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Setting up your room for the year

I've been very frank about my weaknesses, but organizing space has always been a major strength of mine.  That is why, when a reader requested suggestions for setting up a K-8 classroom, I smiled and got excited. 

How do I organize space?  

It really depends on your needs and which space you have.  In my career I've had everything from a fully-stocked dream room to a cart going room-to-room for classes.  There are a few things you'll need in any space, so I'll mention those things and how to use them in various physical settings. 

The cart   

This is essential for good classroom control and space conservation.  I like the one pictured here because its three-tier design unfolds into an Orff table where children can sit or stand and play.  If you have heavier materials or more permanent materials (like speakers, a keyboard, or other electronics) that need to live on top of the table, you might want one that doesn't unfold. 

Autonomous Music Room

Having your instruments in a cart saves space for dancing, small group activities, and games.  It is essential that you take significant class time to teach children how to put the instruments back on the cart.  You need to show the students how to

  • work in buddy groups to carry and store larger instruments
  • stow mallets and smaller instruments so that they are neat and organized
  • put bars back on the instruments 
  • check instrument bars by reading the letters
  • where to put f# and Bb bars
  • how the larger instruments need to be stored back-to-front so that they can fit on the shelves
15-20 minutes of this instruction will save you hours of prep and clean up time during the year.  I have not had students take the instruments from the cart as a general rule.  I bestow instruments on students who show readiness.

A multi-purpose room

The use of a cart is essentially the same as an autonomous room with the exception that you must make sure you begin clean up early enough to ensure the use of the room immediately after the lesson.  Have a game ready to play if the clean up is unusually efficient.

The regular classroom

Here I'd suggest the kind of cart that doesn't fold.  You need to have an ipod dock, keyboard, mallets, unpitched percussion, and game materials on this cart.  Generally, you need the cart loaded with several grade levels worth of materials.  Consider putting stick-on velcro curtains (or a blanket) on the side of the cart so that children not playing Orff instruments won't see them and fixate on them.  Having the sides of the cart be a mystery also lends to the mysterious unfolding of the lesson.  Even with the agenda on the board, students love to have something wonderful pulled from the cart for them to explore. 

The Rug
 Autonomous Music Room
Any fabric needs to be fire retardant.

Early childhood students (PreK-Grade 2) need circle spots on a rug for music class.  You need to be careful about your choice of rug because there are often fire code regulations regarding classroom furniture and decorations.  YOU MUST CONSULT WITH YOUR PRINCIPAL BEFORE YOU BUY A RUG.  Sure, you want to get a free carpet from a garage sale or on clearance, but, if your principal is a stickler for safety regulations, she/he will NOT ALLOW THE RUG IN THE BUILDING.  While the majority of principals don't inspect their buildings for fire safety by turning over each rug and examining each message board, I find that the best ones do.  Your principal will really appreciate you talking to them about the rug.

Fire retardant rugs are about 2 to 3 times the cost of a regular rug.  There are some sprays that can be used, again, check with your principal and/or fire department about the regulations regarding sprays or factory-treated materials. 

Make sure your rug has the number of circle spots equal to the maximum class size for your early elementary grades.  The rug pictured here is rectangular, but I suggest an oblong rug with 25 distinct spots to sit.  The oblong or circular shape really helps when playing moving circle games, square dances, and student choreography.  Having the individual spots is essential for classroom management as personal space helps children be less fidgety and more physically secure.

I prefer non-musical rugs. Here is one with a map of the world and children all around.  I can show students where their songs come from and some native dance costumes using a rug like this.  

All Purpose Room

leftover modular carpet is awesome!
A rug is not realistic in an all-purpose room.  There is usually no place to store an enormous rolled rug, and your custodian won't appreciate having a rug in the cafeteria.  I suggest carpet squares or modular carpet sections.  Our school recently recarpeted the classrooms.  I asked the custodian for the leftover pieces.  I asked for 30.  "Where are you going to keep them?" was his first response.  When I showed him where they could be stacked, he gave them to me.  They are about 18 inches long and 6 inches deep.

We have an amazing custodian, so our floor is mopped DAILY!  We sit on the floor for circle games and have a wonderful time.  Also, because I work in a Montessori school, we have indoor and outdoor shoes.  Children usually enter my class wearing slippers.  They aren't tracking dirt into the room this way.  If you don't have this luxury, you may want to begin each class at tables with assigned seats and have 1-2 students put down the carpet squares as you play the opening game.  That way your circle is defined for dancing and your class loses no time getting started.  Choose one chatty and one model student for this job.  

Regular Classroom
E:  Dance around the room, Orff on the desks

Most classrooms have a circle carpet or gathering area, use it and use the seating chart that the classroom teacher has formulated.  She knows the kids much better than you do, and her seating plan can put out behavioral fires!

You might want to invest in some carpet squares for setting up your Orff orchestra.  It really depends on weather students have tables or individual desks.  Older students need a place to sit where there is a chair and some kind of table surface.  They need very defined spaces and they need to be seated away from friends.  I like boy-girl seating for upper elementary grades.

Planning Lessons for Space

If you use Orff instruments this week, use them in all your classes.  That way you are using the same vocabulary, facing the same classroom management issues (and getting better with each class) and polishing your teaching with every period.  Structure the lessons the same way and work on honing your transitions.

For example:  Let's say you are teaching fourth grade (classroom in picture "E") for one class and then doing 3 Kindergarten classes on a rug in their classrooms (like the rug in picture "D")  It's September, so Kindergarten is learning the families of instruments (wood, metal, membranes) and you are on the woods.  Load the cart with wood blocks, rhythm sticks, claves, temple blocks, and guiros and head out for class.  Your basic structure of the class would be
  1. opening game (to concentrate the mind, not excite the body)
  2. memorizing a poem
  3. body percussion
  4. introduction of the instrument of the week
  5. review the poem both spoken and in body percussion
  6. playing the instrument to the poem's rhythm
  7. Kindergarten would transition to playing their normal array of games and fourth graders can do more complex arrangements using the new instrument, old instruments, and ostinati to make their own larger class composition.  
  8. Perform for the teacher when she picks them up!
You will be structuring the classes the same way, so you can remember them and your flow will be better.  You will also not be leaving out details that will make the introduction of the new instrument smoother because you will be constantly honing the lesson with all your classes.  Even veteran teachers teach better as the week progresses!

Planning this way means that you can make your lessons richer.  Instead of a few Orff wood instruments, you can bring them all, instead of dancing using just hands, you can use scarves.  You can pack individual dry erase staves, costume pieces, puppets, and other bulky items if you teach the same genre of lessons to all children.

 Look at this performance by early elementary children.  Movement, singing, and strong Orff instrument skills are needed to pull off a performance like this.  Think about the various lessons that go into building the skills to perform this song.  How would you go about it?  What would you do each week?  How would you pack your cart?


I worked at a rough city middle school at the beginning of my career.  When I first went into the room, my shoes came off because there was so much gum embedded in the rug.  The building was from around 1900 with murals from the WPA.  My room was a gorgeous oak paneled library.    There were no instruments for students and no piano.  I realized that the carpet was a lost cause and got some rugs for the floor.  I also got some beautiful toile fabric and put it in some big poster frames.  I screwed the frames to some of the shelving, making doors to hide my instruments, speakers, and purse.  Any kid could have easily punched through those poster frames, but kids don't take what they can't see.  I had a little lock on the frames, but nobody ever tried to get into those doors.

I used shelves for students to put their books and other materials upon entering my room.  There was a teacher's desk and that was my space, no students every went back there.  Students did mess with my desk and take things from it (pencils, pens, etc) but they never got any real valuables from behind the doors I made.

Classroom B seems to have a wall of bulletin boards and a perhaps a wall of white board.  Younger students could face the bulletin boards which could have a felt board for icons and agenda pictures.  The risers are very portable and can be converted into stages, this gives lots of flexibility with seating and small group activities.  We don't see the teacher's space in this picture, but we can imagine it is behind the vantage point of the photographer.

Look at picture A at the top of this post.  This classroom has loads of room and this set up looks like it would be perfect for a singing lesson or a movement lesson.  The Orff instruments are not accessible to the students, they are tucked away behind the teacher's "line of scrimmage", the place where she stands and walks about.

F: Does this room make you salivate or what?
How about classroom F?  Where would you put your coat and valuables?  Is there a closet?  Will children be distracted by the windows during lessons when other children are out at recess?  Do the shades help?  Maybe putting pianos in front of those windows would help.  All in all, this room looks amazing.  There's plenty of room, new instruments, and pianos for use in lessons.  

Summing up

  • Evaluate your room(s) and learn to deliniate spaces within the room
  • Use a rug for classroom management and classroom routines
  • Make a cart part of your instrument and material organization
  • deliniate your space from student space, this helps with the teaching how to use materials and with security of personal articles


Anonymous said…
Thank you so much for posting this and including all kinds of great information! It is very helpful in thinking about my upcoming year!

Anonymous said…
I taught in two schools last year and had to quickly learn the kind of things you just posted about. Excellent post!
ARTURO said…
Hi. I'm fascinated with your post. I'm planning to start a Orff Ensemble into the School of Music where I'm the principal and the Conductor of the Youth Symphony Orchestra, in Grecia, Costa Rica.

I very impressed with your vision of the work, and sincerely that is what I'm thinking about.

Can you give some advice to start effectively a high-standard group of children, starting at 5 years old, in order to turn it in the base or 'seedbed' for our symphony program.

I'll be waiting for some counseling lines, using my email,
Anonymous said…
Where can that non-folding cart be purchased?

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