Getting the Most Value Out of Displays

Effective classroom displays are one of the most powerful—and overlooked—tools for teaching. They can generate excitement about the curriculum, increase children’s investment in learning, help children appreciate their own work and the work of others, and foster a powerful sense of individual and group ownership of the classroom. Granted, in many classrooms, display space is at a premium. But by carefully selecting what goes up on your walls and genuinely collaborating with students to create displays, you can get a lot out of the space that is available. Here are five main methods for getting the most value out of displays in K–6 classrooms. We offer specific tips for each method:

  1. Make children’s work the primary focus of displays.
  2. Keep all displays simple and uncluttered.
  3. Locate displays where they’ll have the greatest impact.
  4. Teach children how to choose work for display.
  5. Create displays that invite interaction.

Make children’s work the primary focus of displays

It’s not uncommon to see classrooms where teacher-created or store-bought displays cover much of the wall space. While the teacher’s intention is probably to make the room welcoming and engaging by filling it with color and liveliness, the effect on children is often the opposite, making them feel overwhelmed and inconsequential.

A classroom filled with the work of children, on the other hand, is not only a delight to be in, but also sends a powerful message to students—that their work and their learning, rather than the work of the teacher or the work of unknown commercial artists, are most important in this classroom. Here are some suggestions for making children’s work the focus of displays:

  • Invite children to create posters and signs to replace store-made ones. Children will learn more about spelling and grammar, and will take in the content of the posters and signs more, if they are involved in making them.
  • Create displays that honor effort and not just perfectly mastered work. Displays should make every child feel valued regardless of his/her academic ability.
  • Make sure every child’s effort is reflected in at least one place in the room. Perhaps each child can have a display square for showing his/her work throughout the year. Or there could be an all-class display that includes one piece of work from each student.
  • Create displays that reflect the class’s identity as a community of learners. For example, make a display of class surveys or class achievements. Or post a list of the class’s “Hopes and Dreams” for the school year.
  • Keep manufactured and teacher-created displays to a minimum. These can sometimes be very useful if they are appropriate for the age, development, and interests of the children. However, to keep interest high and avoid clutter, keep the display up only during the time the class is studying the subject of the display.

Keep all displays simple and uncluttered

Ideally, displays will reveal the life of the classroom with beauty, clarity, and simplicity. These guidelines can help:

  • Display only a few items at a time in any one area, changing or rotating items rather than continually adding to them. This prevents children from being overwhelmed, keeps their interest high, and allows for the work of many students to be represented.
  • Display only what is relevant and useful to the children’s current learning. Displays should be tools for teaching and learning, not for celebrating a series of holidays, for example, with no meaningful connection to the curriculum.
  • Label and frame each piece of children’s work to draw attention to it.
  • Use a plain color and texture for the background.
  • Avoid hanging things from the ceiling. These obstruct children’s view as they look across the room, creating a sense of clutter and disorganization.

Locate displays where they’ll have the greatest impact

Where displays are located makes a big difference in how well they’re used. Here are some suggestions:

  • Put displays near a relevant work area. For example, if a display shows the results of children’s experiments with plants, then it should be located next to where those experiments are done. This strategic placement stimulates thinking and provides a useful reference for students.
  • Position displays at children’s eye level. In areas where children often sit in chairs or on the floor, lower the displays even more. In other parts of the room, have a sturdy step stool handy if you can’t avoid using high bulletin boards.
  • Have several bulletin boards throughout the room, rather than one large one that’s likely to get overcrowded.
  • Find a good place for displaying items children bring in to share. A wide windowsill, top shelf, or low table might be ideal for protecting the items from damage while making them easily accessible for viewing.

Teach children how to choose work for display

Children learn a lot through the process of choosing work for display. They learn to reflect on their work, recognize effort, and value growth in learning. They also affirm their growing sense of competency and practice individual and group decision making. Here’s a process for teaching children how to choose work to display:

  • Discuss what helps children to learn. Some examples of open-ended questions to ask are:
    When do you feel good about some work you have done?
    When do you like to work hard on something?
    Do mistakes help you learn? How?
    Do other people help you learn? How?
  • Create criteria with children for choosing work to display. Explore the question, “Why do we display work in our classroom?” Criteria generated from this discussion might include:
    The work shows our best efforts, not just perfect work.
    The work shows growth or improvement.
    We feel proud of the work.
    The work is important to us.
  • Let students practice choosing pieces of their own work for display. Ask children to share why they picked those pieces. Teach classmates how to offer constructive feedback.
  • Have students share work for display before putting it up. The first time students choose a piece of their work to display, they can point out aspects of it that they would like the class to notice.
  • Have students announce new displays. Once children are regularly displaying their own work, they can make an announcement to the class whenever they have new work on display.

Of course, students will value displays even more if they have a hand in making them, from creating backdrops to labeling the work. After they’re comfortable choosing and displaying work effectively, you may even have students take turns being the “display curator.” Curators’ jobs may include keeping the display area neat and beautiful, deciding on a theme for a display, and overseeing the creation of a display.

Create displays that invite interaction

In addition to celebrating students’ accomplishments, displays should inspire questions and
explorations. These ideas might invite such interaction:

  • Question board or question box: This is a place near the display where children can write questions they may have about the content of the display. These questions are later explored either in small groups or as a whole class.
  • Interactive exploration display: Certain materials are displayed on a table, where they can be examined and where discoveries can be recorded. For example, after introducing the class as a whole to magnets, a first grade teacher puts a set of magnets on a small table, along with adjunct props and paper and pencils. As children explore the magnets, they write down or draw their discoveries and post them on a small bulletin board nearby.
  • Community brainstorming board: This consists of a poster, easel pad, or a section of blackboard where a teacher or child poses a question. Children then have a period of time (for example, three days) to write their responses. At the end of the allotted period of time, the question and responses are brought to the whole class to share and discuss. This method works best if it’s a regular routine in the classroom and children have easy, daily access to the board.

Marlynn K. Clayton has twenty years of experience as a classroom teacher in the primary grades. A co-founder of Northeast Foundation for Children, she is currently the director of professional development for the organization. She is the creator of the video Places to Start.

Mary Beth Forton has been involved in education for eighteen years. She has taught language arts in elementary and middle schools and has worked with students with special needs, grades K–12. She is currently the editorial director of Northeast Foundation for Children.

Tags: Bulletin Boards, Classroom Organization

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