At the Chalkface – Sam McKavanagh

December 5, 2017
Sam's Blog, Think Pieces,

It was a particularly drab morning, not unlike the one I am writing this on, when I arrived to work. Cold and wet, the lights in my classroom flickered on slowly (I couldn’t blame them, I had felt the same that morning) but the harsh darkness form outside still seemed to penetrate and the room didn’t feel much brighter as a result.


I slumped into my chair and the computer slowly churned into action, I looked around the room and realised that I felt pretty uninspired. Not by the job, I love teaching more than anything and it wasn’t because of the school, a place more welcoming and vibrant that any place I had ever worked. But the four walls that surrounded me, they didn’t inspire me and if they didn’t inspire me, then how could I expect the environment to inspire the pupils I am teaching?


Now, I would like to think that I teach lessons which engage pupils and that pupils feel at least a little inspired by my lessons. Even if they didn’t, it’d be a little strange for me to admit it here. But there was just something about the room that wasn’t doing it for me and I knew that I needed to change that.


As I sat there pondering for a good ten or fifteen minutes, the computer gradually dragging itself towards the log-in screen the whole while, wondering what I could do with my display boards so that pupils could get the most out of them it struck me. Why was I so worried about the display boards, which while they may be excellent records of outstanding pupil work and ever-obvious displays of key terms and words, they were ultimately fairly passive. Pupils might look at them, but they weren’t interacting and having to engage with them.


What I needed to focus on was all the space between, the space covered in the lurid and off-putting shade of green that had been there for longer than I’d care to image (although it may be comparable to the computer boot time). I needed to turn the room into a learning environment, one where pupils are the active participants in the creation and sharing of content, not one where I’d laboured for hours to create a display that I’d be terrified of pupils getting too close to.


The idea may have come to me in a dream one night, but it seems more likely that it was something I’d seen online, but never really registered at the time. Something which lurked, my subconscious recognising that I would need it at some point, but that it would let me reach that conclusion myself rather than prompting me to it. I dread to think how often it is doing that for me. On that cold dreary morning, my subconscious finally gave up the secret it had held on to for some time.


Chalkboard paint. I needed to paint my walls with chalkboard paint.


It was so painfully obviously that I was a little embarrassed at how long it had taken me to realise, but I’m blaming that cold, dreary morning and maybe the lack of coffee that morning.


As grand plans go, this one was pretty easy and far less time consuming than I had first envisaged (aided in part to a certain online retailer’s guarantee of next day delivery). What I was surprised at was how tiny the pot of paint was. I began to make plans of how to scale down my project, ‘start small and build up’ I thought to myself. I was also kindly aided by the site team who did a base coat of black paint for me (although it works great without one as well). As soon as I’d started painting I had to upscale my plans, to way bigger than I had originally planned and before I knew it a large part of my classroom was decidedly darker than it had been half an hour before.


I was actually quite impressed with the job that I’d done, I’d never really thought of myself as handy, but I like to feel I’d done a good job. There wasn’t much time to rest on my laurels, it was 6pm, the caretaker was wanting to lock up, I quickly took a photo so that I could show everyone I knew that I was quite the painter and decorator, in case they were looking for anyone, packed my stuff up and headed out into the driving rain to plan how I was going to use my new walls the next day.


The next day came, Year 8 were lined up outside the door and I was armed with my box of chalk (something I had initially forgotten I would need as part of this project). As they calmly and quietly (poetic licence) entered the classroom hushed whispers quickly spread, ‘why are the walls black?’ or ‘maybe sir is a goth’ were heard several times. As they sat down, eyes focussed on the wall more than they were me one finally decided to ask.


As I explained and told them that they would need a piece of chalk, one nervous hand slowly appeared from the back of the room, ‘this isn’t a test is it sir? Like, if we write on it then you’re actually going to give us a detention for vandalism.’ If anything the opposite, I would have been annoyed if they hadn’t ‘vandalised’ my room, provided that it was ‘educational vandalism’.


At first, they were cautious, but then the ideas and discussions started to flow – I was pushing them with medical ethics. They were having the difficult job of explaining their views on genetic engineering and applying some of the key words (like Sanctity of life) that they had learned over the past few lessons. Before I knew it, a whole wealth of knowledge was covering my walls and the clear, colourful lines linking ideas made it all stand out. A bright a brilliant display of the knowledge they had, which went way beyond what I could have expected from them, as they explored the ethical ideas (religious and secular).


The very public venue for their ideas meant that they were there for all to see, not hidden away in their exercise books. Pupils were able to discuss and debate with others attacking and defending points of view. They could also build on other points, the colours of the chalk making it clear who thought what.


Was this just a fluke? I had after all started with one of my most engaged classes. So I tried it out with others, Year 12 started to dissect Situation Ethics and whilst Fletcher was in for a pretty tough time, it led to the class having a much deeper sense of how to build on and evaluate the ideas of others. Year 11 used the space to compare Sunni and Shi’a perspectives on Core Beliefs, after 40 minutes of focussed and frenzied work I had one of the best comparisons of the Six Articles of Faith and the Five Roots of Usul ad-Din that I had ever seen.


Now it would be bold, if not straight up crazy, to assume that it was the chalk and the walls that suddenly gave pupils this knowledge. They had it all along, but there was something about the way in which they were doing it which unlocked something, maybe it was just the sheer enjoyment of doing something that was so engrained in them as something that was wrong to do (it does seem a bit like vandalism), or maybe it was the public way it was done and they were showing pride in their work. There’s no way this could become too regular – otherwise the ‘novelty’ factor would certainly diminish, but it has become an essential tool in my teaching arsenal. One which pupils are regularly asking if they can do.


For a while I was content that I was using my walls more effectively. No longer were they dead space on which display boards were fixed. They had become an essential part of the living environment. So, I started to wonder where I could take it next.


I was soon noticing all of the ‘dead’ areas of a classroom, the things which had a functional purpose in the structure of a room suddenly I could see their potential as objects to be written on. It was at this point that I realised that I had either unleashed a treasure-trove of ideas, or I had finally lost it.
I quickly invested in some chalkboard pens (that large online retailer was making good business out of me) and before I knew it the windows and tables were soon adorned with the musings of Aristotle, Boethius and Kant.


A watershed moment for me recently was when an Assistant Head came into my classroom, as he looked around the room I felt a little nervous, what if he thought I was just encouraging pupils to commit vandalism? His eyes stopped scanning the room and rested back on me, I gulped. ‘I love what you’ve done with the room, it is really bringing the learning to life.’ I breathed a sigh of relief.


I know that the thought of this seems like chaos to some, but learning is messy. It shouldn’t just have to take place in exercise books with underlined titles and neat handwriting. I want pupils to explore some of the greatest ideas in the history of humankind, that’s a messy process and this looks like it as well. However, I can assure you that the learning environment that it creates is engaging, pupils remember what they’ve done and they take pride in the ideas that they have written on my tables, windows and walls.


There are only two downsides that I’ve experienced so far. One, eventually you will have to clean (though it is pretty quick) the walls, tables and windows every now and again and stop claiming that they are just always building on ideas that have come before. Two, pupils always keep asking when they are going to do it again, which I guess isn’t really a problem at all.


Sam McKavanagh teaches RE and Philosophy at a secondary school in Oxfordshire, is completing a Masters in Teaching and Learning at Oxford University, and regularly blogs on his website My Teaching Life ( He’s passionate about teaching and keen to try out tech and new teaching ideas.