Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

I’m currently working on setting up my eighth classroom in eleven years. There have been a few building moves in there, but most were just the result of shuffling around within a building. That’s a whole lot of packing and set-up for any classroom, but for one with a classroom library that grows every year? Well, let’s just say that I am a sweaty mess.

As I unpack and organize, I can’t help but think that if I could time travel back to talk to myself as a first-year teacher, I’d give my younger self some advice. I’d approach new-teacher-me, standing excitedly in the teacher store, a cart full of bulletin board borders, cutout letters, and posters, and I’d say, “put that wallet away.” Well, no, not entirely, but I’d advise myself to save some serious money.

My first year, I spent a lot of money on my classroom. A lot. I’d prefer not to think about how much money I sank into posters and bulletin board goodies. It was all in the quest to make an exciting learning environment. The empty walls looked so sterile, and I just had to do something about that. I bought parts of speech bulletin board sets, posters with snarky grammar jokes, quotes from novels in the canon, and banners about teamwork. By the time students entered my room, there was barely an inch of wall showing through any given location in my room.

 

Now that I’ve grown as a teacher, though, I make it a point to start the year with a whole lot more blank space. And that’s not just because I’m sick of setting up rooms. No, I’ve come to learn that aside from making the room look less sterile, all of those expensive posters are really just decoration, or worse: clutter. Now I know that by starting with some blank space, I’m saving room for instruction.

grammar meme

Image via someecards.com

When I bought those posters with snarky grammar jokes on them, I loved them. Heck, I still do. But do you know what I realized? They’re only funny if you already understand the grammar rules they’re trying to teach. So what’s the point? To help them remember once they’ve learned those rules? Maybe. But wouldn’t the space be better used to help teach students the rules in the first place? That brings me to the posters and the bulletin board sets that are full of tons of great knowledge: parts of speech, punctuation rules, you name it. They’re so busy, students rarely even glance at them because they don’t know where to begin looking for the one bit of information they might need in the moment.

 

So, what’s a girl to do? Throw up her hands and cover the walls in pictures of funny cats from the Internet? Tempting, but no. Now I allow myself to start the year with plenty of blank space. And it’s strategically where the kids can see it most easily: the front of the room, eye-level, etc. Then, once we get rolling in instruction, I start filling up that space with anchor charts. If you have an elementary background, you might be nodding your head and thinking to yourself, “duh,” but if you have a secondary background, there’s a good chance you’re thinking, “anchor charts… you mean the posters I see on Pinterest all the time?” The answer to that is sort of. Yes, anchor charts are usually written on chart paper with markers, but if all you do is search and copy a bunch of charts from the internet, you won’t be doing much better than you would have with the store-bought posters (except that you’d save some money). So, this is how I’ve learned to make anchor charts really work for me and my students:

  • Limit their scope. If you are teaching a unit and you really want students to understand parenthetical use, your anchor chart should only be about parenthetical use – not parentheses, brackets, and commas.
  • Make them timely. The wall should be covered with charts about what students are learning right now. If I’m in the middle of a unit on informational writing, I might have anchor charts up for introducing a quotation, recognizing text structure key words, or how to hook a reader. I’d want to take down the charts from my narrative unit on building suspense, authentic dialogue, or plot twists. At the end of a unit, if I’m not recycling a whole lot of chart paper, it’s a sign to me that something is wrong. If it’s too painful to just trash those charts after all your hard work, I’d recommend taking a picture first. But whatever you do, don’t be tempted to laminate them and hang on until next year because it’s important that you…
  • Co-create them with students. The anchor chart should come from the mini-lesson. If you’re digging into a mentor text to look at good transition words, capture those words on a chart as you go. I’ve heard a lot of secondary teachers say, “but I teach six sections of the class! I can’t fit that many charts!” I’ve had the same problem, and what I came up with was to co-create the chart on the board with each hour. I’m up-front with my kids that I’m doing the same thing in each hour, then I take a picture of the board at the end of each class and combine the content into one chart on paper at the end of the day. That way you don’t have six charts all for the same concept. It’s important to allow yourself the flexibility to accept that one hour might have a chart that another doesn’t, though. Once you get comfortable with the concept of anchor charts, allow them to grow from your students’ needs. They’ll become an integral part of your mini-lessons.
  • Refer back to them often. The fact that we co-create them helps somewhat in getting kids to look back at them when needed, but what really cements the anchor charts’ role as a tool is the way that we return to them in instruction. Rather than having students turn back to old notes, bring their attention back to the chart. It’s a great visual cue. The same is true when you’re working with students in small groups or individually. If I’m conferring with a student, and she says she’s stuck trying to introduce her counterargument, I’m not going to repeat everything I taught in the mini-lesson the day before, I’m going to ask her to look at the chart for some reminders, then guide the conversation from there. Or, if a student finds a transition word that isn’t already on the chart, I’m going to have him go up and add it.

Anchor charts are complex and nuanced, and it can take a while before you’re really feeling comfortable with using them. Sometimes I hit it out of the park and my students are taking pictures of the charts with their phones, and sometimes I get to the end of a unit and wonder how I possibly could have forgotten to chart some of our biggest concepts. So even though I probably will never part with my poster of Yoda reading or of a Ray Bradbury quote about burning books, I now gladly give myself permission to start the school year with plenty of blank wall space. I know that once my students start learning, we will have no trouble filling it together.

How does your room look when you start the year? What space do you save for instruction? Have tips for using anchor charts in secondary classrooms? Share in the comments below or by tweeting me @megankortlandt.

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6 thoughts on “Permission to Start the Year with Blank Walls

  1. Thank you for this reminder! I’m starting year 17 in 2 weeks and decided to do just this. My plan is to just put some fun border on my folding walls, but leave the space open for the charts that we create. I especially appreciated your point about co-creating on the board with multiple classes and then making one chart at the end. Brilliant!

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