Why Can’t Students Write on the Walls at School?

I always find it a little depressing when I step into a high school and there is not a single student poster, flier or work of creativity hanging in the halls. This is true in a vast majority of secondary schools. This attribute often extends into the  school hallclassroom where the walls are either bare or adorned with manufactured posters from educational companies.

When I ask students about it, the answer is typically “our principal doesn’t allow it”.   That’s when the subversive educator in me shouts (internally!) – WHY?

Giving students creative opportunities to contribute to the school aesthetic is one of the lowest stakes, lowest risk ways to give students ownership over the environments, places where they spend a majority of their time weekly. Inviting students in as partners in this area, however, can be an incredibly empowering and affirming way for them to have a stake in their schools.

At Neutral Zone, we not only let teens draw on the walls, we believe it is our responsibility to adorn the center in ways that reflect their culture. The sheer physicality of that fact speaks volumes to the teens. It gives those who come regularly a tangible stake in the organization, and serves as a welcome mat to new teens. It says, “come in – this place is about and for youth.”

Some would argue that schools are different. Sure, but it still doesn’t mean that students shouldn’t have a meaningful role in contributing to the school’s physical and cultural environment.

We’ve been privileged to collaborate on the Michigan Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive Schools project. Through that worked we’ve supported 20 high schools across Michigan grow student engagement into their school reform efforts.

One of the districts we work closely with is Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS). YCS is a new district that is the result of grizzly muralconsolidating two neighboring, but rival districts – Willow Run and Ypsilanti Public Schools. When the consolidation happened, there was concern in the community that when the students from the two districts were put together, there’d be fighting and mayhem.

In order to address this fear we brought the students together several times before the consolidation. One of the projects students worked on was creating artifacts that could be displayed in the new high schools – so that students could immediately feel a sense of ownership, pride and investment in the new district.

The students created some amazing things. They constructed a spectacular jigsaw mural that represented the coming together of the districts.   They wrote, recorded and distributed a new “Grizzly Anthem” song. And finally they created a stunning

photo exhibit of various students holding up signs, responding to the prompt “Grizzlies are ….”. The photos were so professional and outstanding that the District created an additional set to hang in the District’s Board of Education office.

How can schools start? Here are some low stakes suggestions to increase student roles in the school’s physical and cultural environment:

  • Provide an outlet for students to put up fliers, creative works and posters in the hallway. If you’re worried about “appropriateness” – create a body of students/staff to approve work before it’s displayed.
  • Have students do morning announcements. They are typically livelier than adults, more interesting to other students and giving them this role helps them practice one of the most important 21st century skills – communication.
  • Teachers display student works throughout the classroom. Make it a source of pride and show students that you value what they’ve done.
  • Allow students to decorate for school events – pep rallies, sporting events, assemblies.

Sharing control of the school’s aesthetics with students could be the first step for creating new ways for students to have a voice in their school. Successfully carrying this out will show adults in the school that students can competently and responsibly use their voices. It will also increase student investment and engagement in school, something every educator strives to do.

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