A room of their own: Using personalized classroom aesthetics to increase learner representation and engagement


All grades (ECE-12)

Applicable to all

Denver Center for International Studies - Montbello (DCIS-M), Positive Refocus Education Program (PREP) Academy, Beach Court Elementary, McMeen Elementary

To involve students in personalizing the classroom to:

  • Allow students to physically see themselves in the space and be involved in the design of the classroom.

  • Increase student ownership of the space as well as engagement and connection with the teacher and their peers.

  • Incorporate students' backgrounds and cultures into the class to increase representation.

Relationships and Culture, Strategic Use of Space


"Why would people who look and dress as fly as me and my team want to be in a place that looks like this? It's boring and I feel like I'm in jail." (Emdin, 2016, p. 169).

This student, who dislikes the contrast between the way in which he dresses and the way that his school is decorated, conveys a common problem in schools today. Instead of trying to create a space that students relate to and feel at home in, schools create a space that feels oppressive and deters students from wanting to come to class. Students don't feel welcome and they don't feel like school celebrates or recognizes their cultures.

In his book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all Too, Dr. Christopher Emdin details how many students feel oppressed within the stark confines of their school, making them less likely to feel comfortable and engage during class. He found that classrooms that are artistic and aesthetically inclusive of neoindigenous culture make students more likely to engage in class discussions (Emdin, 2016, p. 171).

Personalizing classroom aesthetics is important for making students feel at home and like they are part of the school community. In order to achieve this, teachers can involve students in personalizing the classroom with posters, artwork, lighting, seating, and scents that they like. This can make students feel valued, as their input is being taken into account in designing the classroom. 

Growth Through Connections

Teachers in the Denver metro area have been able to learn more about the practice of personalizing classroom aesthetics, as well as other strategies to connect with youth, through Growth Through Connections (GTC).

Meet several of the teachers from GTC and learn how they personalized their classrooms:

Laura Huber Ballou, Beach Court Elementary

In her early childhood education (ECE) classroom, Laura incorporates pictures of students throughout the classroom to show how certain spaces are used. This increases students' accountability and makes them feel like part of the space.

Ashley Reel, PREP Academy

Ashley uses flexible seating and time to create a more comfortable classroom culture. She also asks students what they want the classroom to look like and incorporates their feedback.

Shannon Good, McMeen Elementary

Shannon tried to make her special education classroom as inviting and comfortable as possible for her students. She changes the lighting and adds music to make it feel more welcoming to students. 

Stephanie Smekens, DCIS-M

In her US History class, Stephanie has a wall of student photos that show what each student's academic goal is. This increases their representation in the space and serves as a reminder and reinforcer of their goals. 

Kevin McNulty, PREP Academy

Kevin asks his student for input on how to design the classroom. He asks them what he should put up on the walls and they can send him things that they'd like to see in the space. 

The Imaginarium, with the generous support and partnership of the Janus Henderson Foundation, created the GTC program to combat inequities in education and to find innovative solutions that benefit students nationwide. The goal of our GTC collaboration is to equip educators with the tools and knowledge to:

  • Recognize their own beliefs and biases.
  • Understand leaners' life experiences and communities.
  • Build deep relationships with students and their families.
  • Create an equitable, inclusive classroom culture.
  • Develop the whole child.
  • Manage the classroom so that they have more time to work directly with individual students.
  • Develop instruction and practices that are personalized, culturally relevant, engaging, and meaningful for each student.

"In the classrooms where students gave more in-depth responses, we found that there was evidence of the inclusion of neoindigenous forms of artistic expression in the classroom. [...] We believed that we had stumbled upon something powerful, that the more artistic and aesthetically inclusive classrooms seemed to make students more likely to respond to our questions."

-Dr. Christopher Emdin (2016, p. 171)

Personalization in Action

In this ECE class, students' pictures were taken in different stations throughout the classroom in order to demonstrate how the space should be used by students. This allows students to see themselves in the classroom and feel more ownership of the space.

This student identifies a picture of herself demonstrating an activity that students can do in the art station.  

In this classroom, every student is a part of the space through this wall of student photos.

Each student got their picture taken with a whiteboard that describes what their goal is. This reminds students of their academic goals throughout the year and involves them in the design of the classroom.

Incorporating student work is another way that a classroom can be personalized. Asking students to display their work can make them feel valued and like a part of the classroom community.

Family pictures are another way to increase student ownership of a space. In this classroom, each student brought in a picture of their family in order to feel more at home and share their personal life with the teacher and their peers.

Teacher Reflections

Stephanie Smekens - DCISM

Stephanie has adapted her classroom to better fit her students' interests. She asks students what music they want to hear and makes a playlist for the class to listen to during work time. This year, she started doing a talking circle at the beginning of the semester so that students can share about themselves and their culture. She also has a wall of pictures of students with their academic goal so that students see themselves represented in the classroom and are reminded of their goal throughout the year. 

Ashley Reel - PREP Academy

Ashley is implementing flexible seating in order to give students more seating choices during class. She hopes to create a good culture by creating a comfortable atmosphere where students feel safer. Because of this, she has seen more students taking academic risks because they feel more comfortable and safe in the environment, which has laid the foundation for creating stronger relationships as well. She feels like building these relationships has made her job more meaningful and made her class feel more like a family.

Kevin McNulty - PREP Academy

Kevin has been incorporating student input more into his classroom. He's asked them about what they want to see in the classroom and printed pictures that tap into their interests. He displays these around the room so that students feel more comfortable.

Personalizing the Classroom

Here are a few ways to personalize the classroom:

  • Involve students and their cultures in the design of a space. Ask students for their input: What should be put on the walls? Should the lights be dimmed? Do they want candles or air fresheners? What seating options do they want? Students will feel more connected to a space that they helped design. Dr. Emdin noted that in one class, "regular classroom posters were complimented by posters of famous hip-hop artists and quotes about hard work and resilience from everyone from contemporary rappers to classic philosophers in a graffiti-style font." (Emdin, 2016, p.171) This ackowledges students' cultures while also tying it to academics.
  • Create a graffiti wall. This can be a large sheet of black paper or a large chalkboard set up in the classroom. Students can customize this space with their own personal "tags" in order to make the room feel like it is theirs. 
  • Incorporate students' pictures and families into the classroom design. Part of connecting context and content involves the use of artifacts from the places youth come from as an anchor of instruction. By using pictures of students in lessons, the divide between the school world and their homes lives is bridged. Incorporating family photos can also facilitate relationship building and increase the likelihood that students will talk about school with their families. 
  • Allow students to dress how they want. Students' outfits are often policed with no real justifications behind the dress code. Dr. Emdin suggests that teachers tell their students, "In this class, you can be whatever you want to be and wear whatever feels comfortable to you. As long as we do our best academically and show the world that we are more than what we wear, how you dress is up to you." 


Territoriality is the idea that cultivating a safe, clean learning environment that students feel proud of can reduce school violence and crime (Crowe, 2000). This involves increasing students' connection to a space so that they feel more protective and less likely to vandalize or degrade the space. This might be evoked by:

  • Hanging murals that display school messages and values at the entrance to the school.
  • Adding student artwork and photos to the hallways.
  • Acknowledging students' cultures through posters and pictures.
  • Making sure hallways and classrooms are regularly cleaned and trash receptacles are regularly emptied.


Special thanks to...

Laura Huber Ballou, Ashley Reel, Shannon Good, Stephanie Smekens, Kevin McNulty and the Janus Henderson Foundation for engaging in this challenging work to close our persistent achievement gap and to help every student succeed.

Report by Molly Baird, Danna Ortiz, and Sophie Gullett.

Crowe, T. (2000). Crime prevention through environmental design. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks that teach in the hood ...and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press.