Why I was wrong to trash poster boards

Jay Mathews
Columnist July 16

Several teachers and parents have been eviscerating me, rightfully, for my thoughtless dismissal of poster-board projects — those visual assignments we’ve all had to do — as homework. My column on that subject cited an expert — former national high school principal of the year, Mel Riddile — who thought poster boards were often misused. But I failed to emphasize something Riddile and I both know: These days poster boards can be vital for the presentation skills all children should learn.

Retired Fairfax County teacher Jane Jones told me her use of them enlivened her classes. “I would ask that you call posters visual aids or graphic presentations,” she said. “Teachers need to understand that they place their students at a disadvantage if they aren’t media-savvy. This means ensuring that they have a good grasp of visual production skills — both low- and high-tech — and their important relationship to oral presentation skills.”

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Mary Belknap, a language teacher in Rockville, said when she was a student the format “forced me to think about visual impact and flow of ideas, all the elements I now use in my Power Point presentations.”

Sally Barucchieri, a teacher at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, said poster-board projects work well if done right. The projects “are usually completed in small groups and are meticulously planned out in class,” she said. “They know there’s a time frame and they get right to it, because they know there will be extensions granted only under the direst circumstances.”

D.C. parent Tanyna Saxton told the remarkable story of an eighth grade poster that evolved into a doctorate in history for one of her daughters. Since second grade at Bunker Hill Elementary Scyool, the girl had revered the famous entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. In eighth grade at Alice Deal Junior High, Saxton’s daughter made Walker the subject of her history fair project, making contact with Walker’s great-great granddaughter Alelia Bundles and dispelling the popular myth that Walker had invented the straightening comb. That led to a graduate school paper at the University of Georgia, where she received her PhD last year.

Both of Saxton’s daughters benefited from poster-board projects assigned by history teacher Cynthia Mosteller at Deal. Her other daughter’s presentation on the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment in the Civil War was so popular that it was displayed at the annual Black Family Reunion on the Mall.

Saxton noted Riddile’s complaint that poster-making assignments often put too much of a burden on parents. Middle-class moms will do most of the work for their children, he said, but low-income children lack that support. “The school should meet high-poverty students where they are,” Saxton said, “and offer them the help that may be missing at home.”

That is what Jones did in her classes. “I provided materials in the classroom in the form of donated magazines from the local library, newspaper, free books from a local used book store, glue sticks, bulletin board backing paper or newsprint to replace poster boards, construction paper and multicolored markers in a storage bin with several drawers,” she said.

Jones has been disappointed to see that many teachers overlook the importance of giving students public recognition. As a substitute teacher after retiring, Jones said, she found that “displays of students’ work were not framed, named or located in any organized fashion.”

I failed to disclose in my column that when I was in elementary school I loved doing dioramas, the 3D equivalent of the poster board assignment. They did push me to think in a visual way. Such presentation devices may be a waste if assigned thoughtlessly, but the modern workplace demands that we learn how to communicate this way. I am glad there are so many teachers that realize this, and hope that their numbers will increase.

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