The Pedagogy of Decoration

By Rachel Toliver

My greatest challenge as a Seventh-Grade English teacher in “inner-city” Brooklyn was to gain firm control — not of my classroom — but of a pair of scissors. In the three years I spent in the public school system, I was an interior decorator- a sort of pedagogical Martha Stewart — almost as much as I was an educator. This, obviously, was not what I’d anticipated when I decided to become a teacher upon graduating from college. It seems crazy, but I thought that teaching English would have more to do with Steinbeck and Cisneros, and less to do with macramé and lamination. Like many other college graduates and professionals, I had been attracted to the New York City Teaching Fellows program by pithy, black and white subway ads, designed to appeal to sleek, minimalist New Yorker sensibilities. These ads had promised me a chance to “Redirect the public schools,” but what they actually meant was “Redecorate the public schools.” Rather than spending the summer prior to my first year reading John Dewey, I should have subscribed to Martha Stewart Living.

At our new teacher orientation, I slowly came to realize that my chosen career was going to be demanding in ways I’d never expected. I’d had the good fortune of being hired as a Seventh-Grade English teacher for a brand-new gifted and talented middle school, the district’s “model school.” Our school was not the drab world of cinderblocks and drop-tile ceilings that I’d envisioned. Instead, it seemed to be an incongruous mirage of Long Island — a tax loophole that created an alternate dimension of airy glass amidst the neighborhood’s projects. The building had been constructed mere months before, and everything gleamed: the metal banisters, the tiles that rainbowed their way along the halls, and the colorful mural on the grand stairway (which I was later informed was “Not for the children’s use”).

We met in the school’s auditorium, where a baby grand piano stood on the stage and the oak seats curved ergonomically. I had hoped that this orientation would instruct us on how to create a positive learning environment, and it did so, literally. The purpose of the meeting, it turned out, was to prepare us for our most important task of the year: setting up our classrooms. We were enlightened on the fine points of classroom feng shui, the importance of complementary colors, and the vital balance between prints and solids. One of the tenured teachers, a Ms. Cordua, conducted us through a series of classrooms. Her Staten Island accent diced words into syllables as her polyurethaned nails directed our attention to various aspects of modern educational décor. These were as obfuscating as the names for Ikea products, and included “Interactive Word Walls,” “Guided Reading Task boards” and “Center Checkpoints.” “In our district,” Ms. Cordua said, with the pride of an Amish quilter, “All of our wall decorations and activities are teacher-made, not store-bought.” One teacher asked, “Like, for instance, I bought these great grammar games this summer, and I can use them, right?”

Ms. Cordua’s polyurethaned nails
directed our attention
to various aspects of
modern educational décor

Ms. Cordua replied, “No, store-bought is strictly prohibited,” but continued, brightening, “but if you want to remake the games by hand, you’re more than welcome to do so!” Over the course of the tour, it became clear that “creative” was the best thing a teacher could be. Every classroom that Ms. Cordua ushered us into housed an “(insert adverb) creative” teacher — Ms. Rosenburg was “wonderfully creative,” Mrs. Barnes was “fabulously creative,” and Mr. Bermudez was “incredibly creative.” All of the teachers we observed were busy stenciling letters, cutting felt and decorating bulletin boards, with an industry and desperation that seemed appropriate to a Colonial-era village.

Ms. Cordua talked about the bulletin boards with great reverence; the more I heard about the boards, the more I began to feel like an anthropologist jotting notes on the fetishistic thunder stones of the Zuni people. As Ms. Cordua introduced us to the various teachers, she reminisced about the creative bulletin boards that they’d masterminded over the course of their careers. In one case, she said, “This is Mr. McKinley. His final bulletin board — I’ll never forget this one, Mr. McKinley — had a real ivy border, that he had to water every day. Real ivy! Can you believe it! So if you have any questions, just come to Mr. McKinley, who teaches… uhm, Mr. McKinley? What grade is it that you teach again?”

I tried to remember whether bulletin boards had figured prominently into my own educational experience; perhaps there was something that I’d missed out on. Until eighth grade, I had attended a Quaker school. We’d had bulletin boards, but they were the classroom equivalent of a refrigerator, collecting odd bits of miscellany, such as class trip memorabilia, photos from summer vacations, and the occasional batch of student essays or poems. Teachers decorated the bulletin boards when they could be bothered to do so, as the school had this odd habit of encouraging teachers to put most of their effort into planning their lessons and teaching their classes, leaving the cosmetic aspects of learning up to the teacher’s interest and discretion. When there was a display of student work, every kid’s work was included, from the poem about kitty being run over, which rhymed “cat” and “splat,” to the villanelle that employed the metaphor of Prometheus to represent the health care system. After all, Quaker schools are egalitarian and democratic, excluding no one — that is, except for those who can’t afford to pay $20,000 a year for school. When I graduated from middle school, I went on to a public magnet school, where teachers seemed to maintain the school’s venerable and fusty reputation by going out of their way not to make anything cute, colorful or comfortable. Sometimes it seems like I went to high school in a 1950s movie, since my memory of the classrooms and hallways is uniformly sepia — well, maybe there was a dashing splash of umber thrown in here or there. There was one bulletin board outside the gym, which featured the Heimlich maneuver diagrams that are distributed free to restaurants.

Despite my bemusement about the significance that my new employers placed on bulletin boards, I was also inspired by Ms. Cordua’s enraptured descriptions of glorious boards past. When I thought about the coming school year, I pictured myself in the opening credits of a PBS documentary. I imagined the camera panning down the hallway until it arrived at me, standing proudly next to my very own bulletin board, which (so long as it was a fantasy anyway) was decked with essays on Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Fulfilling my bulletin board fantasy turned out to be rather expensive. The New York City Board of Education, like those in most large cities, expects teachers to purchase supplies — from light bulbs for overhead projectors to extra notebook paper — with their own funds. The teachers at my school even had to pay for the maintenance of our ancient photocopy machine, which regularly caught on fire, filling the teacher’s lounge with the smell of burning rubber. At Staples, I picked up almost every brightly-colored item the store had to offer, from yarn to glitter to construction paper. If revamping the system meant transforming the Kansas of public schools into a Technicolor Oz, I had all the necessary filters. And they only cost me three hundred dollars.

When I began covering my bulletin board with orange paper, I realized, for the first but certainly not the last time, how very big the bulletin boards were. Two hands were simply not enough for weighing down the curling paper at the bottom, smoothing it so that it lay without bubbles along the gray cork backing, and stapling it in. A hand dedicated only to cutting would also have been helpful. If I pre-cut the paper, it inevitably didn’t fit right into the metal frame, and I had to cut out awkward patches in order to cover the entire surface. I should have known that spatial visualization wasn’t exactly my forte; every Christmas, I wrap presents at least twice, since I always miscalculate the dimensions of the paper, and end up with presents that are either baggy or partially bald.

If the bulletin boards seemed big when I was decorating them, they seemed huge when, at the end of September, I had to cobble together 18-20 presentable writing assignments for the first monthly rotation of student work. Some of the other teachers already had their bulletin boards assembled (Ms. Cordua confessed that she had been planning her first one since the end of the previous year, and I imagined her assembling practice boards at home over the summer). Writing assignments hung on the boards, natural and well-formed as fruit, amidst creative foliage themes and hand-stamped borders. If the PBS documentary zoomed in on those pieces, the narrator would comment on the manifest diligence and potential of the students that had generated them.

I knew those students existed in the school — the bulletin boards didn’t lie, after all — but they didn’t seem to be sitting in my classroom. Although my kids weren’t inherently monstrous, they smelled the new-teacher insecurity on me, like a cat smelling marked territory. Even by the end of September, the entropy was beginning to set in, so much so that getting a page of reasonable writing out of them seemed impossible.

I decided to seek council from the tenured teachers, those paragons of creativity. Visiting Ms. Rosenburg’s classroom, I had difficulty concentrating on the conversation, distracted by the hand-made posters and displays covering every surface, and even hanging from the ceiling tiles. The Rosenburg Collection included a “Variety is the Spice of Life” genre poster; a mobile of pens, pencils, rulers and white-out; and a cloth structure resembling a shoe organizer with stuffed socks sticking out of it, the purpose of which was unclear, but which was-without a doubt-creative. “So, how do you get them to complete one perfect piece of writing a month?” I asked. “I mean, it’s kind of hard to keep the kids from making mistakes, right?”

“Well,” said Ms. Rosenburg cheerily, “Most of the time I just make the corrections and then have them copy it over.” This seemed like a pretty antiquated approach, something akin to the study of “penmanship,” the enforcement of Q’s that curled just so and inscrutable “script” T’s that I had given up on circa fourth grade. I wondered how “active learning” or “constructivism” fit into this practice, so I asked,

“But, do they really learn anything that way?” Ms. Rosenburg looked like she was about to pat my hand, and replied,

“Oh, learning. Right.” She sighed.

“And they’re supposed to do all the writing in class…?” I asked, trying to figure out how they would write if they weren’t sitting in their chairs.

“Yeah,” she said, “just make sure that they write in silence.”

“In silence,” I replied, “OK. Good.” Like you could just say it, and they would do it.

For the first bulletin board assignment, I had my students write advice column letters to a character from a story. Eager to demonstrate my creativity, I brought in handmade paper speckled with flax seeds and lint flecks and whatever other — hopefully non-ganja — sprinklings of spice racks were available to the nice hippies who make such things. In my middle-school years, I would have thought the fossilish repository of the paper was cool, but I also wore a spoon on a length of twine around my neck to avoid using plastic wear and declared myself a vegetarian in the third grade. My students, on the other hand, were convinced that the particles in the paper were boogers or bugs. “Why can’t we just have regular white paper, with lines on it?” they complained, some refusing to touch the pages, others handling them gingerly, as if the boogers would smear on their fingers.

A few days after those bulletin boards had been installed, all of the new teachers were assembled for an emergency meeting after school. Our principal, whom one teacher described as “the love child of Beyonce and Darth Vader,” ushered us from board to board grimly, while we glanced at our Back-to-School! bordered, vividly-backgrounded lumps of shame. The principal stood in front of each board, balanced on heels that were easy to imagine being shoved into one’s jugular. She lifted the pages of writing with a ruler, as if the failure they symptomized was contagious.

“Mr. Bailey,” the principal said, “How is it that some of your writing samples are typed, while others are hand-written? Surely you know that all pieces on a board must be uniform.” Mr. Bailey replied nervously,

“Well, Quadeem wrote this really great essay, but he typed it on his computer…”

“It might be ‘great,’ Mr. Bailey,” the principal replied, “but the fact is, it’s typed, on a bulletin board that otherwise displays hand-written work. In the future, you have two choices. If you want to put up a piece of writing that is typed, you can either type all of the other pieces yourself, or you can have the student re-write the typed piece by hand.” When we arrived at my board, I was quaking, waiting for her to do that hands-free asphyxiation move.

“Ms. Toliver,” the principal said, “Your standard isn’t big enough. I should be able to read it from across the hall.” We were expected to post which State “standard” the writing on the bulletin boards conformed to. There were about 20 different writing standards, handed down from the State to the City like the ten commandments handed down from God to Moses. Each standard was a description of what “Students will…” do; for example, “Students will create a narrative procedure.” It was a good thing that the standard was posted on the board; otherwise, visiting administrators would have to actually read the writing in order to figure out what the students were producing.

“Also,” the principal added, “The pieces aren’t nearly long enough, and all of the children seem to be writing on a downward slant.” I considered suggesting that perhaps all of the children were pessimists, but decided to avoid it. For once, the kids had been right; boring old notebook paper with lines was, in fact, the way to go. “And finally, something needs to be done about Tanesha’s handwriting.” Tanesha was the only bona-fide English nerd in my class, who from the first day had consistently impressed me with her SAT vocabulary. If Tanesha’s work were to be singled out, I thought it would be for her mastery of words like “abhorrent” and “Luddite,” not for her unsightly handwriting.

After my first year of teaching, I seemed to acquire classroom super-powers. I left for the summer as a nebbishy suggester (“Why don’t you think about not pushing Shantelle down the stairs?”), a sniffler and dropper of lunch trays. The next fall, I came back as a sassy decreer with an arsenal of “snaps” (“Why you sucking your teeth? You forgot to brush them or something?”) which whizzed and whirred at the kids. I was able to sense, with my back to the class, who was passing a note, or even sometimes who was thinking about passing a note. While I didn’t go for the latex suit, I did use my powers to fight classroom crime.

My improvements in discipline made it easier for me to run the student paper-mill; each month, the merchandise was delivered to the board pretty much on schedule. However, the pressure to produce still got to me. In February of my second year, though I didn’t feel any more anxious than usual, I started, about once a week, to vomit the moment I walked into the classroom. As soon as I began the first few sentences of the day’s “Read Aloud,” I’d feel a hand squeezing my stomach and a paint-thinner taste surging up my throat. Abandoning The Little Prince, I propped the door open and grabbed a trash can, gargling out “Excuse me.” Throughout the double period, I repeatedly stepped outside and puked, as my students looked on in shocked silence. Once, as I crouched over the trash can, Ebony stepped out of the door across the hall and said, “Ms. Toliver, why don’t you go to the nurse? Do you need a pass?” I couldn’t answer, being otherwise engaged, but if I could, I would have explained that abandoning my class before “Guided Writing” would have disastrous effects on my bulletin board. Finally, my principal intervened, taking over my class and sending me home. With the firmness of genuine concern, she told me that I shouldn’t come back until I had seen a doctor. When I came back to work with a doctor’s note stating that I had been diagnosed with panic disorder, my principal said, shocked, “Panic attacks? Why on earth would you be having panic attacks?” I still managed to assemble my March board on time and wanted to include a little sign at the bottom that said “This board is brought to you by Paxil.”

Over the years, the expectations for our bulletin boards were modified. Of course, any relaxation of the board policies would mean that the school’s rigorous standards were slipping, so these modifications always created more, rather than less, work for teachers. According to the newly-elected Mayor Bloomberg, teachers were a lackadaisical lot who — if left to their own devices — would spend class time painting their toenails and eating bon-bons, while the youth of the city ran amok. The only thing to do, then, was to ensure that Something Was Done — what that Something was didn’t really matter. The more under-funded and underperforming a region was, the more eager its administrators were to rally round the standards, and our region seemed to be leading the charge.

One of the new stipulations that was introduced, intended to enhance Something (it was never quite clear what) was the use of “authentic comments” for writing hanging on the bulletin boards. We received a photocopied list of authentic comments, which we were instructed to draw from and personalize according to our discretion. The comments were applied to the pieces after they’d been stapled to the board. After assignments came down from the board, they were archived in the students’ “writing folders,” which were periodically perused by visiting administrators; the kids, on the other hand, rarely had a chance to delve into their folders. Once, I heard another teacher yelling at a student for loitering in the hallway in front of a bulletin board.

“I’m just trying to read the comments on my essay!” the student retorted.

“Those aren’t for you,” the teacher said. “Now get to class.”

Time passed, and I learned a few bulletin board tricks, which are probably familiar to gallery curators everywhere. These included placing the best pieces in the center of the board, at eye level, and making sure that no attention-catching decorations were near the essay that was only a page and a half long. I’m less than proud, however, of some of the tricks I employed to assemble a satisfactory board. Within the first few weeks of school, it was easy to identify which students were going to be “bulletin board material” and which weren’t. Therefore, Marcus’s perfect writing was always the subject of my first one-on-one conference, since it guaranteed me a blue-ribbon display. On the other hand, Richard’s morass of sentence fragments made it to the bottom of the pile, where it would sit neglected for most of the month. I knew that, even after an in-depth conference and two or three revisions, his work would still be faulty goods, considered unworthy of our school’s brand name. Sometimes the next bulletin board deadline came around so quickly that I never got a chance to work on Richard’s writing assignment at all, and eventually he stopped asking when I was going to meet with him. I felt badly about it — after all, no child is left behind nowadays — but we were expected to generate a product, and were tacitly encouraged to avoid using any flawed raw materials.

My third year of teaching began with good news. The principal announced that our bulletin boards didn’t need to display student work until October fifteenth, two weeks after the typical deadline. The reprieve was akin to a stay of execution for the staff, and we went about our beginning-of-the-year routines with exceptional vigor. On October fifth, we were visited by a delegation of clipboard-carrying higher-ups from the Regional headquarters, who walked through the school like power-plant inspectors, checking off their lists. We modeled our model school for them, teaching “creative lessons” for their observation (and, I suppose, for the kids as well).

When our principal called a meeting the next day, she smiled like she was receiving a Grammy. “Well, the review of the school was very positive, overall,” she said. “The Regional Deputy remarked on how well-behaved and engaged in learning the children are. She said that you all are obviously a talented group, and that I was lucky in my staff. I certainly agree. She was generally pleased with the creative classroom decorations, so thank you all for making sure that your classrooms were up to standard. There is just one thing that she was unhappy with.” At this point, she almost became sheepish. “I know that we had informed you that you needn’t have your boards ready until October the fifteenth, but unfortunately the Regional Deputy was disappointed that there isn’t any writing up yet. She said that she’s going to be returning by the eighth, and that she expects that your boards will all be in order by that time.” A groan similar to a herd of eviscerated hippopotami was emitted from the teachers.

The strange thing was that, after years of lunch periods that were thick with cigarette smoke and complaints, I’d ceased blaming my administration for such inanities. Some time during my second year — maybe it was when my principal started joking with her staff about the kids’ little quirks, or when I saw her put an arm around a bullied student — I realized that my principal was not a frustrated interior designer, determined to force lives of aesthetic servitude upon her staff. My administrators, I realized, had no more agency than we teachers did; in fact, they probably got to where they were by being masterful followers of directions. After all, my principal, powerful as she seemed, was in actuality a middle manager, and it’s very rare that one hears of a middle manager who has attained their position through rebelliousness and intractability. Just as we were stuck forcing absurd mandates upon our students, our administrators were stuck forcing absurd mandates upon us. Doubtless this new bulletin board decree was some City- or Region-wide Effort, perhaps with a stupid name like The Board By October Initiative (not to be confused with The Bored By October Initiative, which was undertaken by some students).

In reaction to the new bulletin board deadline, I took the most direct route with my students and explained the situation to them, saying, “You might not want to do this; I might not want to make you do this, but sometimes you’ve just got to do what the boss says. I promise that I’m not going to switch things up on you if I can help it.” They were happy to oblige, still being in the early eager-to-please phase. The day after my principal’s announcement, my students cranked out rough drafts of memoirs, which I corrected until 2 am and then returned the next day. They diligently set to recopying the pieces, and I watched them, as they hunched over their desks with looks of concentration. I was proud, but I also felt a bit like the overseer in a sweatshop.

A day later, when the papers were authentically commented upon and strategically arranged on the board, my principal called me out of the classroom during my prep period. Like Godot, the Regional Deputy had never arrived, but my principal had taken it upon herself to “do rounds.” I emerged from the classroom, expecting her to congratulate me on my quick and efficient turnaround of product. Instead, she said, “Ms. Toliver, I’m afraid you’re going to have to take about half of these pieces down.”

“But,” I protested, “I didn’t get a chance to finish all of the lessons I had planned. The deadline was moved up, remember?” My principal cocked her head at me.

“These pieces are very weak. They don’t show evidence of leads, the four-square method, or vivids.” “Leads” and “the four-square method,” and “vivids” were all repackaged aspects of the traditional five-paragraph essay, which had been marketed the year before as The New Thing That Would Fix Everything, much in the same way as the new Pepsi with a twist of lime would transform an ordinary city corner into a beat-boxing, break-dancing block party.

“I did teach them about leads, the four-square method, and vivids,” I said. “But they didn’t have time to practice or implement anything I was teaching. Look,” I said, gesturing to the open door, where my class was with the Spanish teacher, “my kids are right in there. Ask any of them, any of them, about a lead, and they’ll tell you what it is and give you examples. They know it, and their writing will evidence it in the future, but there just wasn’t enough time to implement it.”

“It doesn’t matter if they know it,” my principal said, “what matters is if it’s on the board or not. I can’t go to the Regional Deputy and tell her that they know it, when she comes to me and asks why my boards don’t include evidence of four-square transition words.” Her emphasis implied air-quotes around “know,” as if knowing were an improvable metaphysical concept, something believed in by the poetically impractical or the dimwitted. I realized then that for our students, education wasn’t knowing, it was doing. Learning was quantified by scores, and nailed up on a wall to be scrutinized by the world. And how could it not be, when even the president’s nation-wide initiative had an aggressive, tactical name, as if being educated were a forward march into enemy territory? I almost quit on the spot.

I gave my notice the following February. In my exit interview, I had nothing to say about the bulletin boards. That June, however, I found myself riveting the last-ever sheets of paper to that old nemesis, each staple percussing freedom. The window and door to my classroom were open, and the charts flapped like summer laundry in the breeze. My principal walked by, assessing the exhibition, and put her hand on my shoulder, a new habit that had made me skitter the first time it occurred.

“Very nice work, as always, Ms. Toliver,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said, giddily. “Hey, guess what? This is my last bulletin board, ever!”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said. “Things we’re good at have a way of finding us out.”

It turned out she was right, sort of. No, I didn’t change careers and become a bulletin board consultant for nursing homes and cafes, creating Halloween displays and tulip-bordered “Community News” forums. I did, however, end up with a side job teaching Business Writing at a university. I’ve found that teaching college is strangely similar to teaching middle school. Some students use most of their creativity for tenuous excuses, and a few of them even show more grammatical gaffes than my students in Brooklyn did. However, there is one huge (6-foot-by-5-foot) difference, which I’m reminded of every time I visit the English department, where I make photocopies on paper provided by the university. Outside the office, there’s a bulletin board. It’s railroaded with residual staples, and its bare cork backing is pocked like a pimply face. Long ago, someone had attached stenciled letters that now read “ENGLISH D PAR  ENT.” On occasion, this board displays a rogue contest announcement or one of those “Summer Job for the Environment” posters, ubiquitous as Uggg boots on campuses. And every time I walk by that mangy board, I smile, because there’s nothing I like better than seeing all of that bulletin board space going to waste.

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About Rachel Toliver

Rachel Toliver has work published in Cutthroat, Night Train, Alligator Juniper, The King's English, Thieves Jargon and Geez. Toliver teaches English at the Philadelphia public high school that she graduated from, where there is unanimous anti-bulletin board sentiment shared amongst the staff and administration.  She lives in bucolic West Philadelphia, and disagrees with all the nasty things people say about Philly.

One Comment

  1. Posted April 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    I keep looking for online stories and essays that picture the outside world, rather than just the narrator’s self-conscious little bubble. This essay is a tremendously good crack at the world–it’s smart and it’s funny. How Toliver learns to see the things that matter, under circumstances that encourage her to “decorate” with unimportant things routinely, makes an authentic story.

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