~ by Sarah Miller
That time of year has come around once again – we’re getting best-of lists, favorites of 2022, and hearing about resolutions, goals, and refreshes as we launch into a brand-new year. Now that 2023 has officially begun, I’ve been thinking about the visual clarity, and sometimes clutter, around my spaces. In our classrooms, this often means considering our walls, displays, and bulletin boards.
Over the summer, I taught a Middle Grades Literature course and we discussed the idea that our bulletin boards and wall space in the classroom can become wallpaper. It’s there, but it can eventually turn into a static spot in our rooms. How can we keep our space alive, and lively? How do we develop dynamic, rather than stagnant, spaces? We’ve heard before that the classroom environment is the ‘third teacher,’ and our boards and displays can reflect this in a powerful way.
Dawn Buswell and Hillary Nuttall are teachers at Malletts Bay School in Colchester, Vermont who highlight ways to bring our classroom environment to life. As they moved into 2023, their students created a display with book spines. As you can see, the spines included book titles and authors, and their designs represented a relevant idea about the text. This sort of work invites students to think critically about their reading, as well as in an evaluative manner – they had to decide which book they would choose and how to represent the ideas. Here, we see an authentic student reading experience that is driven by their own choice and voice: this thinking and creating work is in the hands of the learners. We also see an opportunity for young readers to participate in a literate community because they’re able to talk with each other about their choices and recommendations.
Browsing the board, we see a range of text genres and formats represented: the graphic novel The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag, the novel in verse Alone by Megan E. Freeman, Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind, and Kenneth Oppel’s Bloom. As an educator, I’m already thinking about what I’ve learned about their readers from their book choices! For example, I’d be delighted to tell the reader of Out of My Mind that Melody’s journey continues in Out of My Heart. This bulletin board is an opportunity for both teaching and learning.
Here, we have another example from Hillary and Dawn. Dawn explained that this board “is student-driven and gets longer as the year goes along!” This is a thriving, living display that is on-going and highlights texts that students read across the year. In addition, we see the actual covers of the books and – bonus! – it does not take up a lot of space for those of us who may not have much area to place displays. As a viewer, I’m struck by the idea that students will see tracks of their learning – they’ll be able to think back to early in the year when they read Lynne Kelley’s Song for a Whale and perhaps draw comparisons to their current choice reading. Or say to a teacher or classmate, “I loved The Parker Inheritance – what other books are like that?” The visual cues with the cover images provide reminders that readers can hold on to.
With this display, we also can notice how far we’ve come across the year, and all that was accomplished. We see the trail that readers took, quite tangibly… and the books they’ve traversed. Supporting this sense of accomplishment develops strong reading identities, as a community and as individuals.
Hillary noted that the additional space on the board allowed for them to display student one-pagers that focused on their book club texts. So, in addition to the book chain, we also have the opportunity to view student thinking and analysis of their texts. This invites readers to be analytical and evaluative about their reading: what best represents the characters in the texts? What quotes are meaningful or significant enough to include on our one-pager? Beyond the reading and thinking work required to complete the one-pagers, including them on a bulletin board display encourages other students to review and reflect on the work of their classmates. How did they interpret certain characters or scenes? What have others selected as evidence from the text? Again, it is a contribution to the literate classroom community and inspires reflection.
A couple words of caution: First, visual clutter can be distracting. We don’t want the walls around us to be so busy and loud that they disrupt the learning environment. Many times, if the walls feel chaotic or disconnected to our work, they’re not serving a supportive purpose. Let’s be mindful of all the learners in our room and what benefits their learning vs. what interrupts their learning. Second, our aim is for the visuals in our room to be meaningful and relevant. Back in 2014, Donalyn Miller posted about ‘Language Arts and Crafts,’ or projects or displays that are less about the work of reading and more about who has access to ‘free’ time or the fanciest crafting supplies. Rather, celebrate and highlight authentic student work in the spaces that are available to you.
Some tips as your thinking about the displays in your classroom environment:
- Use bulletin boards and wall space to display current, authentic student work. Let’s celebrate their work, no matter where in the process. We can share their drafts, ideas, and thinking and not limit ourselves to published work only. Reading notebook pages and writing about reading make powerful displays.
- Post boards that are reflective of the content or work that students are actively engaged in. This allows our students to access the classroom environment as ‘the third teacher’ and use the resources surrounding them. This could mean, too, that there are certain charts or references that we have up all year long as a helpful resource!
- Invite student voice and choice. Ask students what would be helpful for them to see posted.
- A consideration: When developing displays that include books, think about displaying the authors and/or illustrators as well. When we do this, we show our readers and writers who crafted the books we’ve enjoyed. We might also pay more attention to the voices we’re bringing forward in our work together. Do we have own voice authors/illustrators? Is there diversity in characters and authorship?
- Ask, “Is this display supporting student learning?” We can be thinking about the purposes boards and displays serve for our readers and writers. It may be tracking our shared reading experiences, reflecting on our reading/writing, or strategies readers can employ with a text.
Thank you and hurrah to Hillary, Dawn, and their readers!
Sarah Miller M.Ed, Literacy Consultant
Sarah Miller has worked with teachers and students in Vermont schools since 2009. Prior to that, she began her career working with K-8 Dreamers at the “I Have a Dream” Foundation of Boulder County. Since then, Sarah has taught middle school English-Language Arts and Social Studies. She has also served as both a school and a district Literacy Instructional Coach in Chittenden County. In 2012, Sarah completed her M.Ed. at Saint Michael’s College in Reading. Across her years in education, Sarah has been focused on engaging readers and writers in meaningful ways, with access to literature and nonfiction that is relevant and accessible. She is particularly interested in supporting young people in developing robust reading and writing identities that build on their lives, interests, and passions. Sarah has worked to build vibrant literate communities in schools. Currently, Sarah is a literacy consultant with Partnerships for Literacy and Learning. She lives in Underhill, Vermont with her husband, son, daughter, two dogs, and a cat.