(This is the first post in a three-part series)
The new “question-of-the-week” is:
How can classroom walls be used most effectively?
All of us teachers have walls in our classroom. And a quick look at some teachers’ Instagram accounts will show you how “pretty” they can be. ... But do they have to be pretty? How can they be used most effectively to benefit our students?
This series will explore the topic.
In today’s Part One column, Ron Berger, Oman Frame, Martha Caldwell, Valentina Gonzalez, Julie Jee, Michael Sivert, and Stacey Shubitz contribute their responses. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Ron, Oman, and Martha on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
In addiiton to the recommendations you’ll find in this series, you might want to explore The Best Ideas About How to Use Classroom Walls.
Response From Ron Berger
Ron Berger, a teacher for more than 25 years, is the chief academic officer for EL Education, a K-12, nonprofit educational organization, and an author of several books including Learning That Lasts and Leaders of Their Own Learning:
For 25 years, when I was younger and more financially challenged, I held two jobs: I was a full-time public school teacher and also a busy carpenter. Things were much clearer when I worked as a carpenter. I knew exactly what I was aiming for. My co-workers and I tacked up the house blueprints on an interior wall, and we examined them daily to remind ourselves what we were working to create.
We were surrounded by models of quality: well-crafted window and stair framing, tight finish work on cabinets and window trim. If I wanted to assess whether a miter joint I created was good enough, I just looked in another room—I compared it with examples created by master craftsmen. Our work environment clarified, every day, our mission and our standards. Can this type of clarifying environment exist in schools?
Walls That Create a Vision for Learning and Quality
In Rochester, N.Y., there is a remarkably good public school—Genesee Community Charter School—with walls that send a powerful message. The hallways look like galleries in an art museum with compelling displays of beautiful, framed student work. Some wall exhibits are more like those in a science museum—teaching exhibits—where student text, diagrams, illustrations, and models explain the Rochester canal system, or beekeeping, or concepts in astronomy. Documentation panels from different classrooms tell the story of Learning Expeditions (long-term interdisciplinary projects) with artifacts from student research, multiple drafts of student work, and final products created for authentic use in the community. There are student reflections posted with the work documenting what they learned and how they changed as learners and people from their studies. Anywhere you walk, you discover what’s going on this school—what is being investigated—and you recognize a fierce commitment to quality and contribution.
In the Genesee classrooms, the “blueprints” of what the class is studying and where they are heading live on poster-sized paper as anchor charts, project-management tables, vocabulary lists, thought maps, concept models, and interactive word walls. Every student is becoming an expert in a content area at the same time as he or she is learning academic skills. You don’t need to guess their area of expertise and what skills they are grappling with: The walls tell the story. During lessons, as student eyes wander, the walls refresh and recharge their minds in the journey of their learning.
You also see messages about what makes the environment clear, safe, and productive—things like the school’s character habits, classroom norms, habits of scholarship, noise-level scales, movement-level scales, student-job charts, and directions for the use of supplies or care of the room. You see things that help to make the classroom feel alive and human: photographs of the teacher when she was young, and photos of her family and life outside of school, and photographs of students’ families (however they might describe their families) and students’ pets.
Imagine being a new student coming to this school. It’s impossible to walk through the hallways or enter the classrooms without transforming your vision of where you are going. You are headed toward higher challenge, deeper thinking, better craftsmanship. You are going to become an expert—a scientist, an historian, an artist—and you are going to develop an ethic of excellence for what you create. You immediately understand the norms and expectations for how people will be treated. The walls make all of this clear. This is what school means here.
The School as a Living Museum
The idea that the walls in a school can function as a museum of learning for students, staff, and guests has a rich heritage in the Reggio Emilia preschool programs in Italy, which attract visitors from across the world. They pioneered the use of “documentation panels,” which tell the story of student learning through an artistic arrangement of artifacts from that learning. These panels differ from the typical bulletin boards in American classrooms in that they typically include documentation of ideas and thinking, maps of concepts, early and later drafts of student work, photographs of students learning, and written reflections of student thinking transcribed by adult recorders or written by students themselves.
Many individual schools and national school networks, such as the High Tech High Network and the EL Education Network, take seriously the idea of using the walls of school to clarify and inspire students and teachers about the mission of the school and the fruits of student learning. When I am in schools that do this documentation well, the effect is remarkable. It’s hard not to immediately wish you could have been a student in this school yourself or that you could get all the young people you know to attend.
Sadly, most schools and classrooms I visit are almost empty of powerful documentation and displays of learning. When there are things on the walls, they tend to be commercial products, such as generic posters of rules or tips, or motivational slogans. I understand that this is not easy. It is a serious investment of time and resources to fill the walls with generative student and teacher work, to curate one’s classroom and school well—to make it a living museum of learning and accomplishment—but the payoff can be profound.
Response From Martha Caldwell & Oman Frame
Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, the authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, developed a class their students call “Race, Class and Gender.” They also provide professional development in diversity, equity, and inclusions best practices for schools through iChange Collaborative:
Identity and learning are intricately related.
When we recognize the connection between the design of an inclusive culture and learning, we can use our classroom walls to reflect the identities of our students and engage them in important conversations about learning.
Spence, a white science teacher in an urban middle school, was concerned about the STEM achievement gap he saw playing out in his classroom. Low-performing students told him science was boring and checked out during his lessons. When he looked around his classroom, he saw only posters of famous white men. “Most people think of science as the domain of white men, but I knew students needed to ‘see themselves’ in the curriculum. And it wasn’t hard to find ways to represent more diversity because all kinds of people do science.”
Spence hung posters of scientists of color and women, updated his class library, and challenged students to research scientists of color and women. He used his classroom walls to launch inquiries into the role of race and gender in science learning, explore the implications of identity in the achievement gap, and question implicit and internalized bias. Students created avatars of themselves to display on an “inclusion wall,” so now they are surrounded by images that “look like them” and reflect their personal and social identities. Spence’s strategies for inclusion also transformed his relationships with students. His marginalized students now see him as a trusted advocate and seek him out at lunch and after school.
Spence knows his students are engaged in a dynamic process of identity formation, constructing their identities in a reflexive relationship with their environment. The images they see mirrored back to them influence who they may become. They need to see images that support their finest human aspirations in their classrooms and curriculum and in their relationships with teachers and peers.
Too often students encounter racist and sexist stereotypes in media that denigrate the intelligence of people of color and women, and they don’t see images of them as intellectual role models. Stereotype threat occurs when students confront situations in which they risk confirming a negative stereotype associated with their social-identity group. Fear of fulfilling the stereotype interferes with cognitive function and lowers performance. Stereotype threat has profound effects on learning and achievement, especially when the negative stereotype relates to intellectual competence. Students may react to stereotype threat by distancing themselves from their identity group to avoid being stereotyped, spending less time preparing for a task, or denying the task’s importance to avoid a sense of failure. Stereotype threat results in altered identities and inhibited aspirations.
A strategy we can use to begin to address stereotype threat is to create environments that mirror the intelligence of our students’ social-identity groups. We can introduce role models that counter negative stereotypes and discuss implications of identity on learning. We can promote connections between identity and academics and consciously debunk the myths that certain groups don’t care about learning or do well in school. We can allow students to maintain their cultural identity as well as excel in academics.
We can use the walls of our classrooms to affirm our students’ intelligence and help them counteract stereotype threat. By creating an atmosphere of belonging, we can help students see themselves as valued participants in knowledge building. While marginalized students must learn to combat stereotype threat, all learners need to learn to deconstruct stereotypes and critique what they see in the world around them. Respectful discussions of categories of identity can improve classroom climates and school cultures. The walls of our classroom can demarcate inclusive spaces.
Response From Valentina Gonzalez
Valentina Gonzalez is currently a professional-development specialist for English-language learners in Texas. She works with teachers of English-learners to support language and literacy instruction. In addition to presenting, she writes a monthly blog for MiddleWeb focused on supporting ELLs. She can be reached through her website, elementaryenglishlanguagelearners.weebly.com, or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:
It’s not difficult to figure out what is valued in a classroom and what is important for students to know. Walk into any classroom when no students are there and take a look around. You can tell a lot about the classroom just by observing the environment. What core subjects are taught? What is valued? Are the students encouraged to take ownership of the classroom?
Yet in many schools, walls are sacred spaces. Teachers must be picky about what they place on the walls because of fire-code restrictions. Only a certain percentage of the walls can be covered, so teachers must carefully select what goes on the walls.
The most effective classroom walls hold three tenets:
- They support all students.
- They are culturally responsive.
- They are clutter-free.
Supporting All Students
Walls that support all students include visuals, are interactive, and are accessible to everyone. Nothing is scarier than walking into a classroom midyear with blank walls. As teachers, we can capitalize on our walls by using them to create a space where our kids can refer back to for support during independent work.
One way to do this is by co-creating anchor charts with the class and posting them on the walls. Anchor charts that are step by step, visually supported, and explicit can aid students while the teacher is working with a small group or conferring one on one with a student. If students are not part of creating the anchor charts, they rarely see value in them and then have trouble using them independently. They become a waste of wall space.
Another way to do this is by creating and displaying thematic word walls that include visual supports. Invite students to add to the word walls by creating their own drawings, labels, or bringing in real objects. Interactive word walls or interactive anchor charts are highly effective because students are part of the creation. They are doing the work. In turn, they tend to own the learning.
On the contrary, too many anchor charts or anchor charts with too much text can be ineffective. It’s important to take down anchor charts that students are no longer using. If we have too many charts on the walls, and students aren’t using them, then they become wallpaper to the kids. We have to keep in mind that the entire purpose of the walls and the charts on them is to support the students who need a little extra help.
No matter the age, grade level, or content, anchor charts and word walls are an effective use of wall space. Recently a teacher in high school asked if other teachers put anchor charts up on their walls. Even in high school, students are learning new content and new vocabulary. Anchor charts and word walls don’t have to be cute. They just need to be easily accessible to students.
Culturally responsive walls reflect our kids. If you were to walk into my classroom, you should be able to see who my kids are based on my walls. Evidence of my kids, their “fingerprints,” should be all over the walls. Their work can be prominently displayed on the walls. They can be part of the process of creating chart and word walls. Visuals supports can be student-made. These are their walls. Building this sense of community in the classroom sends a message that all of our students are valued and belong.
As teachers, sometimes letting go of the walls is difficult. We want everything to look just right and just so. Remembering that these walls belong to the kids and they will be more successful if they are involved in the creation helps to keep us from doing all the work. We have to let go and let it get a little messy. It not going to look perfect, but it will be perfectly OK.
Freeing up the wall space from any clutter can help us to have more room for the most important stuff! When I think of clutter, I think of all the teacher stuff that our kids really don’t need to see. Anything that’s just for me, the teacher, can go in a binder or in a folder. If the kids don’t need it for learning, then it can’t take up valuable space on the wall. It’s also important to remove old anchor charts and word walls as new units are introduced.
Too much clutter creates a visual mess. Kids can’t focus on the important work. There are many ways to store these so kids still have access. One is to take them down and hang them on clothing hangers and then on a rack. Another idea is to take pictures of them and print them (in color if possible) and store them in a binder. I like to give some students an individual picture of certain anchor charts, so they can have daily access to it in their journal.
What we put on our walls or what we don’t put on our walls affects how our students do in our classrooms on a daily basis. It’s important that we reflect every now and then on what we have up on our walls. Is it important? Does it add value to our students? Does it value our students?
(See image below.)
Response From Julie Jee
Julie Jee has been an English teacher at Arlington High School in New York since 2001. She teaches 12 Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition and sophomore English at the regents level. Julie loves to read, run, take photos, and spend time with her husband and three children:
Inspirational posters are nice, but they gradually become part of the scenery over the course of the school year. Displaying student work is also a positive thing, but sometimes students want to keep their writing private. Students also don’t really get a chance to read their peers’ writing hanging on the walls. The same activity can easily be changed into a gallery walk instead. Creating bulletin boards is also often time-consuming and ineffective in terms of building a classroom community.
Turn classroom walls over to your students. One of the best things I ever did in my classroom was getting rid of all my bulletin boards and installing white boards instead. During debates, students will jot down their arguments. When we have a class share, my quieter students often feel much more comfortable writing their points and reading them from the white board as opposed to speaking in front of the class. They like to write down their own inspirational quotes and draw visual representations of characters and moments from literature.
A few years ago, I shadowed one of my students and noticed how much she sat during each class period. The only class that gave her freedom of movement was in her independent dance study. The rest of the time, she sat quietly and raised her hand to share her thoughts on occasion. Giving students time to get up and walk around the classroom to read each other’s ideas and questions gives them the chance to think, process, move, and write some more. It gives them opportunities to voices that aren’t always heard in whole-class discussions. It also gives them a chance to interact and communicate with one another in a different way.
Response From Michael Sivert
Michael Sivert (@MSivertEdu) is an ASCD Emerging Leader for the class of 2018. Currently, Michael is a 4th grade educator in a co-teaching classroom for the Hudson City school district in Hudson, Ohio. Michael earned his M. Ed. in educational leadership from Ohio Dominican University. During his 11 years in the education field, Michael has taught 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. He has also spent time as an RTI coordinator and an administrative intern. He is passionate about student-centered classrooms and works to create inquiry-based learning opportunities for his students. He is an advocate for inclusivity in schools for all students and works to make education equitable for all:
Classroom walls are a wonderful thing—when you use them appropriately. It’s easy to use them as decoration pieces with pictures and quotes. The feel of our rooms does matter when it comes to student happiness and feeling safe and “at home.” However, great educators create that homey feeling simply by building relationships and creating a sense of trust and unity with their students.
I’m not trying to take away your decorations, I promise. I’m known to have classroom themes and fun decorations myself, as it adds a feeling of comfort to our learning space. What I’d like to challenge you to do is to integrate those decorative items into the learning of your classroom. Here are three tips for improving the effectiveness of your classroom walls.
Make one wall a Focus Wall. Create a space for each class or course that you teach during the day. Use fun fabrics or vibrant paper as the background and incorporate your classroom theme into the wall by selecting borders that match the decor. Each space is designed to be the student’s “first focus” into your content. My Focus Walls include an anchor chart, vocabulary/word work, helpful posters, mnemonics devices, lists of books that match the topic, etc. By creating this Focus Wall space, students immediately know where to look for help.
Use quotes that have meaning. Inspirational quotes and motivational posters can often be seen in classrooms. Consider allowing students to choose which sayings make the cut when it comes to your walls. This brings a sense of student ownership to the classroom, which is a necessity for healthy learning experiences.
Student work on the walls is a must. I, admittedly, sometimes didn’t post student work because it took too much time to do. That all changed when I hung a clothesline on my bulletin board and attached student names to each clothespin. Students changed out their “Featured Student Work” when they felt like they had something they were proud of, which left me free to work with students or plan effective lessons.
Make the wall interactive. I leave one of my smaller white boards blank to start the year. This white board becomes many things throughout the year, including a graffiti wall. Students write what they are thinking about our essential question, aha moments they have, misunderstandings they would like clarified, and more. Other times during the year, it becomes a space for creating murals for students who need some positive cheer and support from their peers. Other times, it becomes a Strategy Collector, where students add Post-it notes or dry-erase versions of their problem-solving methods related to class content.
Only hang what has a purpose. My general rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t need to be displayed in my classroom, it’s not displayed. For example, I used to have a poster of a bald eagle. While the bald eagle is surely important as a symbol of our country, it didn’t fit any purpose in my classroom for my students. I’ve also taken down motivational sayings that my students didn’t connect with, their daily class schedule (it’s copied in their binder and available in their Google Classroom), and fluffy decorations that didn’t add value to my students’ learning (or weren’t integrated into some other component of my classroom).
Keep your classroom walls fresh, full of important content and student work, and meaningful to the content and to the relationships in your classroom. Student learning will be enhanced, and students will be happier. A student’s smile, after all, is the very best decor we can have in our rooms.
Response From Stacey Shubitz
Stacey Shubitz is an independent literacy consultant, an adjunct professor, and a former elementary school teacher. She’s the author of Craft Moves: Lesson Sets for Teaching Writing with Mentor Texts and the co-author of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Her forthcoming book, Welcome to Writing Workshop, will be available from Stenhouse Publishers in early 2019. She blogs at Two Writing Teachers and can be found on Twitter @sshubitz:
My first teaching job was for a principal who disliked when classrooms were plastered with posters purchased at the teacher store. As a result, I started each school year with mostly blank bulletin boards. As the days passed, student work was placed on each subject area’s bulletin boards. Throughout the school year, the bulletin boards also held co-created strategy charts.
A few years ago, Beth Moore, one of my co-authors from Two Writing Teachers, helped me to better understand what creating and sustaining a child-centered classroom was about. Beth explained the 80/20 Rule to me, which is where 80 percent of the things displayed in the classroom are student-created while 20 percent of the classroom is teacher-created. Keeping these percentages in mind ensures that students have ownership over classroom environments.
Soon after Beth told me about the 80/20 Rule, I did a walk-hrough of a school with an administrator in late August. We entered a 4th/5th grade classroom that was impeccably decorated. Chevron borders surrounded each bulletin board, which were covered with teacher-created charts, sayings, and reference tools. The administrator turned to me and asked, “Isn’t this classroom great?”
I knew it was a rhetorical question so I hesitated. I could agree or I could take the opportunity to share my true feelings. I inhaled, then said, “I appreciate the aesthetics of this classroom. The teacher has color-coordinated everything in soothing blues and grays. Everything seems like it’s in order and ready to go for the first day of school. However, I wonder, where is the space for the children in this classroom?”
“What do you mean? Their desks are right here,” she gestured to the student seating.
“As I look around the room, I’m noticing there isn’t any empty wall space for the children. All of the charts have been created by the teacher, and they’re hanging on the walls. I don’t see any space for students to display their work in progress or to showcase finished work. I’m also noticing there’s a bulletin board for the writing process where they can move their name to the part of the writing process they’re in on any given day. However, the writing process isn’t linear, and therefore, this doesn’t seem like the best use of bulletin board space.”
The administrator looked at me and said, “I thought it was pretty.”
“It’s an attractive space! I can tell the teacher spent hours preparing the classroom. However, starting the year with blank walls is OK. Yes, color coordinate. Yes, cover bulletin boards with fadeless paper. However, I don’t believe the actual bulletin boards should be covered with teacher-made materials. First, a child can have sensory overload when they enter an environment like this since there’s so much to read on the walls. But, more importantly, children should be part of the learning in the classroom, and the learning should be showcased on bulletin boards that change throughout the school year.”
I believe classrooms should be neat and inviting learning spaces, but they shouldn’t be cluttered. I invite you to talk to your students about how to fill the walls of your classroom. Try handing over 80 percent of the bulletin board space to kids. Give them ownership so they can take pride in their learning environment. You never know what can happen when students have a say over how the walls in their classroom are used. With some discussion about how bulletin boards can be useful, they can become teaching tools rather than places that only showcase perfect work or teacher-store charts.
Thanks to Ron, Oman, Martha, Valentina, Julie, Michael, and Stacey for their contributions.
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Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.
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Look for Part Two in a few days.
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