The Sacred Walls

A Classroom Dripping with Print

by Jill Eggleton

When I was a young teacher, an educator I highly respected once told me, “If you want your students to catch language, then your classroom must drip with print.”

It was advice that resonated with me and which I adhered to passionately in every classroom where I was privileged to teach. I determined to have my classroom walls dripping with rich language and student-produced illustrations or original and unique art. To me, those walls were sacred — to be regarded with reverence.

A bare canvas and a blank book

The purpose of classroom walls, as I see it, is not just to define a space, but an opportunity to create a warm and inviting environment where all students have a sense of belonging.

At the beginning of every school year, the classroom walls are like a bare canvas and a blank book — yearning to be splashed in student-created work and filled with language in all its variety.

We know that if we want students to grow as readers and writers, then we must saturate, surround, and immerse them in language, using rich and varied sources. The classroom walls, to me, became another opportunity to do just that.

Preserving student creativity

So gradually over the year, the blank canvas came alive with students’ precious art responses, motivated by any whole-class activity — shared book, poem, or theme work.

I say ‘whole-class’ because any work on the wall needs to be relevant to all students.

I say ‘precious’ because original, student-created work is a precious reflection of what each individual student sees. As Henry David Thoreau said, “It is not what you look at that matters, but what you see.”

I had a real aversion to teacher-created templates and cookie-cutter art with a boring sameness that reduced student’s confidence in their own uniqueness and limited their expression. 

Language—a reading model

However, students’ artwork alone was not enough. In order to have my classroom walls drip with print, this work needed to be accompanied with language. 

My opinion regarding the ‘language’ on these sacred walls may meet with controversy, but I saw this space as an opportunity to provide another literacy resource, mainly providing further reading practice. Therefore, any word on my classroom walls needed to be correct. If it was student’s written language, it was the published version. If it was language created by me to accompany the student’s creative responses, then it was always correct, visible, and clearly written, providing a correct model for the students to read. 

I believe it is vitally important that anything presented for others to read must be correct — this is a courtesy we owe the reader. When we pick up a book, imagine if it was littered with spelling errors and incorrect punctuation, and the font was so small it needed a magnifying glass to decipher. Surely the book would be abandoned, no matter how captivating the story may have been.

For beginning readers

Here is a piece of artwork that Lewis, a kindergarten student, created in response to the shared book, Grumpy Rhino. When Lewis finished his artwork, I asked him to tell me something about his picture. This I wrote on the back and later typed and attached to his work. 

I also used an idea from Lewis’s published piece to write a sentence of my own that the whole class could read out loud together. This short, teacher-written sentence is an opportunity to create a quick reading practice that reinforces language and high-frequency words. The words can also be chanted and clapped—reinforcing phonemic awareness skills.

For young students at an early stage of their reading journey, the language I created from their art responses was always in a full sentence, it included words they needed to commit to memory such as some non-decodable high-frequency words and one or two enriching words to extend vocabulary, and it was in a font that was similar to the font in the books they were learning to read on. 

Here is another example from the same activity. 

For higher levels

For students farther along on their reading journey, I would ask them to create a piece of artwork and then to write a short piece inspired by their work. I would publish this piece of student writing in the same way and post it with their artwork. 

I would also use this opportunity to highlight some element of language, such as imagery, strong verbs, similes, personification, or selective adjectives. I added these words to the display along with the student’s published writing.

In this example, I used Mick’s response about the Beeman to call out the synonyms humorous and funny and to expand students’ vocabulary by listing additional synonyms. 

Here is another example, where I used Tyler’s response about the Color Robber to focus on other adjectives students could use to describe the character.

Using the walls

However, words just languishing on the walls had no purpose. They needed to be used, brought to life. So every day I allotted five minutes to ‘reading the walls’ aloud together. This provided engaging reading practice in a meaningful context. 

It was not only reading practice, however. Chanting and clapping the words reinforced phonemic awareness. The wall art and language created opportunities to spark oral language. They were also a rich resource for motivating writers. The walls were a free resource, easily accessible, and where students had input and ownership.

The banned, banished, and outlawed

I became fascinated with classroom walls and displays, having opportunities in my role as Assistant Principal to observe in many classrooms. I established what worked well and what didn’t. And so, these were the banned, the banished, the outlawed from holding any precious space on my sacred walls:

No doubt some reading this article could be reacting in horror to my mention of banishing word walls or alphabet friezes!

This is just my opinion, but in defense of this I am not suggesting the learning reinforced by word walls or alphabet friezes should be banished, but rather giving place to them on my sacred walls. 

In his blog, Shanahan on Literacy, professor Timothy Shanahan had this to say about word walls: 

“During writing the kids could look up words they weren’t sure how to spell. In K-2 . . . that’s not the best kind of spelling support. I’d much rather have kids try to spell words as they think they are spelled. That gives them a lot of practice with phonemic sensitivity and decoding/encoding and provides the teacher with diagnostic information. Copying spellings does little for building word knowledge.”

–Timothy Shanahan

I echo this opinion entirely, and it is the exact reason I didn’t use word walls to haunt this sacred space.

Commercially produced charts such as alphabet friezes, rules, and lists I housed in a tub and used as teaching tools when the need arose for them. Rarely have I seen students refer with any interest to teacher-centered charts fighting for attention on a classroom wall.

Likewise, the information provided by sound walls—letters and graphemes that represent that sound—is very useful, but I found these to be more effective when used as teacher tools and as small charts on student desks.

A burial ground of language

The classroom walls were not just my walls, but a student and teacher collaboration to generate an inexpensive, additional, independent literacy resource. And the daily reading aloud of these walls provided a purposeful, meaningful activity. 

In her book Radical Reflections, children’s book author and educator Mem Fox said:

“I realized with grief that purposeless activities in language arts are probably the burial grounds of language development and that coffins can be found in most classrooms, including mine.”

–Mem Fox

In addition to this I could add, purposeless displays, devoid of personality and meaning for the students, added to the literacy burial ground.

A positive impact

And so, the sacred classroom walls—reflecting the students’ individuality and dripping with print—I know for sure added not only to the literacy growth of my learners, but inspired them, motivated them, and had a positive impact on their self-confidence and sense of classroom community.

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