Every morning in schools across America eager children enter the front door, walk down the hall to their classrooms, and are 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 students’ names on each apple. There is 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—colors, numbers, geometric shapes. Days of the week, months, and a 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 seventh day, and I realized, in the haze of awakening, that I didn’t know where I was (be patient, point coming). I kind of enjoyed the mystery, so I didn’t try to figure it out. I thought I would go for a run and look for clues (the only rule was that I couldn’t look at license plates). I ran for forty minutes and didn’t see one indication of 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 has never been together before, will likely never be together again. All of creation from “Let there be light” until now has been headed toward 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: Gradual Reduction of Commercial Materials. What about the letter chart? Wouldn’t it be a terrific project to make our own? Each child could draw a different letter, practice making it beautiful, proportional, and 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.
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After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, and 16 years as a school designer for EL Education (formerly Expeditionary Learning) Steven Levy is now an independent educational consultant and a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year, and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher. Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Autodesk National Award for his 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 writes a blog for CACE and his book, Starting From Scratch, details some of the projects he has designed with in his elementary students.