While thumbing through a Pottery Barn catalog, I paused to appreciate a navy gallery wall. Inky prints, gold frames, and brass hardware framed an assortment of images, below them designer Ken Fulk wrote, “When creating a gallery wall, I like layering different objects…paintings and photographs together; it tells a wonderful story.” I looked at the images, trying to decipher the story these antlers, ivory boats, dogs, and pencil sketches communicated. To be honest, I have no idea what he was going for, but I ripped out the page anyway, taped it into my writer’s notebook and started writing around it: “What story would our own gallery walls tell?” “What is your story?”
These are the questions I want my students to answer, and bit-by-bit their stories unravel. But all too often the process of answering these questions through writing intimidates them. In turn, one of the first activities we did this year to establish classroom culture involved designing and decorating our writer’s notebook covers. In the past I had students create inspiration page collages on the inside of their notebooks, but these were hidden and personal. They didn’t distinguish one’s self or serve as a conversational piece between peers. These images, which could serve as gallery walls for my students, were tucked away.
In turn, this year I stocked my classroom with scrapbook paper, patterned tape, and stickers. I lined tables with butcher paper and allowed for the messy process of gluing and cutting and painting. Together, my class sat listening to music and chatting about TV shows, cars, sports, summer vacations, and the scary transition between middle and high school. While this artistry and expression is typically celebrated at the elementary level, I encounter few secondary teachers who value setting aside class time for these collages. Some of my colleagues use it as a homework assignment, but I love how blocking out one class period and allowing for exploration becomes an icebreaker in and of itself. After all, these interactions mirror the same writing process students will engage in as they begin filling their notebooks and sharing the stories of their images.
Today we’ll circle around the classroom, sharing our notebooks with each other and highlighting one meaningful aspect of our covers. This activity is low stakes and comfortable; they have a choice in how much or how little information they provide. Hopefully they’ll find that these collages are snapshots in time of who
we are, reminders of what we value, and visual hopes for who we’ll become. I know this because as we sit in a circle, I will share, for the first time, the cover I created in 8th grade when I was caught between childhood and adulthood, the cover from 11th grade when I thought I wanted to be a journalist, and the cover from my junior year of college when I left on a great adventure to study abroad in Ireland. In the end, we’ll take a great leap forward in beginning our process of sharing who we are through words and images.