Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Use Classroom Walls

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 17, 2018 17 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can classroom walls be used most effectively?

In Part One, Ron Berger, Oman Frame, Martha Caldwell, Valentina Gonzalez, Julie Jee, Michael Sivert, and Stacey Shubitz contributed 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.

Today, Craig Martin, Tamera Musiowsky, Kara Bentley, Janet Nuzzie, Jenni Brasington, and Andrew Miller share their ideas.

Response From Craig Martin

Craig Martin (@craigcmartin12) serves as the proud principal of the Michael J. Perkins Elementary (K-5) School in Boston. Craig is the 2018 Massachusetts elementary principal of the year and is an ASCD Emerging Leader:

Environment Matters! Today’s scholars are bombarded by media and messaging across print and digital means. Today’s teachers want to ensure that classroom walls reach and teach today’s 21st-century scholars. Our students are more likely to benefit from the classroom environment if they are empowered to create content that pushes learning beyond the school building.In the classrooms I have observed over the years, I have found the most successful classroom environments to host:

Highlight Student Work Products that Show Growth AND Exemplary Performance: Students enjoy learning from each other. And they are more engaged and motivated if they know their work is “the star of the show.” Some of the most formidable student-work samples came from students who worked incredibly hard to grow based upon teacher feedback and held cultural capital in their classroom. Again—some students are more apt to learn from each other before they may learn from us (smile).

Incorporate Interactive Wall Displays that Scream—"Come Learn With Me”: Prior to the launch of morning meetings, some of my early-childhood teachers ask survey questions that are posted on easel paper and will connect to integrated studies later. For example, if you are doing a unit of study on traditional literature, a teacher may inquire which building material would serve as the best defense against an angry wolf who wants to blow your house down. Students are able to find materials in their classroom and put them into a collection jar or draw pictures on Post-it notes and add them to the easel chart. Open-ended questions work well because they solicit a wide range of answers. I have seen teachers also incorporated Gallery Walks, Interactive Word Walls, and Carousels.

Student-Friendly and Student-Generated Learning Tools: Today’s classroom-learning-community environment must be a hub for independent process and production while also aiding in supportive collaborative student-engagement experiences. In other words, when students are deep in learning, there must be displays of useful tools such as number lines and number charts to support computational accuracy and process; or a wall of annotated poems by poetic device to generate figurative-language genius among student poets; or even a genius bar with QR codes for digital sites students can use to create their next graphic novel, video documentary on the almost extinct snow leopard, or a focus-group talk with kids living with illnesses aided by ancient Chinese medicine that advance learning beyond the classroom teacher. When teachers empower student voice and agency in the teaching and learning process in the form of tools, resources, and exemplars—magic happens!

Response From Tamera Musiowsky

Tamera Musiowsky is an international educator and adviser who has taught in Singapore, New York City, and Edmonton, Canada. She is an active member of ASCD and is the president of the Emerging Leaders Alumni Affiliate. Her previous roles include elementary teacher, teacher leader, instructional coordinator, and student-action coordinator. She currently resides and teaches in Singapore:

Whose Walls Are They? Rethinking Wall Space

How you use your classroom environment can immensely support, or have little impact on, how students learn to use their learning environment. The environment as a “third teacher” is one of the foundations of the Reggio Emilia approach to learning in the early years. Using the environment to inspire curiosity and enable discovery learning is prevalent in the early years yet tends to wane as students progress through grades. Why would we take that away? We are in a continuous cycle of learning in any environment we are in every single day! This year, think about how you use your environment, specifically the wall space. Here are some ideas to think about how your walls can support student thinking and learning:

  1. Discuss the purpose of wall work. When students understand the purpose of something—anything, really—the investment in it is far greater. Sharing the purpose of what is posted on the walls with the understanding that work posted is by them and for them, will increase the use of postings for further learning. Students can use postings for ideas and inspiration, spelling of words, remember a time when, reference material, reflection, or for looking at other’s thinking. Purposeful postings enhance independent learning.

  2. Students decide what can be posted. Discussing how and when students will have a voice in what is posted on their classroom walls,will greatly increase the value and quality of the student wall-space contributions. Sometimes students zone in on a piece of their process work as one of the most important pieces in their learning. However, this may be a piece we overlook, so it is important for students to have a place to post, share, and use as a visual reference.

  3. Posted work shows process rather than product. Photos are an important part of process work, and every student I’ve ever met,loves to the see photos of themselves at work. Posting photos, quotes, sketches, mind maps are all part of the learning process and often are not presented on the walls of classrooms because it looks messy. But this mess is the best kind of mess. It is the most important part of learning, so it is really essential that it is posted and celebrated. Do save some space for published work, or final products, because end products are definitely pieces worth celebrating, but these pieces do not need to be the central focus of all posted work.

  4. Invite students and classroom visitors to take a look. Not everything needs to be shared, but if students have taken pride in what has been posted, open your classroom up as a sharing space. This may turn out to be a source of inspiration for other teachers and students. You never know the impact of what you learn or do until you have shared it with others.

Take a risk this year and rethink how you use the wall space in the classroom. The classroom is a space that belongs to the students, so the walls should reflect that.

Response From Kara Bentley

Kara Bentley is a staff developer with Learning Sciences International. Her educational career encompasses classroom experience in both primary- and intermediate-level education. While working at a school district, she served as a lead facilitator to help professional learning community groups learn to effectively write and use learning scales in the classroom and has worked extensively with preservice teachers as an instructor to prepare them for real-world classroom experiences:

How many times have you walked into a classroom and commented about how nice the walls look? Yes, many classrooms (especially in elementary schools) have beautiful, color-coordinated walls with creative posters, positive sayings, and displays of children’s artwork. But we need to ask ourselves: Other than decoration, is there any value to these walls? Walls in classrooms should speak ... about students, critical content, and especially about LEARNING.

When classroom walls are covered with teacher-created content, we’re only seeing what the teacher wants students to see. When students become actively engaged in creating the materials posted on the walls, however, we get to see what the students know about the content and we also get a valuable glimpse of what they can do with their knowledge.

That’s why classroom walls should be viewed as an extension of the teaching and learning process. Yes, it’s important for teachers to post standards, learning targets, success criteria, and evidences of student thinking on the walls, but the actual content that demonstrates the learning needs to be created by students.

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Posters, or anchor charts, should be handmade, by students, with a focus on deep learning.
  • Students should actively be using these very charts to deepen their understanding of content.
  • Involve students in decisions about what’s posted, what’s used during learning, and what each poster or student evidence says about the learning taking place.

Response From Janet Nuzzie

Janet Nuzzie (@janetdnuzzie) has served teachers and students at the campus, regional, and district level for 23 years. She is the instructional specialist for kindergarten-grade 4 mathematics in the Pasadena Independent School District (Texas) and works to share the work of her district via Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and YouTube (PISDMathematics). Janet worked alongside Dr. Nicki Newton to co-edit the publication, Mathematizing Your School, a resource that describes how to create a culture for success in mathematics:

“What do your walls say about the importance of math in your class?” This quote from Dr. Nicki Newton’s “Math Workshop in Action” (pg. 22) is a vital reminder that the environment we create in our classrooms is not only critical to our students’ learning of mathematics, it’s also critical to the messages we send to our students about the learning of mathematics. The walls of our classroom tell an important story, and it’s critical that we use our classroom walls to tell the story of our core values, our core content, and our core celebrations as it relates to mathematics.

Core Values

Our classroom walls are most effective when they are used to communicate the core values of a mathematics classroom, the norms by which students and teachers will work together as mathematicians. How should our young mathematicians work during whole-group instruction, guided math, and work stations? What actions should a teacher take to create mathematically proficient students? Post anchor charts that are co-created with students and delineate the roles and responsibilities of students and teachers as well as the characteristics of mathematicians such as how mathematicians work and how mathematicians talk. These anchor charts can be revisited on a daily basis to remind our students that mathematics is more than just “doing"; mathematics is also about “being.”

Core Content

Our classroom walls are most effective when they are used to communicate the core content of our instruction, the concepts, processes, and academic language embedded in our standards. What prior knowledge should students have before exploring a new concept? Post anchor charts that capture concepts, processes, and academic language from the previous grade level’s standards in order to activate prior knowledge and provide needed scaffolds for students. What concepts and processes should students master within their current grade-level standards? Post anchor charts that are co-created with students and capture concepts and processes explored during classroom instruction. What academic language should students be using in order to speak the language of mathematics? Post anchor charts that are co-created with students and capture the academic language that is both explicit and implicit in a standard. Allow students to create visual representations of the words and post the students’ representations according to concept versus by the first letter of each academic term. Most importantly, encourage students to interact with these valuable resources during instruction to help create self-directed learners who are able to locate resources that support them in their learning.

Core Celebrations

Our classroom walls are most effective when they are used to celebrate the behaviors and actions of our young mathematicians that indicate the development of mathematical proficiency and mathematical mindsets. Remember the core values that communicate the norms for our classrooms? Use the walls of the classroom to celebrate students that demonstrate those behaviors such as the characteristics of a productive disposition, the use of academic language during oral or written communication, or the demonstration of perseverance when making mistakes. Consider how identifying “Mathematicians of the Month” can be used to celebrate those young mathematicians twho are developing mathematical habits of mind and post pictures of the students and their work on the classroom wall. Students will do what we celebrate ... let’s use our walls to celebrate their work as young mathematicians!

“A glance around the room tells you how important math is ...” (Math Workshop in Action, pg. 21). We must consider what the walls of our classrooms are telling our students about mathematics and work to ensure that we are using our space wisely to communicate our core values, core content, and core celebrations! Mathematics IS important!

Response From Jenni Brasington

Jenni Brasington is the senior director of consultative services of family and community engagement at Scholastic Education:

Classroom wall displays are effective and purposeful when there is a clear connection between work displayed and student learning. Posted work should be used as a vehicle to showcase evidence of learning, highlight quality practices, and motivate students. What do your walls say about student performance?

When choosing what to display, it is essential to discriminate between displaying student work and highlighting evidence of learning. Posting student work is when we place unlabeled papers and projects on the wall. While this work may demonstrate progress and quality, if it doesn’t make the connection to learning, it serves no purpose apart from decoration. When we make an intentional connection to student learning, we tell a bigger story about what and how students are learning in the classroom.

To show evidence of learning is to display relevant and labeled student artifacts that connect to the curriculum, a performance measure, a standard, or a unit of study. It highlights growth and progress toward the achievement of school and student-learning goals.

Every classroom has a range of learners. Each of these learners deserves to see their work highlighted at school. When we celebrate all learners, we showcase not only the “A papers,” but also growth, progress, and the developmental path to mastery.

For example: Mrs. Jones and Mr. Arnold display student quilts in their classroom. Mrs. Jones arranges the quilts on a beautifully decorated bulletin board. But nothing is labeled, so it is difficult to understand what the quilts represent or discern the connection to student learning. On the other hand, Mr. Arnold shows the same quilts alongside a picture of the book The Keeping Quilt, the inspiration for his students’ work. He has also provided a summary of the quilt project, including what the quilts represent and how they connect to the story. It is evident how the quilts support relevant performance measures and overall student-learning goals. While the projects are the same, the context in which they are displayed makes the difference between a simple presentation and a demonstration of learning.

What does it look like to display work in this way? Teachers can, for example, post an explanation of why the selected student work meets learning goals and pair it with a rubric, which helps to tell the story without evaluating it. It also highlights the learning targets, provides clear and concrete examples, and models a path to success.

When we regularly post rubrics alongside completed work, students take more ownership and responsibility for their learning. They self-reflect, take the initiative to try new things, and monitor their own work. When this happens, teachers may ask students to select the work they want to showcase and let them determine how they would describe their progress. Every student’s educational journey is unique and deserves celebration.

Finally, while purposeful displays can motivate and encourage learning in the classroom, they also have the potential to connect home and school. When work is displayed in this way, it helps parents understand what to look for in their children’s work and how to support learning at home. Teachers can also share photos with families through social media and on the school website. This invites families into the learning without pressure to visit the classroom, which can be a challenge for many families.

These concrete examples have the power to motivate. Students will gain a much clearer sense of their progress and what it will take to move through the different stages of development.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is currently an instructional coach at the Shanghai American School in China. He also serves on the National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education and ASCD, where he consults on a variety of topics. He has worked with educators in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, India, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and the Dominican Republic:

Walls talk and communicate the culture of classroom and learning, and thus we often spend time preparing the classroom for another year. We put up bright posters, share great examples of student work, post essential questions, and create different spaces for different purposes such as student-work examples or a calendar. Oftentimes, the walls of the classroom are “done to students” in that they have limited ownership.

One way you can send the message of an inclusive classroom that is student-centered is to make the walls of your classroom more fluid and interactive. Teachers might have a space devoted specifically to students where students are free to post and share what they want (provided there are established norms). Parts of the wall might contain a list of inquiry questions for a project, or students might be able to post resources and articles related to a unit. If possible, students can use the walls as planning tools to create mind-maps or share flow charts as they work on long-term projects and tasks. Teachers should reflect and think about, “How can students own the walls of the classroom more?” When we do this, the walls not only speak for the teacher and the culture of learning they want, but also share student voice and celebrate their learning journey.

Thanks to Craig, Tamera, Kara, Janet, Jenni, and Andrew for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first seven years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin The School Year

Best Ways to End The School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Student Assessment

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Three in a few days.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.