Break Down Student Engagement Walls by Incorporating Classroom Walls into Your Lesson Plans

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Elizabeth Catanese is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Community College of Philadelphia. Trained in mindfulness-based stress reduction, Elizabeth has enjoyed incorporating mindfulness activities into her college classroom for over ten years. Elizabeth works to deepen her mindful awareness through writing children's books, cartooning and parenting her energetic twin toddlers, Dylan and Escher.


Before I became a professor at Community College of Philadelphia, I taught high school Art History and Language Arts for four years. One of the pleasures of this experience was having my own classroom. I would keep out supplies from projects we had been working on and often hang art on the walls as well. Students could see themselves on the walls, and they knew they had an audience: the other students, teachers and parents who might enter the classroom. Once I became a full-time college professor, though, classroom walls quietly dropped out of my lesson plans. From semester to semester, my classrooms assignments are different. The classroom itself can feel like a temporary holding place for knowledge, not something over which I (or my students) hold ownership. That changed this semester, I think for the better.

It all started when I paused by a “little free library” near campus. It’s one of many small free book stands across the city; this one is special because it’s constantly stocked with discarded (but wonderful) books from the main branch of The Free Library of Philadelphia. In this “little free library,” I found an Eyewitness book on Ancient China at the exact moment I was teaching my Humanities 101 students about Confucianism and Taoism. I took it and decided I would incorporate it into my lesson in some way. It was full of colorful illustrations of ancient Chinese artifacts; I thought my students would love working with these images. However, like most Eyewitness books, it was geared to a younger audience. Modifications needed to happen if I was going to use it in my college classroom.

At first I thought maybe I would make copies of the pages and create a worksheet with questions about the objects. This seemed like too much work and too great of an expense, and it also felt only moderately engaging. I debated just ripping the pages out of the book to hand out so I wouldn’t have to copy anything. Then I had a brainstorm: if the pages were ripped out, perhaps we could curate a gallery of ancient Chinese artifacts in the classroom. I purchased black construction paper and sticky tac that students could use to mount the objects. Then I posted a sign on one classroom wall that said “Taoist Influences in Ancient Chinese Artifacts” and another wall sign that said “Confucian Influences in Ancient Chinese Artifacts.” After we watched a YouTube clip about how exhibitions are curated, I asked students to pick an object from the white board (I had used sticky tac to put the ripped-out book pages on the white board), then on an index card describe the object and write one sentence about how they could see either Confucianism or Taoism reflected in it. They cut out their object, mounted it on the black construction paper, and posted it along with their index card tag in either the Taoism “gallery” wall or the Confucian “gallery” wall depending on which influence they chose to highlight.

As was true in high school classrooms, even having a small perceived audience beyond the teacher increased motivation. Students dove right in! It was an activity that lent itself nicely to group or independent work (students could pick). The exercise also helped students with spatial relationships (the way they chose to hang the pieces on the wall at first was cramped!). Most importantly, it helped students sort ideas from Taoism and Confucianism in an entirely different way. They viewed the gallery and wrote about their favorite pieces, and we later debriefed about the activity itself to learn about some of the challenges that came with trying to describe objects or to categorize them when two philosophies seemed present in a single object; this was a beautiful way to help students understand sanjaio (the coexisting and overlapping three teachings in ancient Chinese culture: Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism). The question “how do we sort things that naturally overlap?” became the center of discussion. My students were engaged in critical thinking about philosophy; I would contend that keeping that gallery activity up reminds them, even now, of their engagement.

Gallery activities can be done in any classroom. You can make a gallery for diagrams of mitochondrial processes or a gallery of most aesthetically pleasing math formulas. It may be that your college’s rules state that nothing can stay on the walls; even so, this activity can work: you can photograph the walls before the work is taken down and show it on the smart board when students walk in, or you can photograph it and make a handout so students can have a memory of the gallery in their folders.

But what if there’s not enough time to do something like this? Sometimes a biproduct of the content coverage model which still pervades so many college classrooms is a taller and taller wall between students and professors. A pause, even if brief, to decorate the physical walls of the classroom with the efforts of students can ultimately help to break down the walls between students and professors by increasing ownership and engagement. As a side benefit, seeing the gallery also helps boost my mood! When I’m lecturing, instead of an empty expanse of graying paint, my students’ hard work looks back at me, and my students look back at me with a bit more life in their eyes, too.

A close up of the author’s classroom walls.A close up of the author’s classroom walls.