By the time this blog is published, it’s probably too late. Students with new sneakers, shiny lunchboxes and sharpened pencils have bounced across sparkling hallways (thank you custodians, everywhere!) to your classroom door. They were greeted by posters that say “Welcome,” or “It’s a Great Day for Learning,” or maybe your favorite Bible verse. There might be an apple tree on the door, with student’s names on each apple. There’s sure to be a rainbow somewhere in the room. And owls. The alphabet chart lines the wall above the black (or white) board, with cartoon characters for each letter. Or maybe a chart you bought from the reading program you are using. Various posters cover the walls – the colors, the numbers, geometric shapes. The days of the week, months, and calendar. All kinds of happy cartoon figures play alongside gaudy superheroes, Star Wars characters or minions. Classroom rules are likely posted and some kind of behavior management chart from threatening red at the bottom to the green field close to heaven. And don’t forget the decorative borders around every bulletin board. Teachers often dip deep into their own pockets, much to the delight of Scholastic, The Teacher’s Store, and Pinterest advertisers, to fill every inch of classroom wall space.
I once was working at schools around the country for ten straight days. The alarm went off the morning of the 7th day and I realized, in the haze of awakening, I didn’t know where I was (be patient, point coming). I kind of enjoyed the mystery, so I didn’t try and figure it out. I thought I would go for a run and look for clues (the only rule was I couldn’t look at license plates). I ran for 40 minutes and didn’t see one indication where I was. Home Depot, Target, Olive Garden. Walgreens, Cheesecake Factory, Walmart. Taco Bell, Dollar Tree, Starbucks. I could have been anywhere in the country!
Here’s the point: that’s how I feel when I visit a classroom full of commercial materials like the ones mentioned above. I could be in any classroom in North America!
It’s not that these decorations are bad. I understand the impulse to make the classroom inviting, friendly, and fun for students. But each commercial poster is a missed opportunity to express the unique purpose for which God has brought this particular group of people together. Imagine, this exact group of people having never been together before, will likely never be together again. All of creation from “Let there be light” until now has been headed towards this moment of our gathering. Behold this opportunity! Let’s make the most of the room God has given us to tend, and fill it with who we are, with the gifts God has given each of us. It shouldn’t look like any other room!
Here is the good news: it’s not too late! There is a principle I call GROCM – the Gradual Reduction of Commercial Materials. What about the letter chart? Wouldn’t it be a terrific project to make our own? Each child would draw a different letter, practice making it beautiful, proportional, resting evenly on the line, just the right height and width. Beautiful symmetry and color. Let’s make our own alphabet chart! Each child could be the guardian of their letter. Whenever we encounter a word beginning with their letter, the child would rejoice! He could write it and put it under the letter. She could make pictures of the items that start with that letter.
What about your shapes? Let’s see how God equips us to make our own shape chart! One group of circles, one group of squares, and one group of triangles. They work hard to make the shapes accurate, beautiful, symmetrical. Multiple revisions! Attention to quality work! Then over the year when children find pictures that contain their shapes they place them next to the shape on the chart.
Better to put up a Bible verse in your own handwriting than a slick poster; a student created sign about what to do when your work is finished than a generic chart from SparkleBox; a student reflection on her spiritual growth than a motivational poster.
I am suggesting you use the commercial posters as placeholders until your class has the opportunity to replace them, gradually, with their own creative expression.
Don’t let yourself be deluded ‘under the influence’ of worldly expectations that you need to fill your walls with media inspired images, cute and kitschy characters, or cartoon creatures. What spell do these images cast on the child’s imagination? To their God-given sense of beauty? Do I really want SpongeBob SquarePants to introduce them to the wonder and glory of God’s world? Why not fill your room instead with artifacts from God’s creation, the natural world? Artifacts that inspire wonder, amazement, objects worthy of joyful exploration?
God knows the name of every star (Psalm 147:4) and every child (John 10:3), each unique in the eye of his love. God is a creator, not a manufacturer. GROCM!
After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.