Calm Down the Classroom Walls

by Guest Blogger
August 11th, 2011

by Diana Senechal

With the beginning of the school year just weeks or days away, many teachers will be returning early to set up their bulletin boards and classrooms. That is an exciting time—except that there’s so much stuff to put up. In addition to organizing the room and making it inviting, teachers must put all the required teacher-made pieces in place, lest an omission be noted in a walkthrough observation.

Growing up, I attended eight different schools—public and private, progressive and traditional, in the United States and abroad. I have sat in bare and decorated classrooms, and I found something appealing in both. In elementary school, I usually preferred cheery, colorful places; in high school, I liked the calm of sparse rooms. But today’s classrooms are often neither cheery nor sparse. Across the grades, teachers are expected to cover the classroom walls with charts, lists, standards, rubrics, tasks, reminders, and student work. The argument is that children will learn more in a “print-rich” environment.

There is basis for the “print-rich” argument, especially in the elementary grades. Exposure to print, combined with explicit instruction, can boost students’ reading considerably. But even in kindergarten classrooms, the “print-rich” factor can be overdone. It is difficult to take in anything when there’s so much staring at you. One becomes immune to posters on strategies and processes (which often aren’t “rich” to begin with). Also, there is a hint of condescension in such overdecoration, as though students could not learn without prompts coming from every angle. Why so much stuff? There is something strong about a room that doesn’t protest too much, and it sets a good example for the students.

Even displays of student work may not always help students. If student work is posted just because it must be posted, it loses meaning. Few students, teachers, or administrators actually take time to read it. If it is on a hallway bulletin board, students may deface it (intentionally or not) when rushing by. Moreover, as David Riesman noted decades ago in The Lonely Crowd, the public display of student work can promote sameness of topic and voice. The treatment of all writing as publishable or displayable does not give students a chance to take risks, learn from mistakes, struggle with syntax, structure, and style, and work out ideas.

In addition, there is a problem of resources; classroom displays take time and supplies. Locating the appropriate materials—bulletin board paper, borders, staples and stapler and staple remover, construction paper, markers, and so forth—is only the beginning. There are the inevitable errors: lopsided letters, bad stapling, the omission of a required rubric. Finding space on the walls can be a challenge; it is common to see clotheslines strung from wall to wall, with student work hanging from them. If you’re short, you may have trouble hanging things up in high places; if you’re tall, you may find yourself bumping into the clotheslines.  Then there is the wear and tear: items falling down from the walls, taking pieces of paint along. After a few rounds of decorating, the room looks more dilapidated than ever.

Of course, no one wants a dreary classroom. It is exciting to enter a room and figure out immediately what is taught there. Sometimes this is conveyed invisibly; a good high school course has its own character, and there may be no need for displays at all. At other times, displays have a place. There may be descriptions of chemistry experiments, or biographies of composers. Some student work on the walls can be impressive and inspiring. A classroom display may reflect ongoing discussions; teachers may post questions intended to provoke further thought.

But what about all those charts and lists that are needed? Well, we have to consider whether they truly live up to their mandatory status. Take, for instance, the charts of the “writing process,” which hang on many classroom walls. They do not apply to every situation or student. Yes, writing often consists of five stages: pre-writing, drafting, revising, proofreading, and publishing. But within this, there is a great deal of variation: one may revise a piece at a late stage, and one might not publish it at all. If students have substantial and regular writing assignments, they need no chart to remind them of the basic steps. By contrast, vocabulary lists, chronologies, and scientific and mathematical formulas may well be useful.

To have good schools, we need focus and simplicity. Teachers should be able to concentrate on planning and delivering lessons; students, on learning the material and developing ideas. Schools should have the gumption to sort the essential from the extraneous. If schools stopped requiring the display of charts, lists, tasks, rubrics, and student work, they would have room for interesting displays. They would also have greater calm, on the walls and elsewhere. To do good work, one must have room for it; one cannot be crammed and crowded to the brim.

Diana Senechal has written for American Educator, Education Week, Educational Leadership, American Educational History Journal, and numerous blogs. She holds a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale and taught for four years in New York City public schools. Her book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, will be published by Rowman & Littlefield Education in November.