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Grammar School Response to Gibbs

If you have not read Josh Gibbs’ article on classroom décor, do it. My teachers were blessed with training this week from one of our writing curriculum publishers and for us, the article could not have been timelier. Our trainer spoke of the necessity of hanging paper word lists on the walls for our students to create a “word rich” environment and object permanence. What to do? As a headmaster who never taught in grammar school, this can be difficult. Should we make exceptions for words on the wall in elementary classrooms?

Hanging word lists and many other academic helps on the wall reflects the narrow teaching goals typical of public schools. Much of what goes on the wall as a help should be memorized anyway. If the goal is simply to get good adjectives in student writing, put words on the wall; but classical schools never have such narrow goals. We are always teaching more than what is in the lesson plan. This is why we are conservative and slow to adopt fads, for we know there are always hidden lessons in what we do. Josh Gibbs mentioned the not-so-hidden lesson of beauty. Maybe temporary word lists can be beautiful, I think the demands of the school day make this unachievable for all teachers and it would certainly be difficult to maintain through the year. I am afraid the so-called beauty of a temporary list might make a mockery of real beauty. Regardless, many believe an exception should be made in light of the unique demands of the elementary classroom. Here is why we shouldn’t make that exception.

Teachers are wired to be needed and helpful, but much of the typical room décor makes them needed in a way that creates dependence in the child. These wall hangings are an inadequate shortcut to a teacher’s purpose and their God-given role. The necessity of the teacher should be felt and experienced in a mediate sense by the student as much as possible. In emergencies a teacher is needed immediately, but this should be the exception, not the rule. Teachers should be needed so as to engender independence in the child rather than dependence. Classroom structures, expectations, and décor should be created with this in mind. Christian schools should not put rules or behavior indicators such as stoplights on the wall as if a child does not know how he is doing or how he should conduct himself without some blunt external indicator from the teacher. The teacher is never the main event.

Words on the wall tie writing (or whatever discipline they are designed to support) to a location and create a false association between writing and a special time and place. Students must learn that the teacher and her room are not part of necessary accoutrement for writing. Writing is portable; we are teaching the child to take writing and thinking with them wherever they go. We do not want to train them in the habit that writing is done in a certain place where a teacher puts words on the wall “for us to use.”

Words on the wall create the habit of dependence in students who excel and teach dependence in struggling students. Struggling students need to learn independence more than they need to get the right word on the paper. Students are far more likely to retain good words by pulling out a word list they have made with the class and running their finger over that list of words which they have written in their own hand as they search for the right one. Yes, it is work to use the notebook. It is more work than the turn of the head to view the teacher-written list, and some students are more likely to refuse to do it. But we expect work and we teach that work precedes success and that writing is not an effortless process but a sacrificial one and that good writers pull books off shelves and word lists out of notebooks. Simply put, we are not afraid of work in classical schools, for effort is a thread which can be traced through all learning in a classical school.

In general, if we are going to make exceptions to the timeless principles of classical education, the exceptions should be rare for our youngest students.

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