If These Classroom Walls Could Talk
I recently walked into a district office for a meeting, and while I waited in the lobby, had the most fascinating conversation with the wall next to me. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t normally talk to walls, but this one was different. This wall had a constellation of informational posters that made me stand up and actually engage. The conversation went something like this.
Wall: “Hey there, do you know we’re serious about PD in this district?”
Me: “I can see that. Looks like you’ve done a lot of work around teacher efficacy. This is so interesting! I’ve been reading a lot about efficacy and how it relates to Academic Optimism. I wonder if you’re exploring the same topics…”
Wall: “Well, take a look at the essential elements that we’ve come up with. Does it match with your research?”
So maybe this exchange happened internally—I might have been asked to leave the premises had I been caught rambling to a bulletin board—but you get the idea.
The bright colors and illustrations were what caught my attention, but it was the content that held it. The wall engaged me. It asked me questions. It forced me to pause and ponder. It quite literally spoke to me. Questions kept bubbling up as I read each poster.
I grabbed my notebook and started jotting down some key elements and questions for further consideration. At one point I think I actually said “aha” aloud. As the meeting time came closer, I snapped some pictures so I could continue the discussion later that night. I was too intrigued to leave such a stimulating conversation. This dialogue not only got me thinking about teacher efficacy, but also highlighted the critical role that walls play in our classrooms.
As a former elementary school teacher, I was serious about the walls and bulletin boards in my home away from home, Room 106. Each August, many hours were spent standing at the die cutter, meticulously stamping out letters, numbers, and apple shapes. Many dollars were spent at the local teacher store on shiny new motivational posters and illustrations of the solar system. Pretty standard stuff. When our state test came around in May, I dutifully took down all of my posters per the rules of test administration.
If you can believe it, the wall in Room 106 spoke to me that day as well. It said, “Hi, Miss Kozzi! (my maiden name). Haven’t seen you since August.” Gulp. It was embarrassing. The shiny bright paper spots that were revealed as I removed each poster gave me away. I stared at my pile of posters and thought a lot about my purpose for buying them. My goal was to help the students, but I had missed the mark. I had spent so much time decorating my walls to look pretty and colorful that I overlooked a great opportunity. My kids couldn’t have used my walls to help them with much on the test, unless the test was on apples or positive platitudes. And the solar system wasn’t even part of my curriculum that year.
Then it hit me. What if the posters were actually useful? The sun-faded frames around the empty squares were like windows into a world of new possibilities!
The next August, I took my place at the die cutter once again, but this time with a different purpose. I was going to put up useful bulletin boards. And, I was even going to leave some walls blank. To be honest, my classroom didn’t look as pretty, but to my surprise, the students didn’t seem to notice. No one commented on the lack of “reach for the stars” posters. And as the year went on, we filled up our walls with the best type of motivational posters: student work. The good, the bad, and the ugly. But it was our ugly. It showed how messy learning can be. It taught us that things rarely come out right the first time, but that’s okay. We celebrated our ugly by stapling it to the wall. No more perfect sun-faded frames – our walls were ever-changing to reflect what we were learning and discussing. Vocabulary word walls, science cycles, social studies projects, and math processes bloomed around the room. A wall by the students for the students.
And when test time came around, the students and I dutifully removed the artifacts of learning from the walls. We used the removal process as an opportunity to reflect on our learning and subversively review for “the test.” I lovingly handed each piece of work back to the students, and we reminisced about the project or activity. Every piece was special. Each timeline or vocab poster was a physical representation of the invisible learning process that had been taking place in my students’ minds all year. It’s still one of my most memorable teaching moments.
When test day rolled around, I noticed a new phenomenon in my room. Head turning. More accurately, rapid neck twisting. My students were bent over their science tests, but periodically, necks were twisting to the back of the room where our now-blank investigation wall had been. One student looked to the upper right corner where our butterfly life cycle data had resided. She stared at the blank wall for a bit, had a quick conversation with the empty spot, smiled, then resumed her test. Wonder of wonders. Even a blank wall can talk.
So back to me standing in the district office. I smiled at this wall as it reminded me of my four old friends, the walls in Room 106. Later that night, as I flipped through the pictures, I realized that the district’s wall on teacher efficacy fits so nicely with the process of creating walls that teach in our own classroom.
The 5 main elements of teacher efficacy posted on the wall were as follows:
- Developing expert learners
- Gathering and responding to feedback
- Developing teacher clarity
- Building a democratic relationship
- Designing for invested cognition and engagement
How fitting. Building walls that teach in our classrooms seem to check each box. My challenge to all readers is to go back to your classrooms and ugly up your walls a bit. And if you’re so inclined, invite us into the conversation by tweeting a picture of your walls @catapultlearn. We’d love to chat with you and your four new friends!