Teachers express individuality through classroom decorations 


Neeva Patel and Sophie Rukin

On the back wall of English teacher Dr. Adam Casdin’s classroom, 153T, hangs an art piece that “drives [his] students crazy” — a painting of an off-center black circle on a white background by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, he said. “When I tell my students to read the image during class, something so simple as a square and a circle could end up having a number of different meanings.” Casdin is interested in non-representational art, so he likes to put up textile work around the class, he said.

The posters and artworks that Casdin puts up in his classroom help illustrate critical approaches that apply to the literature his classes read, he said. “These days, we are all much better at reading visual cues rather than words, so if you can practice that facility in one medium and then shift it to poetry, that is pretty amazing,” Casdin said. Despite the fact that the pieces around the room are abstract, Casdin is sure students will relate to them in their own unique ways, he said.

Around Tillinghast Hall, teachers customize their classrooms with unique decorations. Some use their space to further educational efforts, commemorate personal achievements, or celebrate students’ work. Others, like English teacher Harry Bauld, simply brought their personal belongings to school when they ran out of shelf-space at home.

On the right side of the Baruth room lies Bauld’s book collection: several shelves filled with books of different sizes and colors. Almost all are poetry, but there are also some novels by famous authors. “I find that poetry books fit well with the Baruth Room because it has a Shakespearean overtone,” he said. Before it was called Baruth, the room was known as the Elizabethan Room. 

Although Bauld’s classroom is 155T, he decorated the Baruth Room during his time teaching there during the 1980s and from 2007 to 2012. Bauld’s actual classroom is relatively empty, but it does include one wall of student-created drawings and collages from a different teacher’s class.

The collection is a great resource for when he teaches the senior Poetry Writing elective during the second semester, he said. “Sometimes I bring my classes in here and tell everybody to pick a book, and we have a reading session,” Bauld said. Students research the works of a specific poet every week of the elective, and he sends them to the Baruth book collection for extra research, he said.

Bauld also designed the bookplates, labels used for identification purposes, posted on the inside cover of every book in the collection. They contain a quote by Sigmund Freud that reads, “Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same.”

Bauld often tries to alphabetize the poetry, but because of the small space on the shelves, he ends up organizing the books in size order, he said. “I actually like the random placement of the books more than I would have expected.”

Casdin also keeps a book collection in his classroom. “Those books are from my grad school days, including literary criticism and some novels I enjoy,” he said.

Kayla Choi (10), a student of Casdin’s, has found herself interpreting some of the student-drawn pieces around the room, she said. The piece that speaks to Choi the most is a drawing of a girl’s face with hands that pull at the girl’s facial features to alter them. “This painting seemed like a comment on beauty standards, and how teenage girls constantly feel like they must change their appearance due to societal pressure,” she said. Choi finds that interpretational pieces are the most interesting to look at during class, she said. 

Casdin and Bauld decorated their spaces individually, but the collective English Department copier room also contains posters with history behind them. On the left wall of the rooms hangs a reading list from April 1960 for courses like “The Inner Resources of Man” and “Treatises and Books for Background.”

On the wall across the book list is a series of signed dinner menus dating back to 2002. “We have been having English department dinners since I can remember, and the tradition is to pass the menu around and get everyone to sign it as a record of who was there,” Casdin said.

The department has not been able to go to restaurants due to COVID, so the continuity of the tradition has been disrupted, English teacher Rebecca Bahr said. “Still, the menus are a lovely reminder of teachers from the past whom I was friends with.”

Bahr, whose classroom is 149T, also loves to decorate her class with brightly colored posters and maps, she said. She hung a map of the world in the middle of the classroom because she wants her students to remember that they are not at the center of the world, she said. Bahr also uses the map to talk about her backstory and often discusses places she used to live like Thailand and the Central African Republic, she said. Along with the map, Bahr put up a poster of her brother’s documentary called “Hearts of Darkness,” which details the making of the movie “Apocalypse Now,” she said.

Although Bahr has these few maps and posters hung around the room, the majority of her decorations consist of students’ creative projects from the past. “These could include poetry, artwork, music that they have composed, and little sculptures,” she said. Bahr enjoys putting these pieces up since they are helpful to gain inspiration, especially when the time comes for current students to make creative projects, she said.

Similar to Bahr, history teacher Dr. Emily Straus hangs up maps around her classroom to use during classes, she said. Straus inherited her classroom, 247T, last year. The history department determines who has their own classroom by seniority,  Straus said. “If it’s your classroom, you get to teach all your classes in there and you also get to decorate it.”

Although Straus’ classroom is not as decorated as she would like, she does have some interesting posters on the walls, she said. One of her posters was designed by a former student she taught in Los Angeles. “This poster was a project he created for a class while in high school,” she said. The poster is a detailed sketch of a cowboy from the Dust Bowl, a period during the Great Depression, she said.

Another poster is from a conference Straus and a colleague hosted while she completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Rice University, she said. The conference centered around the history of race in Houston, Texas. “As a thank you to [my colleague], I framed one of the posters for him and I framed one of them for me,” Straus said. 

Straus enjoys hanging up decorations because they remind her of her past projects and endeavors. “The decorations represent different parts of my life as a historian,” she said. Straus’ life as a researcher and teacher are all represented in her classroom.

While science classrooms have a few periodic tables hung up, the department is not allowed to put any decorations on the walls of their rooms.

Unlike the history department, language teachers do not get their own personal room, World Languages Department Chair Pilar Valencia said. However, they do make an effort to divide rooms based on the language being taught. The goal is for kids to be in a room with items related to the language they are learning about, she said.

Valencia, who teaches in room 327T, decorates the space with items that are meaningful to students or related to the topics the class learns about, she said. One poster that stands out to Valencia is that of a famous Latin American writer named Julio Cortazar. “It’s old, so it’s kind of fading, but it has stuck to my heart, because the kids who took a class with me, the highest level class, signed on it,” she said. The poster reminds her of the students who completed the whole Spanish program and reminds current students that they can get to that point one day, she said.

Along with the poster, Valencia put in a series of artifacts from different Spanish-speaking countries. “There is a little Español in tiles that I found in Granada, and it’s beautiful because they are from Spain,” she said. She also has masks from Guatemala, along with some posters, maps, and diagrams, she said.

“Whenever I find an image that I find interesting I try to find a poster or something and have it printed,” Valencia said. The posters are helpful as they let students better understand what they are being taught, she said. “Since we don’t have field trips now, I will sometimes have my students take a field trip to the closet to find images that might help them better understand her points,” she said.

Math teacher Chris Jones also hopes students can use decorations to comprehend certain concepts and alter their way of thinking, he said. An upside down map of the world hangs at the front of his classroom. However, the map might not be upside down, Jones said. “Who’s to say what the right rotation is? The Europeans who made it, just looked at it and decided North was up.”

Stephanie Lee (10) said the map serves as a reminder of the way Jones tells his students to approach a problem. “The map emphasizes how you should try to solve math problems in a variety of different ways, and not to stick to one method of evaluation,” she said. Jones’ open mindset and approach is very different from what Lee has experienced in past math classes, she said.

Although she has found new appreciation for the map, Lee’s favorite decoration in the classroom is Jones’ wall of frisbees from when he coached the school’s frisbee team for 25 years. Lee enjoys how Jones uses the frisbees to demonstrate specific math concepts, and he allows the class to practice their frisbee throws from time to time, she said. “It’s cool to see how Mr. Jones uses classroom decorations to combine two of his passions: ultimate frisbee and math.”

Jones also decorates his classroom to seem like a lived-in space that contains the history of the school. The frisbees in Jones’ collection date all the way back to 1993 and act as a record for the games his team won during their time, he said. 

He also has a collection of Newton themed posters, a five dimensional cube replica, students’ own drawings  interpretations of him, and soda bottles with his name on them. Jones put up these specific decorations because some of them were gifted to him by past students, and he enjoys the memories they bring to the classroom, he said.

Similarly, history teacher Barry Bienstock hangs up decorations that contain historic backgrounds and give students insight into some aspects of his life, he said. Bienstock first chose his room of 246T in 2001 when he was the department head and helped design the second floor of Tillinghast. At the time, his office was right next to his classroom, making it an easy selection, he said.

Over his many years at the school, Bienstock has put up a series of decorations including books, posters, and maps. After starting the Robert Caro Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History, Bienstock put up posters of Caro, including a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. 246T is also dedicated to Caro: The Robert A. Caro Class of ’53 History Classroom.

Through his decorations, Bienstock’s main hope is to share his own interests with his students and spark their interest, he said. He hung posters from his field of interest — Native American history — and pictures with interesting people he has met. “I’ve added [a poster] where I had an opportunity to spend time with Lin Manuel Miranda after seeing Hamilton and also [a poster with] the film director Francis Ford Coppola after I asked him to speak at an assembly,” he said.

Brady Winter (10), a student of Bienstock, said his favorite decoration in the classroom is Bienstock’s photo with Lin Manuel Miranda. “It shows that even though he’s our teacher, we can relate to him in a friendly fashion,” he said. Winter appreciates that Bienstock shows aspects of his life through his decorations and creates a nice learning environment. “[The classroom] has a calming sense to it that helps to inform us,” he said.

Matthew Pruzan (9) has found a new appreciation for the decorations his teachers put up around his classroom because he thinks it gives him an insight into his teachers interests, he said. “The decorations bring a lively energy to the space that I feel would not be there if we didn’t have them around.”