Recent studies show that bulletin boards can be too overwhelming for the brain. Ten things to consider when building your bulletin boards this year.
Bulletin boards are a great way of having information readily available for student use. They can be used as a visual cue of information students already know - like the steps to solving a word problem. Or they can be used as a place for students to "grab" information they aren't sure of yet - like the meaning or spelling of a word.
However, bulletin boards can also be very visually overstimulating to students. This is especially true when we add multitudes of decorations, pictures, quotes, colorful borders and such to our bulletin boards. This overstimulation can cause the students who need bulletin boards the most to use them the least. Often, sorting through all of the extra, pretty stuff, takes too long for students who are visually overstimulated. When it takes students too long to find what they are looking for, they often get frustrated and stop looking for the information they need.
So how do we go about finding balance between having an attractive classroom and making bulletin boards useful to students? Here are my top ten tips:
1.) Keep bulletin boards for useful information only.
Hang decorations or things students do not need to reference regularly (like a list of standards or an inspiring quote) in one specific area. The back of the room or near the door are great places for these items, as they will be out of students eyeline most of the time. In those key, front of the room places, have things you want students to regularly reference - number lines, word walls, phonics sounds, writing formats, etc.
2.) Organize bulletin boards by subject area.
Keeping all of the math boards on one side of the room and all of the ELA boards on the other will help students to focus in on just one area of the room at a time. This way they will know where to turn depending on what they are looking for.
3.) Consider color and design when choosing borders and background paper or fabric.
Sometimes the desire to have all of our boards match in a "theme" will cause the bulletin boards to be busy for the brain before we have even hung anything on it. Other times the background clashes with what we are hanging on it, or makes that information hard to read. Use contrasting colors, with little to no design to make the information that you want kids to access to "pop" out for them.
4.) Consider leaving bulletin boards blank at the beginning of the year.
Add items to your bulletin boards with your students, instead of ahead of time. If possible allow students to be part of the process. For example, when I add word family words to my word wall, I pass the word cards out to students. Each student "presents" their word to the class. We discuss the word (the phonics, the meaning, etc.) and then the student tells me where to put the word on the word wall. This buy-in will help them be more willing to use bulletin boards. It will also increase the likelihood of them being able to locate items if they have a visual and auditory memory link of you hanging it up.
5.) Make bulletin boards interactive whenever possible.
Using bulletin boards for items like Number of the Day posters that are reviewed regularly gives students another form of buy-in. If you can, have a student or two write the answers on these posters. However, even if you are writing, by going over it daily, students can more easily locate the information for various skills.
6.) Consider having interactive notebooks in place of certain bulletin boards.
Interactive notebooks give students the same information that might be on an anchor chart or bulletin board, but in each students' individualized notebook. In addition to being a great way for students to build organizational skills, as students write in their notebook, they are building visual memory links for themselves.
7.) Don't put everything on a bulletin board. Instead, try O-Rings.
Another alternative to bulletin boards, especially for word walls, is to have things like sight word cards put onto an O-Ring where students can easily and quickly reference them. These O-Rings can be hung on a hook on the side of a desk, or be kept in a pencil case, for easy access.
8.) Use O-Rings to "layer" anchor charts and posters.
This is great for things like the success criteria to different writing genres. At the beginning of the year, we can have the narrative writing success criteria (or rubric) on our bulletin board. Then as we move into informational writing, we can add that success criteria to the O-Ring. Students only see the front poster of the O-Ring, but they know additional items are behind it if they should need it.
9.) Refer to your bulletin boards while you are teaching.
So often we hang things up on a bulletin board and assume the students will use it because it's right there. However, that is often not true. Just like all other teaching tools, we must model for students how and when to use them. During lessons, refer regularly to the bulletin boards that host the information you want students to reference. Then, when giving directions for independent work, remind students where they can find help. For example, I always tell students that words on the word wall should not be misspelled in their independent writing because they know how to find that word.
10.) Keep bulletin boards consistent.
If the purpose behind bulletin boards is for students to use them as a reference tool, then we shouldn't be changing the boards every week, or even every month. All of my bulletin boards in my classroom stay the same all year, sometimes with information being added in a new layer, but the writing board is the writing board all year. This consistency gives my students the confidence to know where they can find the information they need. This confidence makes them stronger students and more independent learners.
I know that many teachers these days feel the pressure to have 'Pinterest Ready' bulletin boards. But if those beautiful boards aren't helping our students, then why are we spending our valuable time on them. A teacher's time is limited enough. Let's focus that time on creating classrooms that work for our students, not for Pinterest.
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