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10 Questions every school should ask to build healthy culture

Culture is often something that we talk about in education. Mostly we talk about building a “healthy” culture. Less often we talk about what that really means, and what it looks like, and how to do it.

It’s strange to me that something so fundamental to how a school runs gets so often overlooked. Or maybe it’s that we take for granted that it will just “be there.” Culture can just happen, but I would argue that it’s much better when it’s intentionally built. How do we do it? With so many different stakeholders in education, how do we truly build a healthy culture?

At Anastasis, our culture begins with students. Always. I know that every school claims this, but when we say that we start with students, I mean the actual students with names. When we talk about what we will look like, we talk in terms of the students in our school each year. Camryn. Dakota. Johnny. Kip. Bodie. THOSE students. We do it with them in mind. From there, we consider what it is that we want for those students. What is it that we fundamentally believe about them? What do we hope they will leave us with?

These are the 10 questions that we ask ourselves that inform our culture. Try beginning with these questions as a staff and see how the decisions you make together (and the culture you build) are transformed.

Question 1: What will we do here? This becomes our mission statement. 

What we will do: Apprentice children in the art of learning through inquiry, creativity, critical thinking, discernment, and wisdom. Provide an education model that honors and supports children as the unique and creative individuals they were created to be.

Question 2: Who will we be?

Who we will be: A close community of learners that includes students of all ages, parents, teachers, and support staff. A culture that values unique individuals and fosters a love of learning, curiosity, critical thinking and discovery. A community that strives to show each other love, acceptance, and respect through attitude and service. A school that focuses on each student’s individual needs by creating a customized learning strand for each individual. A school that connects with other learners around the world, developing global citizens. A community (staff included) that is passionately curious, willing to learn, unlearn, and relearn. A school that utilizes the technology available to enhance learning. A staff that believes that learning happens within a student, not to a student. A place where learning is immersive, authentic, realistic, and connected. A place that goes beyond building self esteem to build self efficacy, learning with intent. A community of independent and resilient learners.

Question 3: How will we work?

How we will work: We will strive to serve students, to honor them as unique, creative individuals. Our interactions with students, families, and staff will be respectful and build trust. We will be learners. We will work toward a community and culture of respect, fun, and engagement. We will be fully alive. We will be creative. We will be curious. We will grow and evolve to meet the needs of students every day, month, and year.

Question 4: What will we value?

What we value: Freedom in learning. Getting our hands dirty, learning experientially. Play. Indulging our curiosities. Making mistakes and failing forward. Being open to other perspectives, views, and ideas. Independent thinking. Collaboration-connection is a multiplier. Being active. Learning without ceasing. Connecting dots (making connections within learning). Actively thinking about concepts (not just fact finding). Agility and spontaneity. Environment plays an important role in the learning continuum. Forward thinking pedagogy. Empathy and social compassion. Teacher as learners and learners as teachers. Humor and Lightheartedness. Tools that support learning. Being action researchers.

Question 5: What will we deliver?

What we will deliver: Students that are fully alive, who know their unique place in this world and know how their gifts and talents can be used to support a world that desperately needs their contribution. Passionate learners who have the ability and drive to spend a lifetime learning, unlearning, and relearning.

Question 6: What do we believe about achievement?

What we believe about achievement: It is complex and multifaceted. No one assessment can accurately measure it. It is individual. It is ABOUT and FOR the individual. It is fluid. It is boundless.

Question 7: What do we believe about learners?

What we believe about learners: Every child can learn. Every child has unique gifts and talents. Every child has a natural curiosity and an inclination to figure the world out. Every child learns in ways that are unique to them. Every child learns at their own developmental pace. Every child has an inclination to discover how the world works.

Question 8: What do we believe about personalization?

What we believe about personalization: We must be aware of student readiness-we want to present students with a task that is challenging for their current level of knowledge understanding or skill while providing a support system to bridge the gap. We must be aware of interest- linked to current student interests and helping the student discover new interests. We must be aware of learning preferences. We must be aware of the foundation-foundational knowledge and skills give us a strong base for new learning. We must help students discover new learning. We must vary the product or outcome that we expect of students in order for them to demonstrate understanding. We need ongoing formative assessment to drive new learning. We need to allow for flexible groupings so that students have a wide variety of opportunities to interact with a wide range of peers. We must emphasize individual growth and betterment of self instead of competition with others. We must partner together, taking advantage of other staff members strengths to support all students. We transfer ownership of learning from the adults to the students, a true apprenticeship. We must create flexible learning environments that meet the needs of a variety of postures of learning.

Question 9: Based on Questions 1-8, what will define our culture?

Our culture wil be: A place where all learners are safe to take risks. A place where students are encouraged to find answers from exploration and experimentation. A place where meaningful feedback is provided. A community where every student, staff and family member is part of the learning community. A place where we model persistence and talk about ourselves as learners. It’s okay not to know everything. A place where we set our eyes on what is possible and we encourage others to do the same. A place that is flexible, there is always more than one way to do something. A place where students develop empathy and fight their own battles. A place where the learning process can be “messy.” A place that takes into account student choice and preference. A place that helps students learn how to think, not what to think.

We will be intentional.

Question 10: Based on questions 1-9, what code will we live by?

The Anastasis Code: 

We take care of each other.

If someone needs help, we give it. If we need help, we ask.

It’s all a gift. (No complaining, no complaining, no complaining.)

There’s glory in making a mistake. (Mistakes are teachers.)

Make the kind assumption. (When someone behaves poorly, give them the benefit of the doubt.)

No skunking! (Skunks spray negative energy when they are afraid. Don’t be a skunk.)

Respect each other. (Look at the person talking to you. Make requests in the form of a question, not a demand. Don’t interrupt conversations already in progress.) 

 

Above all. We are a team. If the team isn’t healthy, nothing else can be. 

 

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Starting by asking and building around these 10 questions should inform EVERY other thing that you do. Everything matters. Everything reflects and indicates the culture that you have.

A few examples from Anastasis:

Announcing class placement for the year. Often schools send home a class placement list to parents. Kids anticipate class placement. This is a BIG deal to them. Why would we send a list to parents when we can unveil class placement and celebrate the unveiling with the students? We send out a balloon to each child with the name of the classroom teacher on the balloon. When the ballon gets blown up, the “team” they are on this year gets revealed. (We don’t call our classes by grade level, we call them by team name. Another small thing that reflects our culture. It all matters!)

Anastasis Academy class placement balloon announcement

Back to school night. Typically schools cram everyone into a hot room and give some sort of vision casting or announcements for the year. Then they break into classrooms so that parents can meet the teachers. Teachers go over classroom expectations. At Anastasis, we asked ourselves what one thing we want to accomplish so that by doing it, everything else in the year was made easier. Our answer: Build community. So, this year we sent out an invitation to our families. Pack a picnic. Meet us at a park. Every teacher hosts a blanket. Families and teachers get to know each other. We made up conversation prompts to add an element of fun and to take the pressure off of any introverts (i.e. me!) to get the conversation flowing. Not only do our teachers get to know our families better, the families also get to know the other parents in the class. We’ll toast the end of summer with a glass of champagne, give out all the same packets of papers we normally would, and cheers the start of a new school year.

Anastasis Academy Colorado Christian School

School handbook. Let’s be honest, like 2% of families actually read this important document. It’s low. It’s generally boring. Instead of just sending a community handbook (we do that, too). We also send postcards throughout the year that have just-in-time information from the handbook. The week before Learner Profile meetings, we send a postcard that talks about Learner Profiles. The week before snowy weather, we send a postcard that tells families where they can learn about a school closure. Just-in-time bite-sized information. Who doesn’t love getting a postcard?

Anastasis Academy Community handbook

Professional development: Do you do the same thing you’ve always done? Or do you focus on building community and culture. Here are some ways we’ve done PD: Paddle boarding, happy hour.

The first week of school: Is it jump right in? Or do you take time to get to know your students and “detox” them from false labels they may be carrying about themselves and learning?

The small things really aren’t all that small. It all matters. Without starting from the question framework above, it’s hard to make decisions consistently that will ladder up to the “healthy” culture you are trying to build. Start with the 10. Be intentional about all of it.

P.S. By going through these 10 questions, you’ve also created your staff handbook. Anastasis Academy Teacher Handbook

Hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and again to hang a question mark on the things you take for granted.”

-Bertrand Russell

This. This quote is one of my new very favorite quotes ever! This is where innovation lives. In the question marks.

Too often in education, we talk about innovation as if it is something that we’ve created and something that can be owned. We talk about innovation in steps and processes and we make it into something it isn’t. And so when we talk about education reform, the conversation gets centered on the wrong things: rigor, standards, tests, Race to the Top!, No Child Left Behind!, technology, better teachers, more tests. Things that end up actually adding layers between us and what we fight for: students. But educational innovation doesn’t live in any of these.

Innovation is a shift in mindset. It is hanging the question mark on things taken for granted.

5 years ago, I started a school fueled by questions. Surrounded by an incredible team, we search for the question marks on those things that we take for granted. In the process, we’ve found that questions are the catalyst of innovation. Questions have the unique ability to disrupt the status quo and force us to think differently. This is important for our students, we believe that this world needs citizens who are self-learners, who are creative and resourceful, and who can adapt and adjust to change. This is also important for us as educators. We need the questions. In a system that seems to value the answer above all, I’m proud to say that Anastasis teachers are those who value the questions. Innovation seems to thrive in this environment of “what if?”. Answers end the process of inquiry, yet this is what our schools have largely been built on.

At Anastasis we are constantly asking, now that we know-what is possible now? We live for those ‘what if?’ moments! These ‘what if?’ moments are our slow hunches that give rise to something bigger. We go through the process of asking: Why? (Why is this the way it it?), What if? (What if it were different?), How? (How could it be different?), what solutions might there be?.

Our assessment at Anastasis is testament to this process of questioning.

Why? Why does assessment look like it does? Why do we judge students on a moment of time? Why have we decided that these things that we assess are the MOST important things? Why are we okay with assessing students this way? Why do stakeholders accept this as a picture of a child?

What if? What if assessment wasn’t based on moments in time? What if we looked at the whole child? What if we changed the guidelines? What if assessment helped students grow? What if assessment could reveal to stakeholders where students are in their learning journey? What if report cards were more comprehensive? What if assessment wasn’t the end point?

How? How do we show stakeholders that a student is more than the few data points we collect? How do we use assessment for growth? How do we determine what should be assessed? How should a student who leaves our school look? How do we know if a student is ‘succeeding’? How will we share with other schools? How could we offer something meaningful?

What solutions can we come up with? What do we want students to leave us to look? What are the words we want to describe them? What can we do to reveal learning journey and forward progress? What do we do to help others understand the bigger picture? What do we do to help students understand the bigger picture?

When we went through this process as a staff at Anastasis, we began with the end in mind. What do we want students to look like on leaving our school? You know what never came up? Scores. Grades. Specific content knowledge that would deem a child ‘educated.’ Instead we came up with words like: inquirer, problem solver, risk-taker, communicator, compassionate, responsible, thinker, mathematician, scientist, self-aware, writer, reader, creator, connector, historian, geographer, respectful, open-minded, service-minded, healthy, reflective, resourceful, responsible, innovative, researcher, discerner, aware, logical.


These words are vastly different from what we generally see listed on a report card. Different from what we generally value (according to what we measure).

This was the launching point for our assessment system. The questions led to innovation.

Our report card looks like this:

UpGrade Anastasis Academy Report Card

We know it looks different, it should. It started with a question mark. It evolves every year.

Innovation doesn’t come as the result of declaring that innovation is needed and putting a plan in place to reach a predetermined outcome. Innovation comes in hanging a question mark on the things we take for granted.

Changing the Algorithm: Changing brain patterns after age 25

Starting a school is a big job. Starting a school that doesn’t operate like any other school…that is enormous. It can be a lonely task; while others can relate to starting a school, being an administrator, or being an eduprenuer, very few do all three at once.  It is a lot like treading water. Every. Single. Day.

When I have a moment to really sit and reflect on what has been the biggest hurdle to overcome, I keep coming back to the same thought: The greatest challenge has been changing the mindset of adults about what education is.

The kids are agile and make this transition in no time.  They are flexible and have a neurological plasticity that is ready for new connections and new neural pathways to be built. At Anastasis, this equates to a week of “detox” every year. Our Detox Week gives students a chance to unlearn some of the false messages they’ve come to believe about themselves as learners. It is about giving them “spaces of permission.” It is about helping our students think about education differently. For the great majority of them, this thinking about school differently doesn’t take long. They are agile.

But the parents, the parents are a bit more challenging. This week I’ve run into a video and an article that have me considering how to face the challenge we have with changing the algorithm for adults.

Michelle shared the following video with our staff this week:

It is fascinating to me that something like riding a bike can be SO engrained that even when we know that something works differently, and make an effort to change the way we think about it, the neural pathways in the brain are so heavily relied on that it is near impossible! Something tangible like riding a bike where you can actually feel and see the change seems like it would be relatively easy to relearn. As the video shows, it is not! This had me thinking about the parents that send their kids to Anastasis. There is 12+ years of schooling and thinking about what education is and how it works that is in play. And that kind of thinking isn’t so tangible. That thinking is pathways and assumptions that are made. It is a lot to overcome!

This morning I read this article from Fast Company What it Takes to Change Your Brain’s Patterns After Age 25. It asserts that after the age of 25, we have so many neural pathways forged as “shortcuts” for our brain, that it is nearly impossible to change the way that we think about something. Our brains are lazy and choose the most efficient paths…I’d call these efficient paths assumptions.

The article suggests ways to keep our “lazy” brains agile. The first is by using parts of the brain that we don’t frequently use. A new task that is challenging enough that it makes you feel mentally exhausted.  You know, the kind of tasks that we generally try to avoid as adults. The next is deliberate practice and repetition. New connections and pathways are forged only through practice and repetition. Without both, the connections won’t be established enough to become habitual. Depending on the complexity of the activity, this could take up to four and a half months!! Finally we have to have the right environment for change. We have to be physically healthy, build strong relationships with others, and generally do all we can to keep our brain out of “survival mode” which shuts out innovative or new thinking.

So, the question remains. How do we help adults (I’ve called out parents here, but it could just as easily read educators) change their mindset? How can we help challenge and engage people to use a part of their brain that they don’t normally use to rethink education? How can we help offer enough support for repetition and practice? How can we help provide the right environment for this change in thinking about education to happen?

I haven’t come up with the answers. I’m not sure exactly what this could look like, but it does have me considering the problem from new angles. What have you found to be useful in this process of helping other adults change their mindset?

 

Live the questions now. (Real Professional Development)

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903; in Letters to a Young Poet

 

I love this.  “Have patience with everything unresolved,” “try to love the questions themselves,” “And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.”   We are uncomfortable with living our way into the answer.  Education has morphed over the years into an industry obsessed with the answer.  Especially in the age of high-stakes testing, we want kids to have the correct answers (preferably consistently and now).  As a result, the same is demanded of teachers.  It wasn’t always this way.  Education used to look a whole lot more like life.  Consider the apprenticeship model of education where there was a master teacher (who as it turns out was really just a master learner).  This relationship wasn’t something that happened in a controlled, pre-packaged way…it permeated everything. It was life.

As an educator and administrator, I often fight for the education-as-life model for the classroom.  It makes sense that learning should be more individualized, that it should seek questions and delight in discovery.  It is good that we fight for this.  But what about this same model for professional development?  So often professional development gets boiled down to training educators in a new tool, methodology, curriculum.  It is prepackaged. It is forced.  It assumes answers.

Education is messy.

We are in the business of people, and growth, and life.  There is so much out of our control in education and yet, as a country, we seem to be continually obsessed with the answers- questions be damned.  We have become so obsessed with the answer that we will demand that our teachers get kids to know them on command.  That they will be able to perform on the spot, like a well-trained animal.  The questions are shunned. There isn’t time!  And so, professional development begins to mirror this model.  If we demand answers out of kids, then we must train all of our teachers in exactly the same manner and we can expect that they will have all the same results.

Is anyone else picking up on how ludicrous this all is?  We aren’t dealing with widgets. We are in the business of people, and growth, and life.

We need a new era of professional development.

Any school-wide, everybody-gets-the-same-thing, professional development should be focused on building up community and culture.  When you have a cohesive culture, one focused on bringing life, the rest begins to fall into place.  When you have a strong community the questions have room to be embraced.  In this model, individuality among the staff is appreciated.  The strengths and gifts that each was hired for begin to shine.  Passion is contagious.  It allows for living the questions now.  This is the philosophy at Anastasis Academy.  I can attest to the: “Perhaps then, someday in the future, you will gradually, without even knowing it, live your way to the answer.” Incredible things happen at Anastasis Academy.  Much of what we do can’t just be packaged up and replicated.  We don’t do professional development that is focused on answers.  We live life together.  We build community and culture.  We embrace questions together and then live our way to the answer.  It isn’t always nicely packaged.  It doesn’t have predetermined nice and neat outcomes.  But it works!

What we engage together professionally would not be recognized by most districts as Professional Development.  We get together and watch movies like Buck.  Then after the movie, we go out for a bite to eat and a drink and talk about themes, hopes, dreams, fears.  This movie has nothing and everything to do with education.  We wander the streets of Philly together and let our history obsessed teacher impress us with his passion for what we are seeing.  We go along with him when he says “Wait! Stop right here and close your eyes, can you just imagine how hot this room would have been during the signing in the middle of the summer?”  We watch Saturday Night Live clips together (HVR! HVR!).  Spurred on by our students, we all read the Hunger Games, and then go together to see the midnight showing.  We eat massive amounts of pancakes at Snooze.  We take a cultural tour around Denver and meet religious leaders of religions we know little about.  We stuff ourselves with Five Guys Burgers until we vow never to eat them again.  We shoot skeet and drink whisky.  We attend conferences together.  We meet for yoga in the park.  We paint together. We visit students in the hospital.  We go to a baseball/hockey/basketball game. This is professional development.  I’ve stumbled on a little truth about educators: you can’t get them together over a meal (or anything else) very long before the conversation is dominated by talk of education.  It is our worldview.  Even when we aren’t talking education, we really are.

Without strong school culture and community, there is little to build on that is meaningful.  While we have a lot of fun together, our professional development is more than that.  It is bonding us together. It is giving us common language, metaphors and jokes.  It is living life together and allowing for something meaningful and important to take place.

It is shared humanity. 

This is the kind of professional development that is worth doing with every teacher. It builds a school infrastructure in a way that nothing else can.  It gives us permission to live in the questions, to learn from each other, and to say hard things when they need to be said.

When you walk through the hallways of Anastasis Academy, you will see a camaraderie among our staff that I haven’t seen in any other place.  Our students pick up on this.  They see that we genuinely appreciate each other, that we laugh and learn from each other.  The impact is big.

People will often say, “but how do you keep your teachers at the cutting edge (of the newest tools, tech, curriculum)?!”  Well, we don’t.  We leave that up to them.  When you give educators some autonomy in their own learning, they do it more authentically.  So, although we are a 1 to 1 iPad school, we have never had 1:1 iPad training professional development day/year.  Why?  As I said, our staff shares with each other and is comfortable in asking the questions and exploring together.  Sometimes during our shared Wednesday morning time we will have a “smack down” session where each shares something that they are geeking about at the moment.  When we learn a new method of engaging information, we share it with each other.  When we read a really great book, we recommend it to the rest of the group.  We encourage our teachers to be learners because this is the culture that has been built.  We ask a LOT of questions.  Sometimes we don’t get to an answer…yet.

We hired teachers with specialized skills and areas of real passion.  When we set out to hire a staff, we wanted to build a ball team.  It does us no good if we take our well-rounded, masterful ball team and force them to all learn the exact same thing, in the same way, at the same time.  We want our ball team to have commonality (culture), but we want them to be the BEST at what they are the best at.  We want them to live in their own areas of passion.  It contributes greatly to Team Anastasis!  Clones do us no good in a school full of unique individuals we call students.

Professional development should be in the business of living the questions now, perhaps then we can start living our way to the answers that matter.