The Tall Tale Parade Passes By
Image by Old Shoe Woman via Flickr

Social networking, if you believe half of what you read, is a 21st-century, Web 2.0 phenomenon that has exploded onto our culture through our youth.

Anyone that was around before the Web was even a 1.0 knows this is hogwash. Social networking has been around as long as there have been humans. The older I get, the more I understand that everything comes down to relationships. My success as a teacher, in particular, depends far more on the relationships I develop than it does on what I know or my pedagogical skills. There are many technology tools that I’m learning to use to strengthen and grow those relationships.

But the more I think about social networking, the more I realize that we’ve had them in our schools forever. They’re called hallways. Classrooms may be where instruction takes place, but they are essentially private islands, isolated from the school community. The hallways are the public face of the school, and they are where the connections happen. I’ve observed a few things taking place in hallways over the last few weeks that I’m convinced make schools operate well and make the learning that takes place in the classrooms more effective.

Classroom “Home Page”

As I walk through a school, I can sometimes get a glimpse of what is going on inside a classroom through the door. More often, though, I only know about the class through their public face: the hallway space just outside. Some teachers use this internal building “home page” to the fullest, giving us ongoing, developing pictures of what the students are learning and their growth over the year. In my experience, these classrooms and these teachers are the ones generating the most learning.

Courtesy and Respect

Within a classroom, the students and teacher negotiate over the course of time an understanding of how things will work. Often, the rules–stated and unstated–can vary widely from one room to another. I visit fourteen different classrooms besides my own every week, and I see so many different sets of procedures and expectations for behavior it is sometimes difficult to keep track of what is appropriate in each.

But the hallway is a different world. Out there, everyone in the building, as well as the larger community, have to function with more broadly accepted rules of courtesy and respect. It is in the hallways of a school that many young children first learn the concepts of passing on the right and stopping at intersections. They need to learn how to travel as a group, and when to allow others to have the right of way; how to be aware of others’ personal space and respecting the learning going on in rooms as you pass; waiting your turn, navigating new spaces, and handling responsibility. (Do you remember the excitement and anxiety you felt the first time you were chosen to be the messenger?)

Collaboration and Planning

We teach in an inclusive environment today which requires more than possibly ever before that teachers work together and share responsibilities within classrooms. The reality of school schedules means that a significant amount of that planning happens on the fly. It is common for me to run into a colleague as I pass by in the hall and we will stop to have an impromptu meeting to discuss a student or plan an upcoming lesson together. The hallway is sometimes the only opportunity I get during a day to see and interact with my fellow teachers.

Community Infrastructure

Within a school comprised of individual classrooms and grade levels, the hallways provide a means to develop a larger, building community. Office bulletin boards, parent spaces, the school store, the main lobby, and hallways outside common areas like the gym, cafeteria, and auditorium, are all opportunities for developing the unique climate and character that defines a school. The hallways in a school set the tone, and can tell you a great deal about how tightly connected the network there is. I can often sense within a few minutes of walking into a school what the climate is like and how people will interact there.

Some of the best schools turn hallways into additional learning spaces, too, by setting up areas for students to work and putting up activities and information. One school I visit, for example, has a “Word of the Week” posted outside the library. Students and visitors walking by can’t help but see the display and think about the intriguing vocabulary word as they walk by every day.

(As an aside, I was struck as I was searching for a photograph to accompany this post that picture after picture showed vacant, sterile hallways with little or no decoration, and in most cases little or no color at all. It makes me wonder if the instruction going on in those buildings is similarly vacant and sterile.)

Hallways are what connect the disparate pieces of a school into a community. Hallways are one of the ways that real relationships can occur in a school, and the members of the community need to recognize their functions and importance–as well as their limitations–in order to make the most of them. We can think of hallways as simply a way to get to the rest room or the office. Or they can become a place where we join together with our colleagues to build a network that can deal with the challenges confronting us in our efforts to make learning happen.

Hm. Sounds just like the “new” 21st-century, Web 2.0 social networks.

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