For nearly a decade, I’ve covered a portion of my classroom wall with posters at the beginning of the year—all nearly blank, except for a specific classroom value written at the top of each. I call this our Classroom Culture Wall, but students typically dub it simply The Wall.
In our classroom, we center our systems and mindsets around a set of core beliefs, such as curiosity and kindness (an approach I learned from my wife). They are not only at the front of the room and in the syllabus but also affixed to a decal atop each desk.
I select the beliefs at the start of each year, allowing for consistency across class periods, but students provide feedback and suggest new values—for example, curiosity was a recent student suggestion integrated into our wall system.
As a teacher, I look at these beliefs as a lens for accountability: If I cannot tie what we are doing in the classroom to one of the beliefs, then I‘m not aligned with our classroom values. When students take classroom culture surveys during the year, I ask them to rate the community on how well we are living up to each core belief using a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being “As a class we struggled with this a lot” and 5 being “As a class, we did exceptional with this.”
From time to time, I ask students who in the classroom is demonstrating our core values. Using a peer nomination form, they share their reflections and explain their reasoning. For example, “Mike for affirming because he always listens to what you have to say, even if he has a different opinion.”
From there, I compile students’ celebrations in a spreadsheet and keep track of who has demonstrated each value throughout the year. On Fridays, I read the contents of each comment that has come in that week before calling out the name of the celebrated student, which builds suspense. The class then applauds upon the big reveal, grabbing a marker and jotting down students’ names next to the values they were nominated for.
It’s a great way to end the week—and, more important, a great way to invest in our classroom community.
Motivating Students To Celebrate Each Other
If you told the first-year-teacher version of me about this system, I would have scoffed: “High schoolers aren’t going to do that, right?”
By the end of the year, our walls are teeming with colorful celebrations—and visible evidence of learning.
But creating a culture of peer affirmation doesn’t happen by simply slapping some posters on the wall. It is important to spend time introducing and explaining each core belief at the beginning of the year. In our classroom, we use an analogy for each. The most important thing is to not rush when you introduce your classroom’s core beliefs; devoting time to considering the why behind each value invites meaningful learning and discussion.
To build momentum for wall signings, it helps to add your own nominations to model the process. You might even do all nominations at first, then supplement peer nominations with your own as the practice becomes a classroom ritual.
Throughout, keep track of who has and has not been nominated and figure out which students have been left out. Two inclusive strategies for integrating students not yet nominated include asking students to nominate someone in their group (narrowing the options and getting a bigger variety of nominees) or reframing the nomination question (for example, “Who is a classmate you’ve noticed improvement from lately?”).
Of course, you can continue to make your own nominations as a teacher at times too.
managing the workload
This process takes time, especially on the front end—and when using more elaborate wall designs. But I’ve come to very much enjoy the end-of-summer ritual, preparing for a new cohort of students by “wall building.”
Distilling the process into three main steps has helped me save time: First, create a wall with mostly blank posters aligned to your identified classroom values or core beliefs. Next, establish a tracking system to record who has signed each value over the year. Finally, create a peer nomination form via Google Forms, such as the example linked above.
Once you have these three things, you’re positioned to bring this system to life in your own classroom community. And, I’d argue, doing so has great benefits. We know that the ways we use time and space in our classroom reflect what we value as teachers. Making that value system tangible encourages students’ metacognition and ability to give affirming, value-centered feedback—skills that are transferable in the real world: Think, for example, how important it is for managers to have the skills to honor employees’ contributions or how important it is for coaches to ensure that their players’ strengths are seen and celebrated? The ability to affirm the values of those around you matters, and that is the main purpose of this system.
Plus, there is an additional benefit for teachers. Amid the demands of teaching, it is easy to fall into an “academic meritocracy” trap, or to feel stressed about grades and test scores—but we know that our students bring so much more to the classroom, and this practice celebrates that. It helps us see students’ full potential, how each brings something meaningful to our community. It builds a lens through which we can build relationships, make connections, and honor growth across time.