What’s on YOUR Walls?
Last week I visited a local elementary school that felt warm and welcoming as soon as I walked in the door. Kids’ work is everywhere. Artwork, stories, and math solutions are posted in the halls, in the cafeteria, and on the classroom walls. Science projects are displayed on tables. In the main office hang a dozen or so framed pictures produced by kids. “Welcome parents and visitors!” says the big sign by the front door. “Please stop in our main office before going to classrooms.” It’s an entirely different tone from the usual “Visitors must report to the main office.”
On the other end of the continuum is the classroom of a math teacher I once supervised that had all the warmth of a bus station or an unfinished basement. The walls were completely bare; only office notices were tacked haphazardly to a small bulletin board. On the teacher’s desk were no personal items, not even a note pad, let alone family pictures, yet he’d taught all day in that same room for over 10 years. As it turned out, the room accurately reflected his attitude towards his work: it was a job, not a profession.
Exhibiting kids’ authentic work acknowledges them as partners in learning says Alfie Kohn, who put together a chart called, “What to Look for in a Classroom.” The chart is divided into two columns: “Good Signs” and “Possible Reasons to Worry.” While the good signs include kids’ work, reasons to worry include performance charts and lists of rules. Thankfully, most schools have abandoned the practice of posting kids’ grades, although I still see in some classrooms lists of kids’ names and checks for the number of books they’ve read or math quizzes they’ve passed.
Some schools allow kids to paint the walls with their own designs or illustrations. While this idea might leave some administrators aghast, others embrace the idea, buy the paint, and let the kids become muralists. In one school I allowed the biology students to paint a sea filled with fish and other sea animals (including Sponge Bob) in a stairwell. The library club’s mural depicted some of their favorite characters from literature on the walls near the library. Each senior class painted the same wall every year with its own design; during the summer the wall was painted over and the next year’s class started fresh.
The walls can talk, and they tell students, faculty, parents, and visitors about your school’s culture -- what it values and celebrates. Kohn is right; when kids’ work is displayed, they take pride in accomplishment. It feels like it’s their school, and it is.