I just returned from the Innovative Ideas Institute put on by the South Carolina Association of School Administrators (SCASA). It was fulfilling and inspiring, as it always is. I was able to network and connect with influential school administrators from all over the state, and hear about the initiatives and programs they are utilizing in their schools to serve students and bring forth outstanding levels of achievement.
This conference takes place yearly at Kingston Plantation in Myrtle Beach, SC. Kingston Plantation is a huge resort with an Embassy Suites hotel at the center, and little “communities” around it. There are a few other oceanfront buildings, but the majority of the areas are inland and made up of condominium or villa-style buildings. This year, I stayed in a place called Arrowhead Court.
Now I know that not all the units in Arrowhead Court are just like the one I stayed in–I believe these units are privately owned, like timeshares. No two units are decorated the same. In fact, when I stayed in the Richmond Park area last year, the villa had the exact same floor plan as my colleague’s did in another area on the site, but everything from the flooring to kitchen sink fixtures was completely different.
I hope, for the sake of all who arrive at Kingston Plantation and are given a key to an Arrowhead Court unit, that there is not another that looks the way mine did: bare, stark, white walls, no pictures, nothing fancy, no chachkis of any sort. It was incredibly underwhelming.
It really got me thinking about how important classroom environment is. I once was told that the walls of a classroom are a teacher’s real estate, and if that teacher wants students and parents to “buy” what’s up for sale, it’s got to have some definite “curb appeal”.
I’m not talking about cute, fluffy, meaningless things; I’m talking about content-enhancing, interactive, useful tools and resources that support the learning in the classroom. In fact, I believe that every student in the class should be able to explain the significance of each displayed instructional tool in the room. If it is important enough to be up on the wall, the students should be able to articulate its purpose.
I had a huge map of the world on my classroom wall back when I taught 5th grade. I taught my two sections of social studies, so many of the instructional aides in my walls were social studies themed. In 5th grade, we discussed the relationship between the US and the rest of the world from Reconstruction to present day. So this map I had was used a lot when we started talking about imperialism and the World Wars.
On a classroom observation, an administrator came in and told me that my map was superfluous and didn’t seem to serve any purpose–that it just took up a lot of space and didn’t seem to support any learning. I argued that it did, and while anyone coming into the room for 15 minutes may not see it in use, the kids could tell anyone what the map was for. Well, the next day, I made sure that my statement was true because I knew that administrator would be back to test out my claim. I told my students that I didn’t just put stuff up on the walls for my health, or because they looked good. I informed them that everything had a purpose, and part of their responsibility as students was to know the purpose for everything on all four walls. I quizzed them on unit and lesson essential questions posted on a wall, along with content vocabulary and the student-created pictures that accompanied them; I made sure they knew the connection to math that our calendar provided us; and I made certain that they all knew why the map on the wall was such a big deal. Ironically, they asked me why we had a word wall with such “baby words”. I explained to them that the word wall (along with the selection of words) was something required by the district. A variety of students admitted that they never paid attention to the word wall, and that the words there weren’t ones that they often misspelled. From that point on, I didn’t take the word wall down, but I started adding words that were frequently misspelled for my students, not just the “commonly” misspelled ones.
Fast forward to about two weeks later: the same administrator was back, and when she walked in the door, my kids knew it was game time. She walked around, checking things on her little clipboard, and noticing some of my classroom real estate has not changed since her last visit. She peered over the shoulder of one of my students, Tae-Young. As she leaned to Tae-Young’s ear, Tae-Young had this unforgettable look of dread come over her face–like she was going to have to speak for all mankind. The administrator pointed up to the map and asked Tae-Young a question about it, and without any hesitation, Tae unabashedly preached the gospel of the world map, complete with providing answers to the administrator’s follow-up questions. The look on her face after she had stood up for the truth of our massive instructional tool was one of pride and relief.
That administrator later affirmed the benefits of the giant world map.
I carried this mindset with me as an instructional coach. I used to visit classrooms and give students 30 seconds to explain the purpose of one classroom instructional tool while I recorded them with my phone. They would explain to me stories behind their classroom data stations, anchor charts, student work, graphic organizers, and editor’s checklists. The amazing thing is that when the kids knew the purpose of the things on the walls, they were more prone to use them as resources and glean important information from them.
So what’s on all four walls is important. Not only should it be there in order to create an engaging atmosphere for learning, but students should know its purpose in order to get the ultimate benefit from its presence.