What started out as a couple of new bits of pop-methodology developed over time into fierce mandates. The absence of a word wall or displayed student assignments soon resulted in letters to the file and became in some cases a piece of hard evidence that a teacher was, in Klein's DOE, showing signs of incompetence.
Actually, I have nothing against word walls or hanging up some examples of great student work. These are not new ideas, and each certainly has its use. I’ve been putting up these things for as long as I can remember.
What I object to, apart from anyone mandating how I teach or that I set my classroom up in a specific way (especially administrators, most of whom don't know much about my subject at all), is the sheer verbiage on the wall. It’s clutter, pure and simple.
And would it have stopped there, with the word walls and the student work, but in the past couple of years, mandated wall items have most definitely proliferated. (Whether they're a sign of teacher quality is for another discussion, though they certainly do say something about the quality of inspection check-off lists.) In any case, here are some of the more recent mandated items:
School grading policy
Rubrics for assessment
Descriptions of what the assignments are supposed to achieve
Of course, these are all in addition to the fire drill posters and ongoing announcements for clubs, fund-raising campaigns, student council meetings, summer camp, bell schedules, and the like. You do feel guilty when someone tells you “Post this, please” and you deep six it. Thus, some of these papers do find their way onto the walls one way or another.
If you are on the “outside,” please try to use your imagination for a minute and put yourself inside a classroom looking at the walls.
You can’t actually read any of these things from a distance unless the lettering is over two inches tall. What you are able to see from your seat is poster after poster, paper after paper of messy or indecipherable lettering, patches of color with squiggles on them plastering much of the entire room, even the glass windows.
How can this possibly improve education?
It can’t, and it doesn’t.
The kids tune out ALL of it, and with any luck, so do I. Otherwise, how could I keep my mind clear enough to talk extemporaneously for 44 minutes, or respond to questions without getting distracted by the chaotic visuals, or get the kids to focus on their texts and their writing, or in essence: how could I do my job?
This stuff is supposed to foster a “text rich” environment. Instead, it results in two very simple and very obvious things: frustration that you can’t read much of it from your seat and a kind of numbness to the entire panoply. It reinforces one thing only: that the written word doesn’t mean much after all, so why bother worrying about what’s up there. And of course, students don’t worry about it. They don’t read it, and they couldn’t care less.
Just like they walk past a dozen signs up and down the hallways saying "No hats, No electrical devices," all the time sporting hats on their heads and checking messages on their cell phones. Signs become meaningless after a while.
A cluttered visual environment is the same as a cluttered aural one. I can’t even begin to teach music unless I first teach kids the difference between sound and silence. It takes a lot of skill to get them to make a sound (like clapping) for, let's say, 4 beats and be completely silent on beat 5. They never get it the first time, or the second. The class clowns will then screw up purposely for another five or six shots at it, but at something like the seventh attempt, when everyone miraculously achieves that precious instant of perfect silence at exactly the same time: wow, what a feeling. Broad smiles all around, sometimes with applause as well for their own collective achievement.
Visual clutter is the same thing as noise, and educators should be raging against it. It does nothing for the mind, which needs to be quieted to learn, and since most posters and papers have no artistic skill, there’s not a shred of aesthetic pleasure from much of it. It certainly does nothing to improve reading skills, since you mostly have to put your eyeballs into the wall to even see the stuff, and who has time for that rushing from class to class.
The ugly chaos we see on so many classroom walls is a kind of environmental contamination, and it shores up an insecure reader’s defense mechanism against written language altogether.