Why does it matter?
The question “Most students in this school want to do well in class” provides insight into whether classroom culture fosters productive peer culture. We’ve all heard that culture ate strategy for lunch. Successful school improvement strategies require not only a laserlike focus on academic achievement, but also an explicit focus on academic culture.
Improve school climate to promote student success
Linda Darling-Hammond’s Learning Policy Institute provides a concise review of the ways that a positive school climate, including peer relationships, provide the context for student engagement and achievement.
Culture building activities
Kent Peterson and Terrance Deal wrote the book The Shaping School Culture Fieldbook to help educators create a learning environment in which every child can learn. Here’s one activity they recommend for developing cultural leadership and strengthening a school’s culture. Although originally designed for school staff members, this activity can used as-is with either a group of secondary students or a combination of students and staff.
Conduct an Educational Garage Sale
Determining which aspects of a school’s culture to keep and celebrate and which aspects to transform or change is another key to maintaining a strong, professional culture. One way to approach this task is to conduct an “educational garage sale” in which staff members and/or students select aspects of the school to store, sell, or trade. During the sale, staff members and/or students will determine what to do with various aspects of the school. Items for the garage sale can include values, programs, equipment, past events, social relationships, curricular ideas, teaching approaches, educational issues, and conflicts. Although all of these are not cultural elements in themselves, each represents sets of norms or values in a school.
Here are some possibilities for the items that can be collected:
- Some items will be placed in a museum because they have served the school well and need a place of honor but should no longer be part of the school — for example, an old spelling series.
- Some items are not for sale because they are positive features of the school — for example, a successful reading or writing program.
- Some programs are not working well and need repair. One example might be a school’s behavior policy for students; although it is still somewhat functional, the staff and/or students know(s) it needs to be repaired.
- Some important aspects of a school’s culture may have been dropped or stopped and may need to be reclaimed. A tradition of welcoming new staff
members and/or students with a big barbeque and greeting that was dropped one year may be important to reclaim and resuscitate because it is a meaningful tradition that helps new staff members to become comfortable and begin to make connections with their colleagues.
- Some items are no longer working and should simply be thrown in the garbage can. These are things that do not work well or are of no use in the
current school. Examples include old assemblies that no longer motivate students or textbooks that are out-of-date.
- Some items are highly negative and toxic. These must be handled carefully and deposited in a toxic waste hauler. Examples include longtime conflicts
among staff members and/or students, negative expectations held about some students, or hostility that arises in faculty meetings.
Have staff members and/or students reflect on aspects of the school that they want to keep, sell, or get rid of. Write the names of the categories on separate sheets of chart paper or draw a simple picture to represent the category (a museum, a garbage can, and the others). Tape the sheets of chart paper, labeled with the categories, on the wall. Next, have each staff member and/or students write the items they want to save, sell, or get rid of on paper. Have staff members and/or students tape each of their items to the chart that represents what they want done with it. If you and your staff and/or students write the items on multicolored paper, you will end up with a wall of chart paper and rainbow – colored items. Once everyone has put up all their items, have everyone tour the various categories to see how others feel. Later, type up the lists and find ways to address the items that need to be changed (those in the garbage can or the toxic waste hauler) and those that need to be repaired or reclaimed, as well as ways to celebrate the items that are not for sale, which are part of the school’s successes.
Participants then list their items for each category.