Building Walls that Teach: Thinking Made Visible

As educators, we know that environment influences learning, and in particular, that classroom environments influence literacy development (Wolfersberger, Reutzel, Sudweeks, & Fawson, 2004). We also know this to be true for grades Pre-K to12. While the school year is still in full swing, I wanted to write about a topic that is near to my heart and very important for all of our students. As a classroom teacher, I failed to fully grasp the power of instructional walls and the long-term benefits for all students. My walls were the typical high school science classroom walls with the large periodic table, some vocabulary words, and a few motivational posters. However, knowing what I know now, my classroom would look, sound, and feel a lot different. As a member of the Achieve3000 implementation team, I am fortunate to visit classrooms and see many examples of effective “walls that teach.” Conversely, I also see examples of “teacher walls” that tell me more about the teacher than they do about student thinking and learning.

So, as we continue through our school year, I wanted to offer a few questions and suggestions that can help shape our instructional spaces.

  • Do your walls and classroom space look the same every year?
  • Are we focused more on decorating the space instead of building walls that reflect student learning?
  • How many posters, charts, etc. were purchased versus being made by students?
  • Do your walls evolve? How often does the content change to reflect student learning and outcomes?
  • Is the instructional space organized? Think of your classroom as a graphic organizer given that our brains naturally look for patterns.
  • How often is the content being utilized by students? “Walls that Teach” should be interactive?
  • Do students have a say in the content on the walls?
  • Size and location communicate importance – where are you putting the most important information for students?
  • How are we using color? The brain associates color with importance.
  • How do we incorporate multiple content areas into our instructional walls?
  • How can we include more data (graphs, charts, etc.) into our “Walls that Teach?”
  • Are our “Walls that Teach” more than just word walls?
  • Do our walls represent student discussion and learning?
  • Does the instructional content on the walls used to create opportunities for writing?
  • Does the instructional content on the walls provide connections to real world applications?
  • Does the instructional content provide opportunities for differentiated learning?

Another important consideration is what our instructional space communicates to students and parents about the culture of our classrooms.

  • Does it convey a supportive culture for learning?
  • Do the walls reflect the student population and celebrate their diversity?
  • Is it welcoming?
  • Is it conducive to learning?
  • Is it a safe space where students can take risks?
  • Do the walls encourage different viewpoints and promote student discussions?
  • Does the space celebrate student learning?
  • Does it communicate high expectations for all students?

Taking in mind all of these questions, what do these walls look like in the real world? How do you create living, useful walls that support student learning? The answer was clear in many of the classrooms I have visited across the country. In one school, students were learning how to identify and use text features while reading in order to strengthen their comprehension. The teacher wanted to assess student learning while also creating a process wall for students to use moving forward. She asked the students to find examples of each type of text feature, how you would use them while reading, and then add them to a graphic organizer. After checking for accuracy, she had the students convert information that into a large version for their classroom with multiple examples for each type. This lived in the reading/writing section of the classroom where students could use it during their independent reading time and during practice in their literacy centers.

Another school example was a timeline from a middle school social studies classroom. Starting at the beginning of the year, the teacher asked the students to add to their class timeline of important events. She modeled this process to get them started and also added information to the wall. These events came from the content they were learning along with connections to current events. The timeline covered an entire wall in their classroom and helped to bring the content to life for students and engage them in the learning process. Given that “walls that teach” should be interactive, this was a great example of walls promoting student engagement, discussion, and making real world connections and applications.

Our classroom walls and their usage should be designed to provide multiple learning, thinking, and writing opportunities for all students. There is still space for your personality to shine and room to organize and categorize important instructional information for students. Learning should be interactive and fun and that can start with our classroom walls. As you continue planning for instruction, consider ways to extend student thinking and processing that integrates creating walls that teach. Both teachers and students benefit from these opportunities to make thinking visible.