Building A School Culture

It's funny as teachers we build culture in our classroom and it becomes "the way things are done." We hard to build it so that everyone soon becomes a family. We never give a second thought to what our School Building Culture is. We may think we know what it is such as warm and welcoming; everyone shares ideas; everyone has an open door. But is it really.? I think about School Culture the same way I do in my class.

I would like to offer here an approach to learning where the locus of classroom standards is centered neither in the teacher nor the individual student, but rather in a classroom culture, imbedded in a consonant school culture. This classroom culture contains the teacher and each individual student, the peer groups of students, but also transcends them: it is a framework which governs the learning and social interaction of all classroom members, and builds norms for a new peer culture.

Culture is a powerful concept. It goes deeper than what is spoken, deeper, even, than what is consciously understood Students in my classroom probably couldn't articulate exactly why they try so hard at their work and probably haven't even stopped to fully analyze it. Similarly, as members of a larger culture, we rarely stop to think about how many of our personal attitudes and actions are simply reflections of cultural norms. Culture defines how people function, and to some extent, even how they think. If a notion of high standards is not simply included in classroom culture but is actually at the core of this culture, then high standards become the norm.

This is all fine in the abstract, but a picture and understanding of how this culture looks in practice is needed. Painting this picture is, for me, a difficult task. A visit to my classroom in action, where I can often leave the room for twenty minutes and students don't even notice, as they are gripped in project work, would be much more compelling and persuasive than my words here could hope to be. Even this, however, would be inadequate, as it would fail to disclose how the environment was built, and what unspoken norms define its social structure.

Schools can sometimes take on the feel of a production shop, students cranking out an endless flow of final products without much personal investment or care. The emphasis is on keeping up with production, not falling behind in classwork or homework, rather than in producing something of lasting value. Like a fast food restaurant, the products are neither creative nor memorable. Teachers create and fuel this situation, despite the fact that we grow tired of repetitive, trivial assignments, and dread correcting piles of such work.

Turning in final drafts of work every day, often many times in one day, even the most ambitious of students must compromise standards continually simply to keep up with the pace. Internalized high standards are no defense against a system which demands final draft work at this rate. If an adult writer, scientist, historian, visual artist, was asked to turn in a finished piece of work every day, two or three finished pieces on some days, how much care could he or she put into each?

An alternative is a project-centered approach. In this structure, students still work hard every day, but their work is instead a small part of a long-range, significant project. Daily work entails the creation or revision of early drafts of a piece, the continued research of a topic or management of an experiment, or the perfection of one component of a large piece of work. Final drafts or presentations of completed projects are no longer trivial events occurring every day, but are special events, moments of individual and class pride and celebration.

Universal success does not mean uniformity. Though the structure which braces and guides student progress is common to every project, each student's project is unique. The structure provides a frame for common learning and critique, as well as appraisal of progress, but it also has room for significant creative expression and direction by individual students. If every student in a classroom prepares a guidebook to a different local building, the steps and skills involved may be somewhat prescribed: conducting interviews, researching local history, consulting city records, trying to obtain blueprints, doing sketches, taking photographs, preparing diagrams, writing and proofreading drafts of text, preparing illustrations, composing book layout, and learning book binding. Within this frame though, individual students have substantial latitude for artistic choices: the choice of building, the choice of whom to interview, the use of research and interviews, the nature of text and illustrations, the balance of text and illustrations, the use of photographs or diagrams, the tone of presentation, and the layout of the finished book.

My comments thus far may have raised a lot of questions. What about "untalented" students? Or teachers, for that matter. People who feel incompetent in particular academic or artistic areas. What about students with pronounced disabilities in perception, memory, or motor skills? If high standards are applied to the work of everyone, won't it just emphasize the painful weaknesses of some?
What about assessment? If so much of project work is creative and individualized, and even deadlines and requirements often differ from student to student, how can fair and constructive assessment take place?
What about a sense of community? If you work to dissolve the boundaries between school and outside life, don't you destroy the precious asylum of school which provides safety and security to children?
What about the cultivation of positive personal qualities in students: politeness, thoughtfulness, cooperation, initiative, self confidence, equanimity. Environments of "high standards" are often high-stress; a high standards classroom often means fighting for teacher recognition.

I'd like to say that I, and my school, have found the definitive answers to all these questions. Of course, we haven't. We are forever confused with trying to fashion a schoolwide assessment system which fits our teaching approach and documents student progress for the community or district in a real way. We are just now undertaking an effort to begin using student portfolios as archives of individual projects and achievement, as many schools have already done. And we are continually trying to restructure our school resources and community traditions to make the school more supportive for students with disabilities, insecurities, or other factors which make them "marginal".

Nevertheless, I think there is much going on in my classroom and school that addresses these questions in powerful ways. Despite having a full range of "academic abilities" in my students, and even students of real special needs, visitors to the classroom are often bemused and skeptical that this is a "regular" group of students. The work on display looks too impressive, the focus, cooperation, investment, and friendly ease of children too good to be true. The answer, I believe, is that students in my classroom are deeply and genuinely supported in countless ways to do their best and act their best, and have been so since Kindergarten. To a great extent, this is due to the ways in which the school culture deals with issues of assistance and assessment for students, and also for teachers.

People often say to me that this learning approach works in my classroom because I am a strong teacher, or works in the school because the school has strong teachers. In fact, they say, it's importance is trivial, because it can only work with strong teachers. Your school has strong teachers, but you don't know the teachers at my school. I would never contend that this approach is easy to use, nor that my colleagues are not full of talent.

First, it is suspiciously similar to that of teachers who visit my room and tell me: "Oh, but your kids are all bright (or artists, or interested, or well-behaved), you should see my kids. This would never work with my class." Now the kids in my class are no special group, but somehow they seem to shine. Is it because they're inherently strong , as the school's teachers are described, or is it because the structure and culture inspires them to do their best? Granted, children are more malleable and open than adults, particularly schoolteachers (we tend to be a defensive and protective bunch). I would argue, though, that the school culture where I teach inspires teachers to do their best (though this is an argument which might generate some laughter at times in my staff room). In addition to searching for strong teachers, school cultures can be building strong teachers. Perhaps more accurately, school cultures can inspire and reward teachers for displaying their strengths more fully, by taking risks, working together, and assuming substantially more decision-making power. I would guess that children too good to be true. The answer, I believe there are more "strong" teachers than people realize, teachers whose strengths are hidden by isolation, lack of power, and lack of inspiration. The talent and spark in these teachers can be fueled with the same approach used with students in the classroom. If teachers are expected and supported to design curriculum and projects, to take risks, be original, to work together in critique and learning, teachers can often blossom just as "weak" students do. I don't mean to trivialize the difficulty in effecting teacher change, but I think it's crucial to emphasize that standards for teaching are as much a product of school culture as standards for student learning: teachers, like students, tend to settle into surrounding expectations, standards and norms.

Second, on a classroom level, saying that this approach needs a strong teacher may be true, but it doesn't begin to reveal why the approach works. The power in the approach it is that it is based in a classroom community which shares a culture. The assessment, encouragement, accountability and teaching which goes on in the classroom is vastly wider than that which emanates from me, as teacher it is a continual and ubiquitous process among students. When I think of a particular student I had last year, a painfully shy girl who was new to town, I would be crazy to take credit for her astonishing emotional and academic growth-- I could hardly get her to speak to me during the year. I take credit only for managing a classroom where countless students took time to tutor her, support her, welcome her, and guide her success.

Again, where do student standards originate? Partly from me as the teacher, but very much from watching each other. Students did quality work, treated each other well, because that is what their friends did, it was the "cool" way to be, it was what the culture supported. How do students decide what is "good enough" as work, what is good enough behavior? Teacher standards only define the minimum standards allowed, they can't define the upper limit of care. Students in my classroom look to each other, help each other, critique each other's work, most of all, push each other to achieve their best. For all of my teacher power, the power in this total culture is infinitely greater.

The culture is rooted in a class community in which the first priority is supporting everyone. The responsibility for each person's emotional well-being and success is shared by everyone; the teacher bears more of this responsibility, but each student is encouraged and expected to help his or her peers. As a teacher, this means setting up a classroom structure which allows time and space for peer collaboration and tutoring; it means complimenting students, rather than complaining, when they abandon their own work at times to assist others. Supporting others means emotional support and care as much as it means academic support and care. In this team concept, the hope is that no student will be left out, left behind, allowed to fail or feel like a failure. It's everybody's job to look out for others.

For me, a culture of high standards means high standards for kindness and cooperation as much as for academic work. In the same way that careful quality in work is stressed over fast production, careful attention to treating all students fairly and thoughtfully is stressed over efficiency and speed in school logistics. "Simple" classroom decisions, such as which students should make a presentation or attend a limited event, often take a long time as they are discussed carefully with students to insure that all feelings are considered. Events and honors which are exclusionary or individualistic, displays of the "best" work or awards for the "best" students or athletes, are avoided in favor of whole-class, whole-school pride. When visitors to my classroom are impressed with student work, it is often due not to specific outstanding examples but rather to the absence of careless work, the uniform commitment to quality. This is a testament to the degree of cultural pride and peer support in the classroom.

 My teachers in elementary school often instructed us to try to do your best". This isn't a bad motto; I'd use it with my class today, and most schools would embrace it without a thought. There's a big step between teachers saying this to students, and students actually doing it. Not too many schools seriously look at what aspects of their structure and culture support and compel students to do their best, to act their best, and what aspects undermine this spirit. Rather than searching for individual teachers or principals who they hope can demand high standards, I feel that schools should be looking at how they can create a spirit of high standards, a school culture of high standards.

What's your building culture like? Have a great week! Say cool:)


2 comments:

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