Guest Blog Post By Sam Bradford
During my student teaching, I tried to observe as many different teachers as possible. All grade levels, all subjects--my goal was to find the teachers whose classes the students put a little extra pep in their step to get to. Then, with my own eyes and ears, I tried to figure out what made those classes successful.
I’ll never forget the way one teacher used a quote wall, and how it single-handedly built community, created an engaging atmosphere, and solidified important concepts. I’ve spent the last thirteen years experimenting with the concept, and I’d like to share my findings with you.
As with any powerful educational tool, the concept is simple and the technology is simpler. All you need is a whiteboard, a marker, and human beings.
Here’s the idea: the teacher sets aside a portion of wall space for interesting quotes that students say in class over the course of the year. You get to determine what “interesting” means. When the moment happens, you allow the student to write the quote on the board and sign their name. As the year progresses, the space slowly fills with quotes.
It seems like such a trifling concept, doesn’t it? I think it’s often the trifling concepts that make the difference between classes students tolerate versus classes that allow students to thrive. Let’s examine a sample of what’s at play with such a concept.
First of all, not to get too Paulo Freire on you, but it democratizes the classroom by giving students a voice. It’s not the teacher’s words that go on the wall; it’s theirs. Their words have the power to adorn the classroom. Think about buildings with other people’s quotes on the walls. They are often important places, right? Places of worship, courthouses, state capitals. Shouldn’t classrooms be as important as those other spaces? And what if your words were that worthy to be immortalized in an important place?
Furthermore, it encourages students to be clever. They now have an incentive to sound smart, to experiment with wordplay, to be original, to think, to get a laugh out of their peers and teacher. There is so much social cache, even with twelfth graders, to be the one who gets to go to the board and write their quote.
There’s a subtle sub-point here as well: notice that I wrote “get a laugh out of their peers and teacher.” We’re always going to have students who act out for attention (I was that student), but a quote wall creates a structured environment for that acting out to happen in a productive way that’s on the teacher’s terms. The student who struggles with, as my fifth-grade report card stated, “attention-seeking antics,” is no longer saying funny things in spite of you. They’re saying things to get on the wall, and that will inevitably change what subjects and language they give their efforts to in order to get that attention.
It also encourages spontaneity and being in the moment--that’s both for you and for them. You never know when that quote will come. You’ll never guess what question will receive the pithy answer. The effect is that it rouses both teacher and student from “going through the motions.” You will be shocked at how students will so eloquently capture a concept, and with the quote on the wall, it reinforces it for everybody.
Most importantly, quote walls wake us up to celebrate little joys and remember that we’re in the presence of human beings, and human beings are marvelous, infinitely interesting things.
If you’re sold on the concept, which I hope you are, here are some tips and tricks I’ve found over the years:
At the end of the year or semester (or whenever you run out of space), type up the quotes and print them out, posting them off to the side as a time-stamped Wall of Fame. I have gotten traction with students over this--reading the things their peers said last semester.
I have a “quote of the week,” which is usually something inspiring I get from what we’ve read or, frankly, from the internet. Daily would be too much--a weekly quote I can commit to. To me, teaching is kind of like troll fishing--you throw out as many lines of connection as possible, and wait and hope that something resonates with someone. I rarely, if ever, mention the quote, but I have had student feedback that said “I always looked forward to seeing what the new quote of the week would be.”
You get to set the standard for a good quote. I teach in high school, where sarcasm works effectively for some of my colleagues. My style is more on the Mr. Rogers side of the spectrum, so the quotes I allow never involve putting another person down, no matter how artfully done.
Once the year settles in, the students sometimes petition for other students, which, to me, further democratizes the classroom. I love it when I hear a student say, “Oh, Mr. Bradford, that quote should definitely go on the wall!” As long as it’s appropriate (see point above), I don’t have a problem with it.
- You can use the quote wall as an internal equity diagnostic: are you favoring one section over another? One gender over another?
As you’re planning for the new year, set aside some space on your wall. See what happens!
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