On making vs having visual aids

rainy day in city in october

One rainy day in late October, I decided to make a timeline for my classroom wall.

I'd probably tried before; I know I'd been thinking about it for a while. I had - and still have - the idea that effective, long-lasting visual aids are an asset.  I guess this is what ties this post into the previous two. I'm writing here about posters and other visual aids - the kind of things we make or get in the mail - and the ways in which they are useful. In any case, I had about 3 metres of free wall space, a ball of  twine, markers, and a pack of 4 by 6 cue cards. So, I decided to make a timeline.

It was me doing this, you understand. But I remember I needed help. I remember bugging someone who had a calculator when I was trying to figure out some kind of century per centimeter ratio. I tried doing it by hand on the whiteboard, but I kept getting different answers. Later, I conscripted helpers to compare various internet lists of significant events and dates for the last 6000 years. We only had one decent PC hooked to the web, so I printed these lists off, leaving me with too much paper for one man to manage. "What do you have for 1200 BC?" I would ask. Heads would go down, papers shuffle. "Genghas Khan," someone would say. "What? No! BC... BC!" "Upper Pale...lio...." "What?" By the time I was standing on a stool pounding concrete nails into the wall, I noticed pretty much the whole class paying attention; if only with crossed-armed scowls or motherly alarm. When it came time for drawing and colouring symbols and avatars on those 4 by 6 cards, I had lots of volunteers.

But that's not the point. The point is, this was something I was doing for my own reasons. (I'd read Herndon.*) If other adults were annoyed or charmed into co-construction - that wasn't my fault, and certainly not my plan.

The timeline hung there through the remainder of the fall. We made use of it in our class discussions. I pointed out things. They pointed out things. I noticed people squinting at it from their seats as they worked through the big blue GED book. We adjusted it a couple of times when we uncovered errors or changed our minds about what was important. There were on-going debates about whether a full 6000 years was necessary. They said it would have been enough to reach back 500 years, to Christopher Columbus. "We could see more," they argued. "You only care about the GED stuff," I said. "Of course," they said. "Well what about the Vikings?" I retorted.  "We can stick a piece of paper on the end," the barbarians replied. "You're all barbarians," I said, "and that would look awful. Do your math!"

Then, when we tried to decorate it for Christmas, it fell down. We left it down and put up some garland instead.

After Christmas, on a prep day before classes restarted, I climbed my stool and strung the timeline up again.  But an odd thing happened.

The timeline had become invisible.

It wasn't just the new people who didn't see it. (There was always a big turn-over that time of year.) Even people who had helped make it seemed to forget it was there. For that matter, I'm not sure I made much reference to it after that....

It was almost as if making the timeline was useful and helpful and engaging; and the echoes of that making lasted for weeks after.  But once the echoes died, it seemed like having the timeline was largely irrelevant.

When it fell down again, sometime in March, I didn't bother putting it back up.

wendell's classroom timeline

Afterword: Why not take it down, wait a few weeks, and then make a new timeline: start the process all over again? Well, I guess, because I'd scratched that itch. I'd made a timeline, and I'd moved on. If a learner wanted to make a timeline, then that would have been fine. I'm good at supporting people. But for me to do it again would have felt phony, forced. The learners would have known - they always know - that I was being inauthentic, and so I wouldn't have been able to draw them in. In fact, despite knowing this, I did try to make a new timeline the next year, thinking it would be a Good Idea and Good for the Class.  It was a flop both as an activity and a timeline, and the only thing that echoed was everyone's annoyance, including my own.

By the way, you could complain that I've written "I" and "me" and "my" too often in this post. I wouldn't disagree. But that's the sorry truth about how my classes run. I'm willing to accept that others do a better job of being inclusive or facilitating broad participation, co-construction and a sense of learner ownership. With me...  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Anyway, my point is that posters and charts and timelines are.... I guess, sometimes they seem like 'living' things, and then they are useful, and sometimes they don't and they're not. Make of it what you will.

* James Herndon:
Frank and I showed up at school on Monday feeling great. Were we planning to suggest to the kids in CA How About Making A Film? and hear them say No We Don't Want To, or There's Nothing To Do Around Here... Hell no. It never occurred to us to wonder whether they wanted to make a film at all. We wanted to make a film ourselves and spend the rest of the year doing it.... 
Had we wanted to See What The Kids Would Do With Film, we'd have no doubt come up with something more constructive - a film about Attitudes And Relationships or The Question Of Authority and/or Democracy In The Classroom . . . as it was, we really wanted to make a Tarzan film but couldn't quite see how it could be done and settled for The Hawk. 
... What was the difference between all the grand things we'd thought up for the kids to do and The Hawk? Why, merely that we didn't want to do any of the former ourselves and we did want to do the latter. Why should we have assumed that the kids would want to do a lot of stuff that we didn't want to do? 
-  How To Survive In Your Native Land (1971) pp.43-44. 

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