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Learning at its Best

Why We Paint Murals

I set up some butcher paper (though I am doubtful that anyone has actually slaughtered an animal in our staff lounge) on the wall and ask students to respond to my comment, “I’m going to miss this class.”  I also set up a “class wall” where students can arbitrarily add their own comments.  It’s a classroom extension of my Living Facebook experiment.

It’s primitive.  Cave walls.  Graven images.  Simple, perhaps, but more complex in its simplicity.  We are limited and yet, these limitations foster the creative impulse.  Students not only write comments, but they also sketch pictures, change colors, alter hand-writing and draw arrows to comments.  On Facebook, my wall is linear.  In my classroom, the wall is a web.

It’s more than that, though.  “My wall” quickly becomes a collective space and it’s nearly impossible to differentiate the two sides. On Facebook, my wall is always mine.  In the classroom, the wall is ours.

“That looks pretty cool,” I mention to a student.

“I guess so,” he says.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I guess it’s nice to write on a wall.  That’s the appeal of tagging.  But I like that,” he points to the mural on our wall.

“Why?” I ask him.

“It’s us without the words,” he says.

His friend says, “Besides, we won’t throw it away a day later.”

I’ve often tried to defend why I paint murals with my students.  I talk about the need for creativity and critical thinking.  I toss in some educational jargon about multiple intelligences and cooperative learning.  People live with a smile and then silently curse the craziness.

But if you really want to know why we paint murals, it’s because of the power of the community that develops when we have a collective voice that empowers the voice of the individual.  It’s because there is something deeply human in our creative impulse.  Yes, we can solve problem.  True, we can create poetry.  But there is something powerful and profound in working with our hands.  It’s something we lost in automation and perhaps even more in the vapor-digital world.

Facebook doesn’t have murals. Sadly, many schools don’t, either. In the very place where we can expose students to art and authenticity, students stare at word walls.  In the very place that should model a collective and individual voice, students look at administrator-mandated classroom spaces. Perhaps I’m being preachy, but a small, inexpensive, powerful reform would be to replace a few of the Garfield posters with murals.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


4 thoughts on “Why We Paint Murals

  1. We need co-create spaces with students just as we need to co-create human relationships and negotiated curriculum that takes into account students’ needs and wants in learning. This post offers really compelling reasons – from you, John, and your students – for giving over school space to students.

    The culture of adult control and convenience is not often critically examined in terms of school environment, despite the work of the third teacher. Thank you, John, for bringing us back to consider our environments and what they say about us.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 27, 2011, 11:19 am
    • I am trying to convince my preschool director to allow artist who have dontated their time permission to paint a mural in our hall. What are the benefits that I can present to her of having the mural painted in the hall for our preschoolers?

      Posted by Miriam Genise Miller | April 23, 2012, 5:16 pm
  2. John! Fabulous! Great great project. Will you write some more about it? Thank you,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 28, 2011, 1:18 pm

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