A top-notch classroom environment can motivate students to engage in learning, say education experts. But what about hallways at secondary schools; does it matter what they look like? At least one school thinks so. When students returned to Biloxi Junior High School in Mississippi in August, there was a surprise waiting for them at their lockers—well, actually on their lockers.

Two English language arts (ELA) teachers at the school, Elizabeth Williams and Stacey Butera, came up with the idea to dramatically change the drab gray lockers that are a mainstay of virtually every school in the country into literary works of art—literally.

With the help of more than three dozen volunteers, Williams and Butera spent a significant part of their summer vacation painting book titles on the lockers in the hallways of the school. The result: The hallways now look like a futuristic, kaleidoscopic library, and the almost 1,300 students in the middle school couldn’t be more thrilled or excited.

“We’ve gotten exactly the response we wanted,” Williams (who is also the ELA Department chairwoman) told ABC News. “Students who never thought about reading are now asking questions.” 

“Students are bragging about the books they’ve read,” Butera said. “All of a sudden, it’s this badge of honor to be able to say they’ve read these books in the hallway. All they want to know is ‘Where are these books, and how do I get my hands on them?'”

Williams and Butera say they are constantly finding younger students in the hallway checking out the titles on the lockers. In general, these students are not allowed in the eighth grade hallway, according to Williams. However, she adds, “You can hardly punish a student when it’s for academic interest.” 

In addition, says Williams, the project has also changed attitudes on the part of teachers, and, in some cases, renewed their own love of reading.

“It’s made us think about things that we didn’t think about before,” she says. “Teachers tend to assume that, for example, everyone knows there is a local library, but some of our students don’t. It’s opened our eyes to things maybe we were naive about.”  

Turning the lockers into a showcase wasn’t necessarily easy, however. According to Butera and Williams, they spent hours “arguing and fighting and crying” over which book titles would go on the hallway’s 189 lockers. “We wanted books that were high-interest (and) that they would want to read, but that would also cover all different reading levels,” Butera said. “We looked at lists like, ‘100 Books to Read Before You Graduate,’ and also just picked our favorites and made sure the classics were represented.”

The teachers even scored a small grant to help cover expenses and then put out a call on Facebook seeking donations and painting volunteers. The response, they said, was unexpected. “It took on a life of its own,” Butera said. “We had a math teacher who is good at art volunteer, teachers from other schools, two retired English teachers, cheerleaders, and student clubs.” 

Williams and Butera are now fielding inquiries from schools across the United States and internationally to help them replicate the locker library at their facilities. “It’s so simple and yet it struck such a chord,” Butera said. “Teachers are now looking at lockers as a canvas, and I think that’s something they’ve never done before,” she added.

Just imagine the conversation as students head to class the first day back at school at Biloxi Junior High. “Hey, where’s your locker?” “Oh, I’m The Great Gatsby.

It turns out that a student’s school environment actually does make a difference in learning. A recent study by the University of Salford in England concluded that students improved in reading, writing, and math when their environments were “well maintained.” The biggest physical factors that impact learning, according to the survey: natural light, temperature, air quality, color, and individualized classroom design. 

Michael Levin-Epstein is senior editor of Principal Leadership.