In the interest of fairness and transparency, let me start with this disclosure: During my 25+ years in a variety of high school English classrooms, I was one of those “disinterested” classroom decorators. I wasn’t a minimalist like those who don’t even cover their gray, peeling bulletin boards with colored construction paper, but I didn’t subscribe to the neo-Baroque or beaux arts schools of classroom design either. (You know the classroom—an explosion of colors and patterns, scallop-edged borders around everything, glossy laminated shapes and letters and words...)

My “classroom décor” evolved into what I like to call “Classic Ennui.” Over the years I managed to amass enough stuff (clearance-rack wallpaper, comedy/tragedy masks from a 1979 production of The Fantasticks, a lino-block print of Richard Chamberlain playing Hamlet, a couple of plaques, and the like).

These went up in August, stayed all year, and came down in June. When I retired from teaching, I left them on the walls for the first-year teacher who was inheriting my classroom. (But I wish I’d kept the Hamlet print because that had been a gift.)

Clearly, I did not consider classroom design to be an integral part of my educational program.

I think I was wrong there. I’ve come to realize that—if decorated thoughtfully—the classroom’s walls and bulletin boards can be legitimate and even integral parts of the educational environment.

So, without further ado, I submit, for your consideration, five principles to guide your classroom decoration.

1. Posters, pictures, and so on should be age and grade appropriate.

This sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? And I know it’s more of a challenge for the high school teacher who teaches multiple grade levels, but we should at least make it a point to avoid elementary-school posters in high school classrooms. A little whimsy might be fun, but too many apples with bug-eyed worms peeping out can actually be demeaning to kids who are struggling to grow up.

The way you dress and decorate your home communicates a lot about you to people who don’t know you; your classroom will be the first impression you make on your students and eventually their parents. You probably don’t really intend to suggest that you’d rather be a kindergarten teacher. Don’t let “cute” belie your intent to be a serious, academic teacher. Don’t let “fun” undermine your conviction that important things are going to be happening in that room.

2. Posters, pictures, and so on should be relevant to the subject matter of the course.

This is another no-brainer and another potential challenge to the teacher who teaches multiple courses. At some point, though, the larger-than-life graphic of Freytag’s pyramid becomes repetitive and irrelevant. Principle #2 is sort of an extension of the “grade appropriate” idea. Your classroom should reflect the content, skills, and ideas your students are going to learn in your room, not simply look back to what they (should have) learned last year or the year before, or in middle school, or in elementary school.

3. Posters, pictures, and so on should support your students’ learning (and your teaching).

Principle #2 might invite some of you to start rummaging through poster shops for pictures of Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, or book-cover art for The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird (double points if you can snag a couple of stills from the Leo DiCaprio or Gregory Peck movies!). And there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that.

However, let’s ask one simple question before we hang anything on our walls: If this poster were our students’ sole or primary source of information about the subject, what would they learn from looking at it?

So, there’s nothing wrong with hanging that famous portrait of the Belle of Amherst, but there’s nothing particularly educational about it either.

On the other hand, if one of your course’s objectives is to explore a work of literature from any number of different critical or thematic perspectives (and, really, it should be), then something like these three freebies from Prestwick House would be more suitable.

Your twelfth-graders probably don’t need to look—again—at a diagram of the inverted pyramid; those clever illustrations of the differences between their, there, and they’re and its and it’s won’t challenge your honors or AP students. But posters defining and illustrating the rhetorical devices they need to be conversant with definitely will.

What I’m suggesting is that the posters and other materials you hang up for your students to look at should do more than simply be there. (And yes, I do regret the Hamlet print and the comedy/tragedy masks—but I was a far less enlightened educator back then.)

4. Posters, pictures, and so on can be fun or funny, but entertainment should not be their sole quality.

We all love puns. We all love visual puns. We all love those goofy cartoons that pun-fully illustrate word definitions or rules of grammar and usage, and humor can be an amazing mnemonic tool. But first let’s reference principles #1 and #2—grade appropriateness and relevance to the course. Rather than rehashing—even in a funny way—basic conventions you wish your students had learned years ago, why not devote your limited real estate to the new ideas they are going to deal with this year?

You’re reading Hamlet? That print my friend gave me years ago won’t increase my students’ appreciation of the play. But this cool subway map might actually help some of your students visualize the labyrinth of plot lines and character relationships. It’ll also give them a more lighthearted view of a weighty play (check out where the terminus of Ophelia’s line is.)

The scripted instructions for many standardized tests require that all blackboards and white boards be erased, and all bulletin boards be covered lest somewhere in the room be found the answers to the test questions. Wouldn’t it be great if our classrooms’ walls and boards were hung with stuff worth covering up?

5. Posters, pictures, and so on should be chosen intentionally and not by default.

Sorry about the passive voice, but I was going for parallelism here.

Anyway, of course you know that it is completely your choice how to decorate your classroom and why, but let me suggest that whatever you choose should be chosen for a reason and not just simply because you have it. Maybe you could even let designing your room be an occasion for reflection. What are your goals this year? For your students? For yourself? What have you done in the past that’s really worked well? What hasn’t worked so well? What units, projects, activities are worth repeating? Expanding? What needs to be dropped?

And, of course, what makes the stuff you’re hanging worth hanging?

I doubt having a boring room, a neglected room, or a completely over-the-top caricature of a classroom will make or break you as a teacher. But we’re all fighting a difficult battle here, and it’s probably best to make the best use of every tool we have at our disposal.

That’s it. I’m done preaching. Enjoy the rest of your summer.