Friday, October 4, 2013

The Writing is on the Wall (A study in contrasts)

In the past two days, I've visited classrooms in three radically different schools, and I found myself comparing the displays of student work. First, the Brooklyn Waldorf School (see my previous post for more). Second, a Kindergarten classroom at St. Luke's, a small private school in the West Village in Manhattan. And today, an open classroom at Pono, a democratic school in Harlem.

Waldorf School

These watercolors are the product of a particular process. First, paper is dampened with a sponge. The children are given two primary colors, water, and a large brush. As the teacher tells a story that incorporates the elements of the colors, all the children work on their own painting.

Because the paper is damp, the lines and edges fade away as the tint moves. The primary colors blend together to form a secondary, in this case, orange. Each child works with minimal guidance from the teacher. Each student's work is displayed.

St. Luke's School

These pieces were constructed by the teacher with a sentence starter and a box in which the children were to draw acts of kindness, inspired by their group reading of The Giving Tree.

One child wrote words to accompany their picture, two children had the teacher write words for them, one is image-only. All the students used finer-pointed magic markers, so they were able to practice fine-motor skills (a prerequisite for learning to write legibly). Each child created images suggested by the assignment. Four students' work was displayed.

Pono Learning 

This wall painting was created collaboratively by seven children ages 2-6. All students unanimously voted to paint the wall, decided on which wall, and worked together. Because the school is a democracy, the children have the agency to make these kinds of choices.

At Pono, learning is self-initiated, self-directed, and self-regulated. There are no compulsory classes, tests, homework, or grades. Students are free to follow whatever they would like to do at any moment, as long as it abides by the agreements that the community has elected based on consensus. (Agreements include things both large and small, such as "We speak and act kindly to one another" and "We take 3 minutes turns on the swings").

The founder of the school told me that after children complete art work, they are asked what they'd like to do with it. They often choose to take it home, or store it in their personal, private box. One child who comes from a traditional preschool setting will occasionally ask to have her work hung on the wall.

* * *

Two years ago when I was teaching public high school, there was a tremendous emphasis placed on having the walls plastered with "high quality, authentic student work." I was required to update the bulletin boards in the hallways monthly, along with a description of the assignment, the rubric used for to evaluate the work product, and individual comments sticky noted to each piece.

A month before the dreaded SQR (School Quality Review), my principal sat us down with highlighted photocopies of the assessment that the evaluators would use, drawing attention to the items that received more emphasis during the review. He stressed to us the importance of getting "double-credit" where we could, including, of course, the bulletin boards. In a school that had below a 20% pass rate on some of the Regents scores required for graduation, our principal was trying to squeeze in the points where we could-- and anyone can make a bulletin board look good.

This monthly exercise in non-learning and busy-work on my part gave me ample time to think about the point of bulletin boards. Ostensibly, they are to demonstrate the learning that is happening inside the classroom. However, I regularly had students who did not want their work displayed publicly, and yet, if the work was high quality, I felt pressure to try to convince them to allow me to use their work, as I was being assessed in part on the work that I displayed in the hallway.

I also struggled with what to do with the work of my students who demonstrated effort in class, but because of a learning disability or a language barrier, were unable to complete the level of work that I was expected to display. I hated that I felt coerced to marginalize my special needs students in this way.

What are your reactions? When is it appropriate to display student work? Is it right to push some students who may feel protective or self-conscious to display their work publicly? What type of visible work shows "authentic student learning?" 


  1. I don't know, but this is a fascinating comparison! I sort of balk at the idea of holding up some kind of universal measuring stick, especially where art is concerned... my impulse is to say that it should be up to kids whether or not their work goes up on a wall, but also that an effort should be made to understand why or why not for each kid. That kind of effort might give insights about how else progress/learning could be measured.

    1. I agree. Just seeing the three bulletin boards side by side is fascinating. I also agree about understanding why: I purposefully drew only abstract shapes & patterns during my kindergarten free drawing time because I knew that my picture would go on the wall, and I didn't want anyone to be able to judge my work by any metric (e.g. the "prettiest" princess, the most realistic house, etc.). I explained this to my mother only recently, and she shared with me that she had been concerned about why I didn't draw more standard kindergarten images, but she didn't ask me because she didn't want to make me uncomfortable. I have a hunch that if my drawings had been private, and I had been able to bring them home with me instead of having the teacher put them on the wall, I may have been more comfortable with practicing more concrete images. Who knows? The point is, I remember my discomfort as young as age 5 with having my work displayed publicly, and was too shy ask to keep my work private.