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“If These Walls Could Talk…” An Inside Look at Children’s Learning


painting“If these walls could talk they would say, ‘where have all the little children gone’?” Fifth grader Brian proudly showed his model of a one-room schoolhouse—the former Conway Grammar School—to an audience packed with elementary school children. His audience was familiar with concepts of talking walls and architectural problem solving. The children, teachers and community members listening attentively on this sunny June morning had spent the past year researching and building models of historic buildings in four towns in western Massachussetts.

The community presentation at the Deerfield Teachers’ Center was the culminating event of a two-year oral history and architecture project called “If These Walls Could Talk...,” a collaboration between Union #38 School District and Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Crowded on display around the room were dozens of models of historic buildings – salt box houses, town halls, tobacco barns, churches and a sugar shack—each one with a story to tell by the children who had researched and built them. Museum Educator Mary Gene Devlin wrapped up the morning by sharing memories of past schooldays in the building where she taught for 20 years and where children were seated on this day. “This was the old school,” she concluded, “and if these walls could talk they would say, ‘I’m so glad to see kids back in me.’” There was a lot to celebrate at the community event and the heart of the project’s success was an approach to learning that made these children so interested, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the history of their towns.

As a consultant on the “Talking Walls” project, a teacher educator and a former elementary school teacher, I am eager to share the inside story of this project: what made the learning so engaging for children and teachers and how there might be a carry-over to other classrooms and projects. “If These Walls Could Talk…” offers an excellent case study for looking behind the scenes at how research about learning plays out in a specific elementary school context. This article will use the findings of How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (NRC 2000), to tell a story that celebrates teaching and learning and suggests ways to transfer the successes of the “Talking Walls” project into other classrooms. Each section of the article will examine one principle of learning highlighted in the summary report and give specific examples of classroom activities that show that principle in action. Principles of learning take on meaning and relevance when they are illustrated with classroom details and narrated by children and teachers. And attributes of exemplary teaching and learning may be generalized and shared when they are they viewed through the lenses of learning principles. The main characters in this story are children and teachers; the settings are the four classrooms and towns of Conway, Deerfield, Sunderland and Whately; and the acts are four findings about learning that frame the drama and allow it to play to other audiences.

1. Schools and classrooms must be learner centered. (HPL 15, 19)

Finding 1.
Students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works.

Implication 1.
Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them

model Drawing out children’s preexisting understandings lies at the heart of a learner-centered approach to teaching. In the “Talking Walls” project, the foundation for further inquiry into architecture and oral history was finding out what children already knew and thought about local historic buildings. The kick-off lesson illustrates this approach in action. Working with Janice Fleuriel, Folklorist and Project Director, we designed two hands-on activities to draw out and build on children’s existing ideas about historic buildings in their towns. We wanted to start the study by finding out what children thought about the past and invite them to construct their own meanings for the phrase, “If these walls could talk…” The first activity focused on the “outside” stories buildings can tell (introducing a framework of architecture) and the second activity focused on “inside” stories (introducing a framework of oral history).

Classroom Activity: Sorting and Classifying Photos of Historic Buildings

museumIn order to see children’s thinking in action, we asked them to do a sorting activity with pictures of historic buildings in their town. We created “decks” of picture cards by printing photographs of local historic buildings onto cardstock (we used photos from the Deerfield Teachers’ Center website online at Each “deck” had 20 photos of historic buildings from the four towns in the project. We put the children in small groups and asked them to spread out all the pictures, look at them closely, and sort them into piles of two or more photos. One person in each group was asked to record the different ways of sorting so they could report back to the whole class what categories they used. The level of interest was high as children observed, discussed and shared ideas. They came up with many different categories, including several that repeated across the four classrooms: what the building is made of; what people do in the building; how old the building looks; and buildings that have “pointy” roof features (steeple, cupola, portico). The introductory sorting activity invited children to look at historic buildings in their own ways and share what they saw with teachers and classmates. Their classifications revealed how children were making sense of the buildings and what interested them most. Understanding children’s interests and categories gave teachers a roadmap for designing follow-up lessons on terms for architectural features, a chronology of styles and the historical significance of Greek and Roman elements. The initial sorting activity engaged children’s interest in the “outside” stories buildings can tell and the next activity in the introductory lesson helped children discover the “inside” stories of a building.


Classroom Activity: Oral History Interviews About a Schooldays in the Past

model“How could you learn about what when on inside this building?” asked Janice Fleuriel, holding up one of the images from the sorting packet: an 1880 photograph showing the original South Deerfield elementary school with children lined up outside. Her question launched a mini-lesson on oral history that would lead students to interview their teacher about what school was like in her day. First Janice drew out what students already knew about school. “What kinds of things happen in your school? Can you think of some of the categories of what happens in a school day?” She wrote their responses on chart paper: “recess” (always mentioned first), lunch, academic subjects, transportation, discipline, etc. Then Janice helped students develop open-ended questions to ask their classroom teacher about her school memories. Whately 3rd grade teacher Pat Bell recalled the interview about her past school experiences and questions students asked: “How far was the school? Did you ever get in trouble? Did you have school in winter?” This first experience with interviewing their teacher helped children see connections between their own experience and life in the past and it paved the way for them to conduct oral history interviews with family and other community members. The two-part introductory lesson engaged children in discovering how buildings have “inside” and “outside” stories to tell by providing learner-centered activities—sorting and interviewing—that drew out their existing understandings and gave them strategies for connecting what they already knew to the bigger contexts of architecture and oral history.

2. To provide a knowledge-centered classroom environment, attention must be given to what is taught, why it is taught and what competence or mastery looks like. (HPL12, 21)

Finding 2
To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must: a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, b) understand facts and ideas in a context of a conceptual framework, and c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application

Implication 2
Teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge.

One of the keys to a knowledge-centered classroom environment is to provide in-depth coverage of a content area so students can accumulate and organize facts within a conceptual framework. In the “Talking Walls” project, the framework of local historical architecture grounded the students’ experience and understanding in buildings right in the middle of their towns. With the focus fixed tightly on the subject matter of local historic buildings, teachers provided students with multiple perspectives and modalities for examining this content area, including: repeated visits to the town centers; field trips to historical societies, one-room school houses and sugar shacks; and interviews with family and community members who had stories to tell about the buildings. Museum educators from PVMA provided additional perspectives on historical architecture, including a demonstration of colonial woodworking tools and a surprise visit from Deerfield captive Eunice Williams (a period re-enactor) comparing 18th century English and Native American homes. Each of these experiences with subject matter added to children’s factual knowledge while helping them build conceptual links between historic buildings in their town, the broader story of American history and a more formal understanding of architecture and its historical context.

The conceptual framework of telling stories helped students make sense of the facts they were learning. At the end of the project Emily, a fifth grader from Deerfield, responded when she was asked whether buildings have stories to tell: “Yes, because when you look at them you wonder how old they are and what happened there.” The “Talking Walls” project helped students uncover the drama of the stories behind the walls and gave them tools with which to ask and answer their own questions. Architectural features and styles offered clues into the age of the house, while oral history interviews filled in vivid details about community people and activities. Deerfield Elementary School Principal, Douglas B. Tierney, explained why he thought the project was so successful in teaching history: “Actively engaging learners into why, how and what about history. History is alive. There are stories behind every building, we just have to be smart enough to find them.” His comment summarizes several important attributes of learner-centered and knowledge-centered learning: actively engaging students in inquiry, inviting learners to construct their own stories to understand concepts and trusting the intelligence that every child brings to learning. In addition to engaging learners, another critical factor in helping children develop a deep understanding of content knowledge is transfer of learning from one context to another.

Classroom Activity: Digital Photographs Help Students Retrieve and Apply Learning

oral historyDigital photography turned out to be an excellent tool for helping students transfer learning from context to another. Students used black and white photographs to document, retrieve and apply what they learned in the field to classroom lessons on architecture. Digital photography was a “great integration of technology” into the project, according to Sunderland 5th grade teacher Ellen Von Flatern, who initiated the idea of having students take photographs during walking tours of town centers: “Why have the adult take the pictures when the kids enjoy the task just as much?” Students took pictures of buildings from different angles, zooming in on architectural details that caught their attention or provided a good example of a specific feature. The black and white images were plastered all over the classroom walls and served as constant reference points. Students used photographs to identify and label architectural elements, match buildings in their towns with diagrams of architectural styles and design architectural scavenger hunts for classmates. The images helped students transfer their understanding from field research to classroom application, from individual impression to collective reference point, and eventually from record of experience to blueprint for construction. One fifth-grade girl reflected enthusiastically about the role of pictures in the model-building process: “One thing that really helped us… was the splendid pictures we had taken. Just looking at the pictures made me get this awesome vision in my head that would really give us an advantage.” Students knew how to use photographs to retrieve and apply knowledge they had been acquiring when they moved from the “what” of learning about architecture to the “how” and “why” of constructing replicas.

3. Formative Assessments…are essential (HPL 21)

Formative assessments...permit the teacher to grasp the students’ preconceptions, understand where students are in the “developmental corridor” from informal to formal thinking, and design instruction accordingly.

Ongoing assessment of student understanding was critical to the creative structure and success of the “Talking Walls” project. Formative assessments—“ongoing assessments designed to make children’s thinking visible”—fueled the inquiry and informed teachers and students about progress in learning content knowledge. Activities early in the project elicited children’s pre-conceptions about architecture, for example: sorting photos of historic houses; drawing shapes observed in architectural designs; and sketching a familiar house or building. Subsequent assessments were designed to reveal connections students were making between informal and formal understanding and also between field research and classroom learning. Visual assessments, oral presentations and written reflections gave students opportunities to “re-vise” their thinking by looking again at the same buildings through new lenses. Each of these assessments gave teachers an opportunity to monitor individual and group progress and design instruction to extend or solidify understanding.

As the study progressed, assessments revealed deepening connections between informal observations and formal understanding of architectural styles and historical contexts. Classical elements in architecture provide a clear example of this growth in understanding: at first students noticed and took an interest in what they referred to as “fancy” decorations on buildings; by the end of the project they were able to name these features (e.g. cornices, columns and dental moldings) and articulate their historical significance. Anne Bussler, Conway 5th grade teacher, created a Powerpoint presentation to illustrate and share her interest in Greek and Roman political and architectural influences on the New Republic. A fifth grader from her class, Winston Galt, wrote about Conway’s Field Memorial Library, “The columns were to stand out and declare freedom as the Greeks did.” Model building took the project to another level, not only in terms of physical dimensions, but also in terms of building understanding and assessing student learning.

Classroom Activity: Building Replicas of Historic Buildings

In the second year of the project, teachers came up with the idea of having students build replicas of historic buildings as a culminating activity. Charlene Galenski, Deerfield 5th grade teacher, described the benefits of this challenge: “Learning about architecture by actually building gives the students a better sense of the complexities of building a structure.” Ms. Galenski’s childhood memories of growing up on a tobacco farm inspired her class to research and build models of tobacco barns, a local form of vernacular architecture, as well as Dutch barns, English barns and tithe barns. Classes from the three other elementary schools focused on buildings that were architectural or historic highlights in their towns including Conway Town Hall, First Congregational Church in Sunderland and Bean’s Maple Distillery in Whately (Eric Bean proudly hosted a field trip for his class). After visiting the sites at least once, taking photographs and conducting preliminary research, students embarked on small group projects of reconstructing a building out of cardboard boxes and other recycled materials.

The process for building replicas was similar in all four classes and followed a “recipe” that teachers developed in a workshop led by Karen Gaudet, art teacher and PVMA educator. Karen used the analogy of making a birthday cake to help students understand the process: “you start with the big shapes—parts of buildings—and once you’ve got them together, then you move to the details.” Students consulted with each other and photographs to replicate visual details out of an array of recycled materials. They transformed cardboard boxes into sections of buildings, glued skinny weather stripping around windows and doors to create moldings and pediments and crowned a steeple with a dish liquid squeeze top. One Sunderland fifth-grader made the process sound simple in his first journal entry: “We just started a project where you use cardboard boxes to make a church, house or the old library.” As the model-building project progressed, so did the opportunities for learning, assessment and cooperative problem solving.

"Recipe for the Model Library," by Paul and Russell, Whately 3rd graders

Active ingredients: 3 cardboard boxes, hot glue, scratch foam, weather stripping, toilet paper tubes, tagboard, foam shapes, yarn, corrugated cardboard, and paper plates.

Inactive ingredients: paint, roller, paint brush, glue gun, and tape

Step 1: Glue boxes together in a straight line using hot glue.

Step 2: Paint bricking using a roller and foam board. Then print on tag board.

Step 3: Glue on bricks, roof, and other details like windows, door, columns, and wheelchair ramp using hot glue.

Step 4: Make sure everything is painted well.

Step 5: Let everything dry.

While students worked on re-constructing buildings out of cardboard, glue and weather stripping, they also made their thinking visible by documenting ideas and questions in daily “Architect’s Journals” filled with sketches, plans, notes and photographs of work in progress. These journals were valuable for teachers and students to assess progress and see connections between field research, classroom learning and construction. Students wrote about solutions to building challenges that incorporated learning from previous lessons, like finding shapes in architecture: “I took paper and twisted it around my pinky to make a cone shape for the steeple.” Journal entries highlighted how students used their new knowledge of architectural vocabulary, elements and styles to help them identify and solve construction problems. “This building is Tudor Revival. It has a cross-gabled roof, which created quite a challenge… We figured it out though and used supports underneath the roof to help keep it strong.” (Tim writing about Sunderland Historical Society at Graves Memorial Library). As these journal entries reveal, building models was simultaneously an assessment and construction of understanding, giving students opportunities to revise their understanding as they moved from observation to replication of architectural structures and details.

The challenges of model building mirrored real-world construction dilemmas and required solutions involving ingenuity and teamwork: “The roof was hard. We had to make two ridgelines meet somehow…I was proud after we were done… I got the name “Tapeguy.” Opportunities for self-assessment were built into the model building on many levels, from journal entries documenting progress to ongoing comparisons between the emerging replicas and the original photographs. Students were amazed and delighted at the results of their construction efforts. One student commented, “It’s the best First Congregational church third graders have ever made. His more critical teammate retorted that it was the only one. Most students found the product and the process equally engaging, as one journal entry testifies: “I think the library looked extraordinary and I had a lot of fun.” Model building illustrates how three approaches to teaching – learner-centered, knowledge-centered and assessment-centered—come together in the classroom to optimize learning for students. On top of the learning advantages for each student, the project also created a sense of community inside and outside the classroom.

4. Community-Centered
Teachers must attend to designing classroom activities and helping students organize their work in ways that promote…attitudes towards learning that build a sense of community. Schools need to develop ways to link classroom learning to other aspects of children’s lives. (HPL 22-23)

The final recommendation of How People Learn is to use a community-centered approach, both within the classroom and beyond, which turned out to be one of the greatest strengths of the “Talking Walls” project. Building a sense of community was not a stated goal of the project, but it turned out to be integral to student learning, teacher development and linking classrooms with towns. Inside the classroom, teachers and students noted the impact of cooperative problem solving as students worked in groups to build models. Ellen Von Flatern observed that, “the hands-on model building motivated students to work successfully in small groups, to solve problems and to hone their skills in looking closely at architecture.” She added that the project helped build cohesion in a class of students with diverse learning needs, including two recently arrived from Korea and several with learning differences and emotional issues. “A project this active, group involved and flexible by nature went very smoothly.” Students also documented the trials and triumphs of working in groups. “It is hard to work together because we were all talking and speaking our minds,” wrote a fifth-grader. Another student reflected, “We cooperated very well.”

The community-centered approach extended beyond the classroom walls into the school and town. Carefully observing historic buildings in their town was a first step in this process. As Pat Bell said, “an exploration of architecture really makes students take a look around their town in a way they might not have.” Just as important as learning to take a closer “outside” look at their town buildings, children also discovered “inside” stories of the past when they interviewed older community members about how buildings and lifestyles have changed over time.

Beyond the Classroom Activities: Oral History Interviews and Community Presentations

Students in the “Talking Walls” project had multiple opportunities to learn from local community members through field trips, interviews and classroom visits. Each class forged connections with older members of their community by interviewing family relatives, historical society members and community professionals like Margo Jones, architect of the Whately school building. Pat Bell, third grade teacher from Whately, reflected that one of the strengths of the project was the way that it, “involves local experts who share knowledge with students and teachers.” In the process of conducting interviews, students gained experience developing open-ended questions, listening carefully and taking notes on stories and facts they heard. First students practiced their interviewing skills with family members. Afterwards they reflected about what they learned: “What surprised you the most? How did you feel during the interview and why? What would you do differently next time?” After conducting individual interviews, students prepared for and conducted group interviews with classroom visitors, including grandparents and local historical society members. Ellen Von Flatern observed that her students, “developed a deeper relationship with the local community members and historical society. The older generation has so much to share in their memories, their homes, and their artifacts.” Using oral history interview strategies to learn about the past was an important way for students to build a sense of community, and later in the project students found ways to share back with their communities some of what they had learned.

Each school in the “Talking Walls” project found different ways for students to share their learning with the broader community of the school and town, including newspaper articles, class websites, oral history presentations and the culminating event in June where all four schools presented their models. Third graders in Whately challenged readers of their school newspaper to: “Ask a third grader how ancient Greece influenced our public buildings—even in Whately!” (Principally Speaking 03/31/06). In the second year of the project, teachers and students collaborated on Powerpoint presentations sharing their learning in the form of architectural walking tours of the four town centers. The biggest celebration of classroom-community connections was the culminating event in June, where students displayed their models and told their thoughts about what their buildings would say, “If these walls could talk….” All the community members who had participated in the project were invited to attend. Everyone celebrated the opportunity to see beautiful replicas of the historic buildings in their towns. Some grandparents were thrilled to recognize the house they were still living in, carefully reconstructed by a grandchild. One student whose grandparents were actively involved in the project showed a true understanding of the dimensions of history, family and architecture when she reflected, “my house is five generations long.”

A final anecdote illustrates the convergence of learner, knowledge, assessment and community in the “Talking Walls” project, through the dramatic discovery of a third grader during a read aloud of the picture book House, House. Towards the end of the project, Pat Whately was reading aloud Jane Yolen’s book about local historic homes when a student, “recognized his grandfather’s house in one of the book’s photos. In a photo showing a family in front of the house, there was a baby, and the student’s mother told him when he showed her the photo that the baby was actually him.” This moment captures the drama of how learning was optimized in the “Talking Walls” project. The student used his knowledge of the “outside story” of the building—architectural features that he recognized, identified, and connected with his grandfather’s house—to enter into the picture. He knew how to explore the “inside” story by using oral history skills to ask his mother about the photograph. Identifying himself as the baby in the picture was a thrill for the student and his family. It was also a confirmation for everyone involved in the project that this kind of learning leads children to build lasting connections between their personal experience and broader frameworks of history and community. If the walls that connect theory and practice could talk, they would tell stories like this one about children constructing meaning and teachers giving them opportunities to locate themselves in the picture of learning.

Sampling of Student Quotations from the Culminating Event.

“If these walls could talk…”

"It would tell you that there was blue paint on the walls that was made from blueberries. There is also red paint inside. The story goes that it may have been made out of cow’s blood."
Salt Box 1715-1730 Sunderland

"...they would say that they were getting a little tired because they’re 216 years old."
624 Cricket Hill Road, Conway, MA

"...they would say how they felt during the 1704 raid on Deerfield. They would express their feelings when they saw the bodies laying on the cold, hard ground and wondering about those who were captured.
Indian House, Old Deerfield

"...they would remember the little, old, nice lady who bought the first color TV on Baptist hill and invited everyone over to watch."
67 Upper Baptist Hill Rd, Conway, MA

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