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Classroom Management, Education Trends   |   Jul 29, 2013

The culture of cute in the classroom

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

The culture of cute in the classroom

By Angela Watson

I recently received not just one, but two emails from teachers informing me that my classroom “wasn’t cute” in the pictures I’ve shared on this site. Commentary on cuteness (or lack thereof) is something that seems to be happening more and more frequently in education-related discussions. And what’s really interesting is that in many cases, “not cute” is meant as a compliment.

Here’s an excerpt from one email:

It seems like every time I’m looking for opinions, suggestions, and practical information about teaching, especially integrating technology in the K-6 classroom or differentiation, I am directed to middle school blogs run by male teachers. The elementary blogs seem to talk about cute bulletin board themes and actually use the word “cuteify”- as in, to make more cute, when talking about creating worksheets. It’s pretty depressing. I mean, worksheets? I found your weblog when looking for ideas about bulletin boards, simply because I have little space and less inclination; I hate bulletin board borders and pre-made things.  Your suggestions were clear, to the point, and most certainly not cute.  Student centered, student directed, and useful, yes. Exploring more, I found some practical suggestions for things that I’m considering as I’m setting up my own new classroom, and a clear sense that your view of being a teacher is not in how great you display student work, but how you use your time and energy to be the be guide (not master) for students.

Two days later, I received this from another frustrated teacher:

I follow quite a few blogs that are wonderful. The creators seem like wonderful teachers but do a lot of “fluff” and extras in a time when teachers are busier than ever. I am seeing that many teachers insist on having classroom themes (jungle, sports, animals, etc.). Teachers redo word wall words, parent notes, student information packets, learning stations, labeling systems, etc. to match the theme. Is this time well spent when we should be personalizing learning, deepening thinking, and many more?!? While looking at photos on your blog, I don’t see any of these things. I see a welcoming, engaging classroom that is “to the point” and contains the essentials. I noticed that you even commented about not putting holiday/seasonal thing up. I’ve taught for over ten years and have never had a student ask me why we don’t have Halloween, spring, etc decor on the walls. Do themes, different graphic organizers for each story with clip art from the story and all that really increase student achievement?

If you’ve been reading Matt Gomez’ blog, you know without a doubt that cuteness has become a hot button topic among teachers. But why is there such a divide between the cutes and cute-nots? Is it possible to accept the fact that teachers have different opinions of what they want their classrooms and materials to look like, and there’s no one right way?

The culture of cute in the classroom

I haven’t chosen sides in this debate, nor have I purposefully fallen on the not-cute side. In fact, until a few years ago, I thought my stuff WAS cute. It wasn’t until the boom in teacher blogging and Pinterest that I realized just how much more I could be doing. Social media has given us a glimpse into other people’s worlds and we see possibilities now that were unknown before. There are so many creative educators out there making their learning spaces and materials picture perfect that it’s easy to feel inferior. Many of us think we’re using Pinterest to find and share ideas, but half the time, we close the computer feeling that our classrooms (and homes, recipes, clothes, and bodies) don’t measure up to everyone else’s.

Though I don’t have a problem with individual teachers “cuteifying” their classrooms (or blogging about it, or buying/selling adorable things on Teachers Pay Teachers), I do have some concerns with the “culture of cute” as a whole, and I’ll share two reasons why.

First, I’m worried that making things look cute has become yet another unnecessary task and impossible standard for teachers to meet. The pressure to have a perfect-looking classroom can be intense in some schools, and teachers already feel that nothing they do is good enough. They barely have time to plan lessons or grade papers, but they feel guilty if their center materials use clashing color schemes. They worry that a plain-looking assignment shouldn’t be displayed even though it required higher level thinking on the part of students, and choose a precious but less challenging worksheet to hang up instead. They spend so much time creating the appearance of a beautiful learning environment that they’re too tired to think about the learning itself.

I can’t help but think that the time we spend making things look good is time we could have spent talking with students, creating meaningful assignments, differentiating learning, analyzing and reflecting on our own practice, and growing professionally. Sure, it’s possible to have style AND substance, but how do you make time for both when you’re barely keeping your head above water? Focusing on the appearance of things is easier and a often lot more fun, so it can become a distraction from the real purpose of teaching.

My second concern is that in some cases, we’re using “cute” to compensate for boring and outdated teaching practices. If the only way to get students to complete an assignment is to put adorable clip art and borders on it, I will submit that it might be time to rethink the assignment itself. Project-based learning and other tasks that are meaningful and authentic don’t need fancy disguises: the “hook” for kids is solving a real-world problem that they’re personally invested in. Realistically, I know that not everything kids do in school can fit that criteria, but I wonder if our energy is better spent on finding more authentic tasks instead of cuter worksheets.

I would love to know how much time, effort, and (let’s get real) money you spend making things in your classroom look cute. How do you balance cuteness with content when choosing learning materials or figuring out how to manage your time? All respectful viewpoints are welcome–let’s discuss!

 

Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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Discussion


  1. I am of two minds on this topic. As a veteran of more than 24 years of teaching various grade levels, I have done the classroom theme in my earlier years. It helped to unify the year. The first few years I fell into the overall, cute theme category. But as I learned more, changed grades…my themes tended to be less outside of the world of education and more directed at what was being taught. For instance, I had a 4th – 6th grade class for a few years. My theme one of those years was exploring the continents. Since each of those grade levels focused on various regions… for their history and or science (ecosystems) this worked well. We spent one month on each continent, 2 on North America). On that continent we used our history and science themes to direct the learning. We started the year creating a huge mural on one wall of the a world map, only painting in the water for starters. As we looked at ecosystems and peoples of the region we added to the continent coloring in rainforests, putting up icons for major centers of civilizations of long ago, and yarn showing trade routes… By the end of the year we could refer to the map and compare each continent… This type of theme teaching I like. But movie stars, sports motif I have never understood.

    As for “cutesifying” everything, I look to my time as a teacher in Japan for the answer. I think teachers in the US are so tired of always teaching to the test. I feel like our classrooms have become unappealing to spend time in, as our noses are to the grindstone, with little fun. Adding the cute graphics and color to worksheets is a teacher’s way of rebelling against the drabness of standardized teaching and testing. How does this relate to the time I spent in Japan? I observed that all children went to school in the same uniform, using the same book bags, paper,…with similar haircuts (as there were actually rules about hair too). On the weekend and evenings, when kids were not in school mode, their clothes, bags, paper, ….became the opposite of their day to day life of blue and white clothes. It was their way of pushing back. If you opened up a kids book bag, you would have found the funny assortment of cute pencil boxes and mechanical pencils, as this was about the only place they could differ at school – that and their bento boxes. Have you ever walked into a Japanese store that sells stationary and notebooks? Take a look some time, and you will find the variety is astounding, and a bit quirky.

    But as I was saying, there is a place for themes, and I can understand the need to cute everything, but not sure it has to be everything. In moderation perhaps.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head – there is a lot about teaching that has become “un-fun”, but my classroom decor is my desperate attempt to liven the atmosphere for both myself and the students.

  2. Wow, this post helped remind me that I’m not the only teacher who refuses to shell out hundreds of dollars each year to create new themes and have everything looking “picture perfect”. I still use some frog job charts and accents that I bought my first year teaching. I just have some basic yellow, green, and blue fabrics for bulletin boards. My other decorations for the frog theme have been given to me by students and I love putting them around the room each year! Students will always ask, “Where did you get this?” and its great to respond with a story about a former student.

    A great take-away from a CAST session a few years ago talked about this very thing. The presenter said her room is practically bare at the start of the year and slowly fills up with all student work/posters/charts/etc. By the end of the year, the room is fill with a mix of products representing all the information they’ve learned. Now that just might be the best “decorating” advice I’ve heard!

  3. Hi Angela,

    This is something you and I have discussed. I refrain from posting many of my items because they aren’t cute. In fact, they are often a hot mess! However, I love them. You can see the process that went into developing the product/project.

    I’m not a fan of cute. I am, however, a huge fan of aesthetically pleasing design that allows for a brain-friendly learning environment. Honestly, I cringe when I see certain colors in rooms – especially when they are filled with stuff. I’m an advocate of ‘less is more’

    With a background in interior design (I studied 3 years at Michigan State – full disclaimer: I do NOT have a degree in this area) and certification in Brain Gym training coupled with extensive hours of professional development training from Linda Jordan under the Highly Effective Teaching Model, I feel like at times our profession loses sight of what is really best for the children the space should be designed to accommodate. Stated differently, why the need for hot pink? Why the need for polka dots? Hmmmm…

    At the root of design, I first began doing basic research into the Montessori approach. I especially liked how the design kept the students at the center for form and function. Bravo! Food for thought… where is your number line in your room? Up by the celling? Why not move it about 3 feet from the floor?

    I do think that classrooms need to be attractive: free of clutter, calming colors, consistent flow of furniture layout/balance, eye level materials for students, etc. Why not bring in nature into the classroom. How many teachers have plants in their rooms? multiple plants…. Do you use overhead fluorescent lighting or incandescent and natural lighting?

    I think design should have a thoughtful approach – not for a cute room but for a room that is developmentally appropriate for the kids.

    This is a great PPT resource: Creating Conditions for Learning Link:
    http://www.thecenter4learning.com/html/resources/support.htm

    When designing a classroom space, it makes me wonder how many teachers set out to design the physical classroom to support long-term learning.

    Thanks for your post,

    Erin Klein
    Kleinspiration

    1. You’ve made some fabulous points here, Erin! I totally agree that less is more. It’s more about how accessible the things are that students need to learn like: where is that number line? How does the seating impact the flow? All of those functional questions need to be addressed through the lens of the learner.
      Thanks again, Angela for this thought inspiring post!

  4. Great post- today I was reading a blog where the teacher posted pictures of all the wonderful coordinated labels even name plates that she made for her students. I thought boy those look really good. My students design their own name plates on card stock. I think I’ll stick to the student designed. It is much cheaper and my students love making them for themselves.

  5. As long as it is functional – cute or not so cute – that’s what is important. I will start the year with bare walls reserved for student work and anchor charts the students help me create. That’s what works for me. If cute works for the teacher next door, that’s fine with me too.

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