Bulletin boards and I haven’t always gotten along.
Early in my career, I was teaching at a small K-12 private school and got the assignment to be the 12th-grade homeroom teacher. I took pride in this role because it played into my sense of myself as a fresh, academically rigorous, valued teacher in our community. That inflated sense of ego caused me to react dismissively to a memo that we received during workshop week requesting that all homeroom bulletin boards be brightly decorated and festive.
“Festive bulletin boards?” I thought to myself, envisioning the horror of walking into a classroom decorated with rainbows and pastel butterflies. “That’s elementary teacher stuff!” I took this memo as a waste of my time and a misunderstanding of what it meant to teach high school students.
Still, I was nothing if not a dutiful soldier, so I did something that I now look back on with a rueful smile. I made a passive-aggressively bright and festive bulletin board for my 12th-grade homeroom. I was so proud of myself that I even took a picture:
Self-satisfied though I may have been with this move at the time, subsequent years of teaching have shown me where I was in error. Beyond the obvious closed-mindedness of my approach, my move effectively narrowed any opportunity to use my classroom space as a means to amplify the deepest learning goals I had for my students. For Christian educators, our job must involve considering any and all ways to help invite students into God’s story, including bulletin boards.
In recent years, a few challenges helped open me to possibilities of crafting a more intentional learning space. As teachers, most of us already follow the practice of “narrating the positive,” drawing attention to the positive work and actions that we note in our students as a way to generate energy toward a healthy classroom culture. Well, what if the boards in my room could be used to narrate the deeper learning that was underway in my high school history classes? In the Teaching for Transformation learning design framework that I work within at Southwest Christian High School, we begin each year’s learning journey by sharing our deep hopes and a storyline for our class that directs the students toward God’s story. These immediately proved to be powerful practices for deeper learning, but what could we do with our bulletin boards to narrate, amplify, and celebrate them?
As I wrestled with this, I recalled an experience as a 6th-grade student. My teacher, Mr. Barnes, was passionate about environmental education and centered much of our science learning that year around the 1989-90 International Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by polar explorer Will Steger. Mr. Barnes posted a big map of Antarctica on our classroom wall and used pins and pictures to track the progress of Steger’s team as they traversed the continent by dog sled. Now, this event didn’t necessarily meet me at a place of any particular passion or interest as a kid, but I can still vividly remember that map, those images, the story they told, and the days Mr. Barnes would return to it with updates or points of celebration. That board became part of the imaginative background of our learning space in ways that stayed uniquely lodged in my brain and heart – what if we could deliberately do the same for our deeper learning goals?
Within Teaching for Transformation, we encourage teachers in the practice of “storyboarding” to design their bulletin boards in a way that points students toward God’s story. Teachers develop a framework for their boards that includes their Deep Hope, their course storyline, and long-term learning targets. At the start of the year, the Storyboard is mostly empty, allowing the teacher to offer an invitation for students to enter into a bigger story of purpose and meaning. As the learning progresses, the board fills up with artifacts and examples of student reflection and participation in their learning within the biblical vectors that their teacher has established. The storyboard isn’t a creative expression of the teacher; instead, it is a celebration of the deeper learning that is underway, told in student voices. The teacher, in this respect, is less an artist than a museum curator.
The effects of this practice in my own classroom have been energizing. For my modest little storyboard, I built a habit of filling it with a rotation of reflective statements from student responses from essays, exit tickets, or even spontaneous classroom comments. These student quotes, sitting alongside my deep hope and our course storyline, told a story of a learning journey that was situated soundly within our Christian worldview and that was coming alive for students. I delighted in watching my students’ eyes drift over to our storyboard, because it framed our work so powerfully and spoke in the affective language of desire. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith wrote, “the sanctification of perception is a renewal and restor(y)ing of the imagination, which means that worship is more art than science, more on the order of a poem than a PowerPoint distillation of ‘the data.’”1 Indeed, I saw the small little bulletin board in my classroom grow from a handy place to post the master schedule into a living, growing poem about our learning.
The effect wasn’t felt only by the students. One Saturday morning, I got an email out of the blue from a woman I didn’t know who had been proctoring an ACT exam in my classroom. She described how, as the students tested, she wandered in circles around the room to read and reflect on what was posted:
“I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the posters around your room that recognize the blessings and curses of US History and encourage coming alongside Jesus in restorative work. As a black Christian woman who struggles with what is being taught to my children at school (particularly in history) and is passionate about telling/learning the truth about our history and responding with understanding, compassion, self-reflection, and action, I just wanted you to know that these visuals alone encouraged me and could go a long way in making students of all different cultures, backgrounds and experiences feel that they are seen and that they belong.”2
The Teaching for Transformation practice of storyboarding made an unexpected impact in my community. Opening myself up to this idea was paying dividends that I couldn’t have previously imagined.
Designing deeper learning experiences that develop a desire for God’s kingdom in our students is a powerful calling, but any teacher will tell you it can be difficult and elusive. When these little miracles happen – when the Holy Spirit moves in our students, or when they get to be God’s hands in the world – it is powerful and important to commemorate and celebrate those moments. In the Old Testament, God occasionally asked the Israelites to build an altar or set stones to remember what He did. One reason God asked for this is because He knows us; He knows how we forget, and how powerful emotional realizations can sometimes feel ephemeral the next day. For that reason, we are called to build reminders of His work and His deep truth to keep us anchored.
And for that reason, I’ve learned to love my classroom’s bulletin boards.
James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 167.
S. Johnson, “Your Classroom,” email message to author, April 17, 2021.