Since I started teaching I always liked the idea of turning some of the bland and boring walls in my classroom into something more, well, interactive…
I’m not sure where I first saw the idea, maybe it was on Twitter, maybe in another classroom, maybe I dreamt it, but I decided that I wanted to turn one of my walls into a chalkboard, because who wouldn’t like to combine the urge to commit petty vandalism with the act of learning?
Now, the last DIY experiment I undertook has left my poor, unfortunate mother with recurring nightmares, but this time (with a little help from the site team) I was able to turn this dream into a reality. They painted my wall black, I went over it in the chalkboard paint. It didn’t take too long (maybe an hour), and the tin of paint was around £4/5.
The initial reactions were mixed, a group of Year 9 girls became excited at the idea that perhaps this new black wall was me expressing my inner emo (does that still exist?) and a burning desire for the dark arts, a few of them revelled in the idea of an RE teacher who might be in league with the devil.
Others, however, were perplexed as to why I would want to spend time and effort doing something like that when I wouldn’t be able to keep a record in pupils books as to what they had done in that part of the lesson, one or two thought it was just the quirky new teacher with his zany new ideas, but most took to it with intrigue and a growing desire to get their hands on some chalk.
So why did I want to do it in the first place. Well classrooms can be pretty uninspiring rooms at times, four walls a door a white board and some windows. Sure, there are display boards and you can start to bring the room to life, but in a school there are a lot of rooms like that. I wanted my room to be different and I wanted the pupils to be able to interact with the room and to create an ever changing and ever growing collection of knowledge and ideas. Ideas, who for some pupils, never get seen or heard outside of the leaves of their books.
There are so many factors that lead to successful learning in a classroom, but I feel that pupils they need to be inspired by their setting, not just by the people and ideas in it. In a RE (or this year History and Geography as well) lesson, I want pupils to be able to express their ideas in different ways, orally or through writing, through art, through drama. The idea of having to write all ideas in their books doesn’t inspire the pupils and it doesn’t inspire me. Learning isn’t just about being told ideas, it is about forming and developing your own. Yes, some of those do need to form a record within a pupils book, but sometimes we just want a short burst of ideas and the ability to build on what others have written, that’s not always easy with exercise books.
The chalkboard wall acts as a great way for pupils to put their ideas into writing, then to take a step back, and look at the other ideas their peers have. They can then build on each others ideas and then return to their original thought and see how that idea has developed and progressed. You, and they, can see how ideas grow, right in front of their eyes.
Aside from that there is a sense of novelty and excitement, once pupils have had a taste of it then you often get requests for when they can write on the walls again. The sense of fulfilment when a pupil who hates the idea of writing in their exercise book is desperate to do some writing is one that would be foolish to ignore. It’s a brilliant opportunity to tap into a pupil’s enthusiasm in the hope that you will see them start to flourish. Having a chalkboard wall obviously is not the solution to our education problems and their are undoubtedly pupils who would prefer to not do it and to just get on with writing in their books and then there will be the pupils who struggle to engage regardless, but the positive shift in pupil perception definitely took me by surprise.
Now, if you follow me on Twitter, you will have undoubtedly heard me complain of anecdotal accounts, and all I’ve done is give you an anecdotal account. Those of you who follow me will also have seen me apologise for my hypocrisy when using anecdotal accounts of my own. I am fully aware of the limitations of what I have talked about here. The delicate balancing of motivation, engagement, delivery of content, acquisition of knowledge, behaviour management and a catalogue of other things in a classroom is a delicate journey, but the impact on myself in using the chalkboard wall and through conversations with my pupils, I feel like it is having a positive effect on the classroom with pupils seemingly buying into what we are trying to do in the classroom. Learning is a messy process, and making the room an interactive learning environment is a way of ‘controlling’ that messiness.
When talking about this in the past a few critics have said that this is an attempt at style over substance, but that ignores the task design that goes into what you are asking them to write about. If you just said ‘Here’s some chalk, go wild.’ then likely it is pointless (though not always) but why would it be good practice if I asked them to mind-map ideas in their book, but is suddenly shocking if they are doing the same on the wall. If pupil engagement increases or they start discussing, explaining and defending their views to others, then that can only be a good thing. Like everything, I think it requires balance.
Now, I know not everyone works or teaches in a place where they would be allowed to paint their walls in chalkboard paint, but there are other things you can do.
Presumably (unless the budget cuts have somehow become even worse) you have tables in your classroom. A dry board marker allows you to write on and then easily wipe off if you want to write on those. Or, hopefully you have windows (if not then that feels like a pretty uninspiring place to learn) you can use chalk pens or a whiteboard marker on those - again it is easy to wipe off.
Sorry for the cheesy Charlie Chalk reference, it was the best I could do on the topic of chalk...