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What Do the Walls Say?

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This post is by Laura McBain, director of external relations and leading schools program, High Tech High

When you enter a school, what is the first thing you notice? Is it the receptionist who greets you? A trophy case? A school banner, or a large motivational poster with a soaring eagle that inspires teachers and students to dream big?

While these artifacts may promote the school's mission and success, they are often the work of high achieving students or an outside publishing company. In general, they are messages to students, not by students. These artifacts may show the desired result, the what, but rarely do they show the how or why. It is the why that I am interested in.

In my work, I have visited schools around the world, from public to private, large to small, and rural to urban. When I walk into each of these situations, the first thing I notice is the walls. What messages do they communicate about teaching and learning? If most of the walls are bare, what does this suggest to students? In the end, what do the artifacts suggest about the school's attitude toward student thinking? If the main purpose of schooling is to develop critical thinking, shouldn't the walls of the schools be an entry point to promote and inspire to do just that? Like the eyes to the soul, the school walls act as a lens to the school's values.

Inspiration is what leads to action. On a visit to an art museum, the conversation centers on how and why this work was done. McBain1.jpgThe work you are viewing becomes the focal point of the conversation. We wonder what was the thinking behind the decisions the artist made. We may wonder how in the world the artist was able to create such a masterpiece. In schools, there is artistry in every content area--in solving a complex math problem, writing an essay, or designing a scientific inquiry. Displaying student work and explaining how and why the work was done can inspire and motivate others to create artful work.

When I started at HTH over 10 years ago I was struck by the numerous projects on display in the building. I saw mini-bridges that one could walk on, a huge display of bicycle wheels demonstrating friction, torque, and force, and flash animations showing the challenges associated with blood diseases. Each piece was carefully curated and included an artist's statement. I thought I was at an interactive science museum. Yes, I was inspired, but also I knew what the school valued. It was clear to me I would need to create artifacts with my students--to have them build something that would exist beyond the classroom walls. My students knew it, too. That is the power of displaying student work.

McBain2.jpgWe now use every nook and cranny (even the bathrooms) to curate work that attempts to teach and inspire. We see the walls as an opportunity to unpack the learning process, not simply to showcase great work. The work developed by our students communicates our aspirations for student thinking, voice, innovation, and mastery.McBain3.jpg

For example, in a 10th grade geometry class, our students applied their knowledge of Euclidean geometry and mathematics along with new geometric tools to create Sangaku-inspired puzzles. These puzzles hung in our school as offerings to visitors and peers and as demonstrations of integrated art. In another class, students created "thing" biographies that integrated chemistry and history by examining the impact chemical compounds played in historical and contemporary conflicts. Students studied a variety of topics from how uranium led the Cold War race to how coltan is being exploited in the country of Congo. More recently, ninth graders created hypotheses on how civilizations rise and fall. They then compared their hypotheses with historical evidence, mapped the quantitative changes throughout history, and finally created a narrative and mechanical representation of their findings. This project, called Apocalypto, was showcased during the schoolwide exhibition and is now displayed in our main conference room to inspire other students. It demonstrates the interconnectivity between science and humanities as well as our aspiration to create products of lasting value.McBain4.jpg

When students see the work of their peers on the walls (whether a math puzzle, a photo-essay or 12 interlocking bicycle wheels) they want to make their work good. When there is an audience for their work beyond the classroom, students want the work to be perfect. When every student has piece of work they can be proud of displayed on the walls, it sends a message to every student that their work matters. Indeed, the students speak to each other and to the public through the walls. It is their voices that are celebrated. And it is their work that sends the message about what is valued in the school and what learning is supposed to be.

Changing the walls will not change the culture, but the commitment to display student work there--all student work--can start a conversation about what quality work might look like in a school, and what it might take to get there.

Photos, from top: Stacey Keck, Stacey Keck, Jeff Robin, Kathleen O'Sullivan

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