Choosing a Theme For The Library (or Classroom)

Well its just about “Back to School” time here (and many of my fellows are already back, I know!) and this seems like a great time to talk about “library themes.” Most of this should also be helpful and relevant to classroom teachers too, since choosing a “classroom theme” is a similar endeavor with similar impacts and considerations.

I’m seeing so many fun posts on social media from educators and librarians who are seeking suggestions for what their theme should be this year, or who are starting to show off some of their initial theme-ing efforts. Some people keep it simple, while others go all in on it! Some people opt to skip a theme entirely. Which your approach is, in terms of scope, its all good! There is no right or wrong choice when it comes to whether or how much theme-ing to do.

But.

BUT! There are some things to consider and some things to avoid when it comes to choosing which theme to use, if you use one. So that’s what we’ll talk about today.


The Theme Will Impact Who Feels Belonging in The Space… And Who Does Not

The fact of the matter is that the physical design, layout, décor, etc of a space does matter and does impact who will feel they belong in a space, and who will not feel they belong.

(I have an entire soapbox speech about how many classroom/public space design choices leave us fat folx feeling completely left out. But I won’t go into that’s a post for another day.)

The theme really will make a big impact, and that impact can either be good…. or not so good. A theme can even be hostile, alienating, or offensive to many students and community members. And we don’t want our community to be harmed by our libraries, right? Of course not. We want them to be empowered, uplifted, welcomed, and comfortable.

We want our students, especially our most vulnerable students, to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they belong in the library and that the library belongs to them.

So, here are some common theme-choice pitfalls to avoid, and some suggestions for how to make sure your chosen theme is actually makes your current students feel good in the space.


Things to Avoid

Racism, Stereotypes, & Cultural Appropriation

This is a problem that I see happen a lot. We have to be really careful when choosing our themes to be absolutely sure that we are not choosing something, even accidentally, that is in any way racist, or that is based on stereotypes or cultural appropriation.

For example: Themes that are based on, or use, things related to “tribes” or “Luaus” are commonly chosen for themes. I’ve seen it done so many times, despite the fact that a simple google search would makes it clear that many members of many Indigenous communities have made it clear that this is a form of harmful cultural appropriation.

Choosing a theme that relies on racist ideas, stereotypes, or cultural appropriation is not a good way to build a community space that is safe and comfortable for everyone, and must be avoided. Luckily its easy to avoid this issue! All you need to do is be sure to thoroughly research your idea before you jump in (and if you already have a theme launched, but haven’t researched it, now is a good time to do that). You might not know a particular theme is harmful in some way. That’s ok. We don’t know things until we learn about them. But it is our responsibility to learn and to adjust our actions in response to what we learn. And it is definitely our responsibility to do our due diligence before launching a theme that users of the space are going to be forced to engage with.

Harmful, Outdated, or Irrelevant to Students

Another thing we want to avoid is choosing a theme that is harmful, outdated, or irrelevant to the users of the space. In a school library that means the students. We want to make sure the theme is something our current students find relevant, get the references to, and enjoy. Just because a theme worked for you in the past does not mean it is still a good choice. Things can become known to be harmful over time, and they can also just simply become irrelevant over time. We have to be willing and ready to change with the times.

For example: If you are still using a certain fantasy book series about a certain magical boy (rhymes with “Scary Rotter”) for your theme, have you considered that many of your students will find that harmful in light of the author’s very public (and sustained, unapologetic) transphobic rhetoric? Have you considered that the books are now quite, quite old (as are the movies) and that actually many of your current students haven’t read it and won’t get the references? Have you asked yourself who you’re really doing that theme for, and whether its serving to comfort, uplift, energize, and engage your current students? If you haven’t asked yourself those questions yet, now is a good time to do that and a good time to consider a theme change.

It can be hard to let go of a theme idea, especially if its something we’ve used with success in the past or something we have personal nostalgia for. I get it! I personally have very conflicted feelings over that particular book series, and I personally had used it for some theme-ing in the past. It was hard for me to let go. I argued with myself. I rationalized with myself. I defended myself to myself. I really wanted to keep those theme items (I eventually came to terms with this and feel differently now). And I do indeed have students who love it still. But I also have students who find anything to do with that series or author to be hostile, uncomfortable, and even just un-relatable. And I certainly don’t want to make my students, especially my most vulnerable students, feel that way in the library. Especially over something as inconsequential as a theme that can be easily changed.

Thinking Only Of Your Own Passions

Make sure the theme you choose is actually relevant and relatable to your students. Its wonderful to share your passions and your personality with your students or community members. Letting them get to know us builds trust and community, and we know that learning doesn’t happen easily in spaces without trust and community-building.

But don’t forget that this is a public space, and in the case of a school, its a space that students have zero choice over being in. They are legally required to be in school, and they do not get to choose their classroom or their library. So the theme really needs to be focused on uplifting, celebrating, reflecting, comforting, and welcoming them, and it should at the very least be something they understand, relate to, and are comfortable around. So if you choose a theme that is obscure to them, like a TV show you love but they aren’t into, or a book from your youth, or a hobby you love but they aren’t familiar with…. its going to be tough for them to feel like the space is theirs to be comfortable in.

If you really want to theme on something hyper specific to you and your passions, choose instead a smaller spot to go all out on! Like your desk, your office, or a bulletin board near your work station. This is still a space you have to be in every single day for hours and hours, after all, so its ok to want to have some comfort and reflection of yourself too. You should see the amount of cat shaped items I have in my office, I mean its a lot. Like A LOT. I love cats and having cat things around me. But I wouldn’t make that our library’s whole theme since not everyone can relate to that lol (a fact I find mind-boggling).

Specific Book, Author, Tv Shows, Movies, Etc

As kind of a culmination of the above two considerations, I actually don’t recommend choosing anything too specific, in general, for a theme. The more specific your theme is, the fewer the amount of people who are going to relate to it. Choosing a specific tv show, book, movie, video game, etc is probably not a good strategy for basing your theme off of. Many students won’t be familiar with it, plus its more likely to become outdated quickly, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to have to change my theme every 3, 6, or 12 months to try to keep up with the latest fad. Its not cost- or time-effective, and its just not realistic. Specificity is not a good option for large scale themes, though it can work nicely for short term displays and things like that!

How to avoid pitfalls like those above?

Before you commit and get started unrolling your theme idea, be sure to run the idea by a lot of people and also do your research (or at least some googling). Talk about your idea with students and colleagues, bring it up to your professional learning network, your facebook groups, the twitterverse. Throw the idea into google and try including words in your search like “racist,” “stereotype,” “offensive,” etc to see if you can find any indications that this theme may be insensitive, harmful, or inappropriate.

If you choose a theme and someone, especially someone in your school community or professional learning network, tells you that it is offensive, alienating, outdated, harmful, etc, be sure to listen to their concerns and to respond appropriately and with humility, even if that means taking the themed items down, apologizing, and starting over with a different idea.

Always interrogate your own decisions by asking yourself:

  • “who does this choice harm?”
  • “who does this choice leave out?”
  • “knowing what I now know, what message does it send for me to make this choice?”

Strategies to Embrace

Ask the students

Seems like a no-brainer, right? But it is actually something that seems fairly rare! You can get students involved in the theme-ing of their space! Its ok not to have your space perfectly set up before students arrive! You can make students a part of the process (and even insist that they lead the process) of identifying possible themes, selecting the final option, and planning and creating many of the thematic décor, activities, elements, etc. When students are involved, it empowers them and ensures they can seize ownership of the space. And that’s a powerful thing. Especially since kids so rarely ever have power over their own spaces. Learning and community-building happens when our students are involved in the shaping of their learning experiences and their learning environment.

Plus, getting them involved also means less work for you (and means less work you can be convincing yourself to do for free on summer break. That’s right, I see you). Remember, you are not a superhero and you are not the only resident in that space. You don’t have to, and maybe should not, take on the full scope of theme-ing the space all on your own.

Keep it Broad

The broader and more generic your theme choice, the more people will be able to relate to it, be comfortable in it, and enjoy it. You will, of course, never please everyone (which is why I’m a fan of minimalist theme-ing, so at least if someone hates it they aren’t drowning in it throughout the space) but you can choose things that are more broad in scope to at least seek to avoid alienating, offending, or harming anyone. A few random (and honestly pretty nerdy) ideas that occur to me off the top of my head include:

  • The Sky is the Limit (clouds, sun, airplanes, etc)
  • Out of this World (outer space, aliens, etc)
  • When Dinosaurs Walked (dinosaurs…. obviously lol)
  • Making You Smile (emojis, positive quotes, silly things)
  • Life on Earth (wild animals, different ecosystems or terrains, etc)
  • Something related to your school mascot/theme (assuming that itself isn’t racist or harmful, many are)

To me, broad theme ideas are a better bet because they are less likely to become outdated, easy to add to and expand upon as you go, and they’re the kind of thing any student could relate to (especially if you do some storytimes and such to teach more about the things featured in the theme!).

Consider Tone / Accessibility

Consider the tone and atmosphere you set with your theme, and consider accessibility, in terms of how the choices will impact students senses, emotions, mindset, etc. Think about color theory and how different colors have been shown to spark different emotional or even physiological responses. For example, light shades of blue are known to cause feelings of calmness while dark shades of blue can evoke feelings of sadness. Overly bright spaces, or too much clutter, can negatively impact students with sensory sensitivities and cause distractions, spaces that are too dark may cause frustration or stress, and spaces that are too sterile may stifle creativity or engagement. Too much light can be a struggle for those with sensory sensitivities like many autistic students, while light that is too low can impact students with low vision. Background noises, such thematic music from a low playing radio, windchimes at the window, etc can frustrate or distract some even though it may sooth others. Its important to consider the tone you want to set and also to consider whether your choices have any accessibility implications you may not have considered yet. Stay in communication with your students about what is working and what’s not working, and be ready and willing to make changes as needed.

Center Students

When in doubt, think about how your theme can center students. Heck, your theme can even be just that: Celebrating Our Students! or “Our Story!” You can opt to just use student created work for your décor, and you can keep that as the theme, whether officially or unofficially. Your whole space can just be totally focused on student efforts and student creations. That is completely ok. You don’t have to do specific or fancy theme-ing in order to establish a wonderful, welcoming, space focused on promoting belonging. All that really takes is keeping the students centered in every decision.

What do I do?

I know you all are wondering what I do about theme-ing in our library nowadays. Well I actually opt not to do a formal theme. Our informal theme is just “cheerful and student-centered.” I like to think of our library a bit like the door of a proud mama’s refrigerator. Most of the décor hanging around our space is stuff created by students either on a whim, or via our various makerspace activities, or sometimes even work they created in their classrooms. I use the large community coloring sheets they fill out, the stick together posters they create, their drawings, their blackout poetry, etc as the décor. I like that the space really reflects their creations, and that you can look around and see evidence of student made work all over the place. I’m also a big fan of bright, cheery, colorful things. Its not really a theme, but our library is very colorful, which students tell me makes it feel like a fun place instead of a “stuffy” place. Sounds good to me!

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