side – on the other there are that number of expressions equivalent to that number on the other side.  I’ve made them for groups #1-10 -but only took pictures of 7 shown below.

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UPDATE August 2018 – Table Numbers!

Meet my friend Beth Esposito.  She is a PHENOMENAL 6th/7th grade math teacher in Minneapolis.  Most of you reading this should be sending her a thank you card because Beth is the one that introduced me to the 100# activity – an activity so many of you use week 1 each school year.

Beth just shared with me her really cool Table Number Signs she made after visiting my classroom. Beths are colorful and amazing.  You can print some for your own room because she shared the file with me.  Download them HERE -> Table Numbers


I don’t put too much on my walls in recent years.  I continue to work hard to reduce the amount of visual noise I have in my classroom.  I have some rules for what I do put on my walls.  If something does not fit one or more of these rules, then I don’t put it up.


  • Do my students look at it regularly (like almost every day)?  One thing that fits this rule is my #Math Fail wall which I blogged about here.  I have one set on a back wall in my room and one set in the hall outside my room.  I own a really nice laminator and I’ve laminated each #mathfail and attached them to the walls with magnets.
  • Do I refer to the thing on my wall regularly (like almost every day)?  One thing that fits this rule is my unit pictures.  Each unit I post 4-10 photos/vocab that we will study.  On the first day of the unit we do a Stand & Talk and with a 8.5×11 copy of all the pictures and PREDICT what we will be learning in the unit.  Throughout the unit I point to pictures (or have student pictures) to note our progress in the unit.  At the end of the year I find a visual review of the year jogs students memory’s better than a a list of written topics we’ve studied.  At the end of each unit I take the set of pictures down and put up the next unit’s visuals.
  • Does it represent my students communities or events in their communities?  One thing that fits this rule are these 3 signs.  I blogged about the #61 poster HERE.
  • Does it explain some classroom procedure?

Here are a couple of other things I have on my classroom walls:

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In this mix of pics you will see my desk and a few things (like copies of standards….) I post just for me, My ‘play’ posters above my play table, directions for students, my ‘what is math?’ poster (I refer to this almost every day), and minimal vocabulary (I hate word walls – I’ll blog about why soon) – Day 1 words are ‘notice’ and ‘wonder’.


On every group table I keep out 2 plastic bins at all time.  One contains 4-5 graphing calculators (we also use Desmos all the time).  I refuse to check them out.  I keep the same number in each bin and teach students to make sure they are always there.  At the start of the year I count them regularly and monitor them, but once students know the system I don’t think about them too often.  I rarely lose more than one (if any) a year.   These bins also have a large number of glue-sticks.  I don’t teach out of a textbook and we often glue things into our notebook.

I also keep a bin of markers, highlighters and colored pencils at each group for students to use as they like.  Some like to color-code their notebooks.  I often ask them to annotate and/or highlight something in their notebook and some students simply doodle -which I am OK with as long as they are engaged in mathematics at the same time.  I teach students to manage these supplies -throw away old items and get new ones without involving me.  


I love my calculator museum. I make space for it just because.  Visitors love it.  It sparks conversations about peoples love or dislike of math.  It speaks to a history of our craft.  You need this.  Start with what you have.


I have 3 orange ping-pong balls hanging from my classroom ceiling.  I use them for a set of lessons 3rd quarter.  I could wait until then to put them up (on magnets, of course), but I love having them up to spark students natural curiosity and build anticipation.  Students ask fairly early on (often day 1) why they are there and I say “you will find out later this year.  why do you think I put them up in a math classroom?”  Every room needs something unexpected.  (note:  are you wondering why they are there?  I will leave you waiting  a bit.  I will blog about why they are there sometime later this school year).


I love my 2 blue (on wheels) blue IKEA carts.  I use one bin for each class to organize stuff from each class.  I keep my name tents in these bins, along with many other things.  (I rarely collect homework or papers though – so unless I have tests or projects, what is in there are more like exit slips or other things)   I highly recommend these carts.  I keep them near my desk.


Here are some other random pics of my room.  I love things on wheels (my blue rolly table for distributing handouts).    I love stools for me (not that I sit that often).  I love my play table.

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I love plastic bins for organizing everything.  I’ve worked to minimize what I keep.  All my classroom supplies fit on these shelves.  (I also have 2 – 2 drawer file cabinets).  If I have not used something in the last year, I get rid of it.  I have a 1 shelf of teacher books rule – any more than that and I give some away.

I do not keep my curriculum in binders, instead I have one bin slightly larger than a piece of paper I keep everything for a unit in.  Included are card sorts, vocab posters, answer keys, etc.  If it does not fit in this one bin, I get rid of it.  All these bins fit on one shelf.  I love them.  Each unit I take out the one I am using and use it to plan and refine what I am doing.

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I buy these bins when I can find them on sale at Target.  I buy just a few at a time.  I store all my supplies in them. Ones student can access any time are labeled.  For example, students know to stand up anytime to get new glue sticks if their classroom tables are out.


This is what you don’t want.  Annoying tape you can’t get off furniture without a ton of effort.  Each spring we need to pack up our classrooms.  We label everything – usually with masking tape – as everything will be removed from our classrooms while they clean and our rooms are often used for summer school and other things.  Experienced teachers know you label everything.  You label it twice if you need to.  Here is my tip.  It is obvious to many, but to those it is not obvious it causes lots of annoying work in the fall.  Be sure to fold over one side of your tape BEFORE sticking it to furniture, so you have a tab to pull it off in the fall.

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I extend my classroom into the hallways.  Here are a couple of ways I do this:

  • I make classroom signs for all 16 math classrooms.  Most of us share classroom spaces so it is both informational but also links us visually.  Here is my original: South Math Room Signs
  • I put a set of #mathfails.   
  • I put up a math problem to solve just for fun.  I blogged about why HERE.  I change these problems every week or 2.
  • I put up posters identifying our area as the ‘math department’ along with Christopher Danielson’s amazing ‘Which one Doesn’t Belong’ posters (you can order them HERE).  I purchased cheap $8 frames at Target for all these posters.  The ‘south math department’ posters I ordered from Vistaprints.

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  • Down by our ‘Math Center’ I put up a daily nerdy math thought.  Each day I post a new one.  You can find all 180 of these at the bottom of this post.


My coworker Stephanie was both a math ed and art major.  She always has the most clever ideas.  I thought I’d share her clever idea for displaying student work in the halls.  It is simple and a bit mathy. She creates these amazing gallery’s using 3 medium binder clips, 4 mini binder clips, 1 meter stick and some string (or she used curling ribbon, because that is what she had on hand).  Check it out.  So great.  I took a bunch of photos of her gallery.  It does not have student work on it yet, but it will soon and she changes it out often.  Brilliant.  You need to do this at your school.

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UPDATE!  9.14.17

I took inspiration from my friend Stephanie and added some meter stick art display areas to my classroom.  I started by hanging photos of my students engaged in great group work (from my 100#’s task).  I like to reference these photos any time we do group work and ask students to name what I expect to see as we work in community.  I love my place to hang student photos and eventually student work.  Thanks Stephanie!


Another FAVORITE of mine is my red bin of folders I use when students need privacy for tests (I’ve had this same bin forever – rarely do I need to throw one of them away or manage them in any way).   My room has tables and I need a quick/easy way for students to build what I often call a ‘privacy fort’ for tests.  I tell them to grab 3-5 folders on their way into class and set a space for them at their table.  I love this bin (that I can store on my shelf when not in use) because students manage the resource (take, set-up and return) and they don’t take too much space to store.  Here is what students work spaces look like on test days.  

That is all for now.  As always, I love hearing from you.  Comment below or tweet me @saravdwerf.  Have a great start to your school year.  Send me your prayers and best wishes this next week.  I will be enjoying week 1 with students, writing in name tents every day and going out to work at Math On-a-Stick in the evenings.  I’ll need your best wishes to survive the week.

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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