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Classroom Walls: We Don't Need No Thought Control

One of the things I found most fascinating in Dan Brown's Great Expectations School were the ongoing controversies over--of all things--his bulletin boards. There was a lot of fussing about whether his displays met "quality standards"--i.e., were they standardized to the point of monotony?--and a ridiculous administrative smackdown over commercially purchased borders.

It seemed to be another example of something you see in schools all the time--wresting control over minute, irrelevant details, a response to the certain knowledge that you can't control much in an enterprise as vast and complicated as education. Plus, of course, school leaders' need to assert titular authority they may not have earned.

When arguments erupt over minor issues, they're almost always a smokescreen for Big Irreconcilable Problems. You may win the battle over the recess schedule or bathroom passes, even while you're being crushed in the war against generational poverty or onerous high-stakes testing. So it goes. Take your victories where you can get them.

It seems to me that the classroom is the very heart of place-based education, however--a space where a teacher and her pupils must have some investment in the environment, a safe space for personal expression. Diana Senechal has made some good points about why exhibits of identical student assignments can lead to a kind of mental inertia, and how being surrounded by "charts, lists, standards, rubrics, tasks, and reminders" doesn't leave much room for imagination.

What I'm thinking of, however, is an organically cluttered classroom that reflects the students who work there. Entering a classroom where the only things posted are tornado and fire drill instructions makes me wonder about the ideas that are shared in that space, the value of the products created. Even the most direct, knowledge-transmission instruction begs for images, samples, graphics, mistakes and exemplars--and further questions. Things to wonder about, to contemplate.

The best classrooms are full of sticky items, places where kids cluster and are encouraged to interpret and apply things they've learned. One of the most productive and interactive pieces I ever used was drop-dead simple: I ran blank cash register tape around the perimeter of the room during the 2000-01 school year, then divided the tape into 10 equal segments, representing the centuries from 1000 to 2000. Since Guido of Arrezzo invented what would become modern music notation c. 1025, the tape represented a record of what we knew about music in the previous millennium.

As we performed music, and studied composers, techniques and musical styles, we added them to the timeline. Students were free to add their own important dates, people and events. They began with traditional historical markers, like 1492 and 1776, but later got a lot more personal. (One that I remember: the tiny space between "Kurt Cobain is born" and "Kurt Cobain dies.") Eventually, parts of the tape were crammed full of information, with the students' lifespan (about 13 years) being barely more than 1%.

The timeline turned out to be a great generator of questions: Was it true that nothing important happened for the first 500 years of the past millennium (the half of the tape that was almost blank)? What happened to make pop music spread and change so fast in the 20th century? How come almost all the Famous Composers were European?

My principal was primarily concerned about whether the paper tape (stuck up with rubber cement) would pull off paint when I took it down (it didn't). He also seemed to think it should take more teacher time and effort to put up real displays.

The most engaging bulletin board I've ever crafted was pretty much effortless, however. Teachers in my building rotated responsibility for the front hall showcase, and when it was my turn, I asked teachers to share photos of themselves when they were young. Teachers contributed baby pictures, graduation pictures, snapshots of themselves shooting baskets, cheerleading and diving off the high board. One chunky gray-haired special ed teacher provided a formal wedding portrait, in which she was blond and sylph-like.

I printed up the words to Crosby, Stills & Nash's Teach Your Children Well, then arranged the unlabeled photos around the lyrics. That bulletin board was a kid magnet, every day-- a visual meditation on becoming yourself, because the past is just a goodbye.

So it goes.

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