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Response: Classrooms Don't Need 'Pinterest-y Looking Walls'

(This is the final post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two 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.

In Part Two, Craig Martin, Tamera Musiowsky, Kara Bentley, Janet Nuzzie, Jenni Brasington, and Andrew Miller shared their ideas.

Today, this series is concluded with answers from Julia Thompson, Debbie Zacarian, Michael Silverstone, Carol Pelletier Radford, Tamara Fyke, and Kelly Wickham Hurst.  I've also included comments from readers.

Response From Julia Thompson

Julia Thompson is currently a teacher trainer for the Bureau of Research and Development. She is also the author of several books for teachers including The First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide, Fourth Edition. Thompson offers practical advice for teachers at her website,  www.juliagthompson.com, her blog, www.juliagthompson.blogspot.com, and on Twitter, @TeacherAdvice:

For teachers, classroom walls are the ultimate multi-purpose tool. All it takes to take full advantage of the endless possibilities inherent in classroom walls is a bit of imagination, some planning, and a few inexpensive materials. While what is posted on a classroom wall is up to the teacher and should be determined by the needs and interests of the students in the class, there are some universal uses for classroom walls.

The space on the walls in a classroom should be dominated by student work. Like many new teachers, early in my career, I thought I should purchase cool posters to entertain my students while they worked. My students enjoyed the posters for about a week and then paid them no more attention. Frustrated that I had spent my meager salary on posters no one cared about, I determined to find a better way to hold my students' attention. I soon discovered that my students wanted to see their work on the wall. I started giving out occasional note cards for students to use for an activity that I would then post on the wall. I found that I could display everyone's work when it was note card size and that the note cards would actually stay on the wall. My students stayed interested in the work that they posted throughout the year. Let your students post their work on the wall. Let them display their best efforts. Let them share their ideas. Let them have a voice that is evident on the walls of their classroom.

There should also be room on the walls of a classroom for information that everyone needs. No matter how young students are, there are certain things that should be posted to make it easy for everyone to remain on the same page. When teachers post calendars, schedules, reminders, helpful hints, emergency maps, upcoming due dates, make-up work folders, lunch menus, and other "housekeeping" items, not only do students benefit from the visual reminders, but they develop positive work habits and time-management skills.

A final and very important way to employ classroom walls effectively is to use them to motivate students. Many teachers have a large poster of "YET" posted on a classroom wall to remind students to use a growth mindset approach to their work. Still others have a kindness wall where students post notes and reminders of acts of random kindness for their classmates. One of the most positive ways to help students stay on task is to take photographs of them working, print them on copy paper, and then display the photos as examples of positive behavior or excellent teamwork. Large bar graphs make it easy for students to track progress towards a goal. For example, keeping track of the number of students who are working on the class warmup activities without being reminded by coloring in a large bar graph makes that success visible to students. Another way to use classroom walls to motivate students is to have them work with partners or in groups to create and then post small collages of things they have in common. Having older students post traced outlines of their hands similar to the ones that are often posted in primary classrooms is also an enjoyable way for students to connect with each other and with the class. Even more motivation can be added to this activity when students write inspirational quotes or mottos on their handprints.

A final word of caution about classroom walls: It is very easy to be inspired and discouraged by the beautiful images of classrooms posted online. While those online classrooms are tastefully beautiful, it is far more important for you and your students to enjoy the walls of your classroom as you all work together to make them part of what helps everyone learn in your classroom. If you think of your classroom walls as a part of the entire instructional process and as part of the way that you and your students can relate to each other in a positive way, then you are on the path to using them in a way that your students will find engaging and memorable.

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Response From Debbie Zacarian & Michael Silverstone

Dr. Debbie Zacarian brings three decades of combined experience as a district administrator, university faculty member, and educational service agency leader. With expertise in responsive leadership, instructional practices, family-school partnerships, and educational policies, she's authored many books and local and state policies and presents extensively.   

Michael Silverstone began his education career as a 2nd grade teacher in the Amherst, Mass., public schools. He is currently a Montessori Lower Elementary teacher (Ages 6-9) and an American Montessori Society Emerging Leaders Fellow as well as a Teacher Consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. 

Debbie and Michael are the co-authors of In it Together: How Student, Family, and Community Partnerships Advance Engagement and Achievement in Diverse Classrooms (Corwin 2015) and are completing a manuscript on empowering students to find their voices, to be published by ASCD in 2019:

Classroom walls can play a vital role in helping students maximize their productivity, motivation, and focus. As you design the space you will want to keep these intentions prominent in your mind:

  • Support a Sense of Identity, Belonging, and Ownership: Students should be involved in making decisions about what is displayed or offered on the classroom walls—their learning space is influenced by how it reflects their presence and their ability to leave their own mark on it over time. To this end, it is powerful to see wall displays from every student, as these serve as inspiration and expression of their dedication to learning as well as in creating a classroom community where everyone is safe to make their own unique contributions.

  • Support Organization: Well-organized displays of schedules, calendars, goals for the day, upcoming assignments help to foster students' ability to self-manage and feel oriented. The consistency of location and format can help students to feel more secure in knowing where to look to get the information that they need and to know what's coming and how to prepare for it.

  • Honor Cherished Values and Aspirations: The walls can communicate the most cherished values and aspirations of our classroom community and connect it to the world beyond. A flag, a picture of a hero are traditional ways to show these. So are images of the Earth as seen from space, as well as imagery of the diversity and unity of the world's peoples. Additionally, posters expressing appreciation for effort, kindness, the value and importance of being able to make and learn from mistakes communicate a "mission statement" for the class. Our walls are also a powerful place to see a signed document of agreements, rules, and promises that were agreed upon by consensus.

  • Make It Attractive, But Not Distracting: We may be tempted to create fabulousness with well-intentioned color, information, and sheer stuff, but, it is very easy to provide too much of a good thing. Depending on the needs of our own students, it's helpful to remember that walls that are decorated in blues and greens, and with reduced density of information, can be generally calming, whereas reds, oranges, and yellows can be stimulating, as can the presence of informational posters and texts. There is no universal rule but this one: Enough is enough—always aim for calm, productive focus with encouragement of energy, as needed, in moderation, to best meet the needs of the particular students in your classroom.

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Response From Carol Pelletier Radford

Carol Pelletier Radford EdD is the author of Mentoring in Action: Guiding, Sharing, and Reflecting With Novice Teachers and The First Years Matter: Becoming an Effective Teacher. She is a yoga teacher and has studied the principles of feng shui and applied them in her classrooms. Visit MentoringinAction.com to learn about her online courses, books, and free resources:

Classroom Feng Shui

My goal as a teacher has always been to "create a space" where my students could feel comfortable and engaged in the classroom. The walls are crucial space that are often underutilized. While decorating my home years ago, I came across the principles of Feng Shui, and this approach changed the way I looked at my home and my classroom forever. Feng Shui is often defined as, "The study of how to arrange your environment to enhance the quality of your life." I took the ideas I read about and applied them in my classroom.

I wanted to "see" what the students saw from their desks. So one day I sat in each student's seat and looked around the room from their perspectives. What a surprise and awakening that was for me as a teacher!

Here is what I saw and how I changed it.

1. I saw posters, bulletins, and signs all over the walls. Randomly placed with no real plan, it just looked like wall clutter. I couldn't read anything from my students' seats!

Begin the processclear your wall clutter. Ask the students what they actually need to see on the walls that is helpful to them. Then PRINT any message clearly and large enough for them to actually read it!

2. There was no sign of students in the room! No names, photos, or actual evidence of who was in this classroom when they physically were not in the room.

NextCreate a place for each student to share who they are. Using yarn and tacks, I created a grid on the wall so each student had a square that they owned and could add photos of themselves, their pets, favorite colors, or class work. This stays up all year.

3. I didn't feel a "community of learners" was visible in the room.

Create connectionsOrganize the classroom into "teams" to build relationships. Take team photos and place them on the walls for all to see. Change the teams seasonally to promote more interactions.

When a colleague walked into the room and commented on the energy he could feel when looking at the student introductions on my wall, I knew I was successful in using my walls effectively.

I invite you to make your students a visible part of your classroom.

Have fun!

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Response From Tamara Fyke

Tamara Fyke is a creative educator and entrepreneur with a passion for kids, families, and urban communities. She is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love in a Big World, which equips K-8 educators, schools, and districts with a social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that is both research-based and practical, and also provides the supporting resources necessary to empower students to be socially competent, emotionally healthy problem-solvers who discover and maintain a sense of purpose and make a positive difference in the world. Tamara is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter @tamara_fyke:

Think about the spaces where you feel comfortable and work best.  Is your classroom inviting for your students?

One of the ways to create a sense of belonging at school is to create a caring and nurturing environment—a space where students like to bewhether they are in preschool or high school. Bare cinder block walls are not very welcoming.  However, they are a blank canvas for your creativity.  Here are a few ideas I've gathered from teachers and my own experience over the years:

  • Paint the wallsUse soothing colors, such as light blues or other muted tones.  
  • Use natural or calm lightingThe overhead fluorescent lights can cause undue stress. Decorate with strings of soft lights or lamps with incandescent bulbs.
  • Display student work: As teachers have done for ages, showcase assignments, especially projects that they took pride in producing.
  • Share culturally relevant images: Consider the backgrounds of your students.  Display images that honor and celebrate diversity.
  • Promote heroes: Whether you paint on the walls or hang posters or book covers, share role models and their famous quotes with your students.

Here are some additional suggestions for making your classroom a warm and innovative learning space:

  • Use flexible seating: Bring in couches and chairs, carpets and pillows and even bouncy balls. Let students pick their own area and articulate a commitment to being productive.
  • Decorate the classroom door: Ask students to create the theme and images for the door.  Change the decorations at least every quarter.

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Response From Kelly Wickham Hurst

Kelly Wickham Hurst is a 23-year educator, classroom teacher, and administrator who founded Being Black at School in 2016. BBAS is an advocacy organization that uses frameworks and data to assist schools in being more equitable. She's a mom of six and grandmother of two and lives with her husband in Springfield, Ill.:

This is so easy: Let the students create the work. Every time I did that, students would get up and move around the room to reference things they needed. Sorry, but those glossy, Pinterest-y looking walls are just pretty décor. They're not useful to learning. This is where we connect art and visuals that stimulate their brains and help students connect. Everything is about connection. If we're not regularly changing them out (asking what's no longer useful on our walls?) then we're wasting that space.

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Responses From Readers

Pamela Broussard:

I think student work, anchor charts, and reference material are all great to have on walls, but we have a fire marshall that is very strict about how much paper is up. I see pictures all the time of classrooms that would never pass our fire marshall's inspection. I just wonder if other schools don't have fire codes or don't have fire marshalls who come and check their classroom/schools. It is easy to get annoyed by the rules until you pull back and realize why they are in place. I am curious as to what percentage of schools are inspected. I think all the schools I have ever worked in had fire inspectors.

Thanks to Julia, Debbie, Michael, Carol, Tamara and Kelly, and to readers, 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 [email protected]. 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.

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