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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

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Is differentiation a teacher-driven endeavor? Should it be?

Is differentiation a teacher-driven endeavor? Should it be?

This week I read a blog post by @whatedsaid that so succinctly describes the beauty of  inquiry for true differentiation. The post, How are all learners’ needs catered for?, proposes two scenarios for differentiation. The first describes carefully crafted options that provide access to a variety of learners.  The second looks at differentiation through inquiry. In this scenario there is an interesting open-ended question that naturally provides students ownership of their learning.  Toward the end of the post, @whatedsaid poses the question: “Does agency and ownership allow learners to learn at their own pace, seeking support when they need it?”

Where is the ownership of learning? In the first scenario, the onus of differentiation is on the teacher. It is up to the teacher to offer a variety of options that the learning could take. Ideally, enough entry points are offered so that all learners get their needs met. In the second scenario, students are empowered to own and direct their own learning through the inquiry process.

How do we help students encounter their own genius so that they 1) can engage the inquiry process, 2) learn at their own pace, and 3) Self-advocate when they need support?

At Anastasis, we cultivate student agency so that each child can uncover their own genius. Each student can drive their own learning in, and out of, school. Colleen Broderick of Re-School Colorado recently wrote about what this looks like at Anastasis in an article titled: First Steps Toward Agency: The Learner Profile.

So often when teachers come through Anastasis, they see our learner profile cards and think of the Learner Profile as a tool they use to differentiate the learning. The goal behind our Learner Profile is not to serve the teacher or the system, but rather the learner. The goal is to give students insight into themselves as learners so that as they engage the inquiry process they can make decisions to appropriately self-pace their learning, follow areas of passion, and self-advocate when they need additional support. The result is students who are equipped as life-learners. They don’t have to rely on a teacher to differentiate to meet their needs because it becomes part of their own learning process.

@whatedsaid, thank you for so perfectly summing up teacher-driven differentiation, and the differentiation that comes as a natural outcome of the inquiry process when we support kids in building agency!

Meaning in the Journey

|Kelly Tenkely|

I always enjoy reading Seth’s Blog.  His posts push me into new thinking and often have me making connections to what we do within education.  His “Tool vs Insight” post was no different, below is an excerpt:

How is your vocabulary? It’s a vital tool, certainly. Do you know these words?

a, after, and, as, die, eternal, first, gets, gun, have, in, is, job, life, me, mouth, my, pushing, saying, step, that, the, to, Tyler, waiter, you.

How about these?

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

The first list contains every word in the opening lines from Fight Club, the second is the entire word list from Green Eggs and Ham.

Knowing something (vocabulary) is not the same thing as engaging art and meaning.  You can know each of the words listed above.  You can even identify each of their definitions on a multiple choice test.  Then what?  Without adding meaning to these words, they are pretty uninspiring, meaningless even.  But use some imagination and creativity, and suddenly those words tell a story.  They take us on a journey and suddenly the words matter.  Knowing isn’t enough.  A store house full of facts is pretty useless if students are never asked to actually engage them.

Inquiry is beautiful because it is in the journey of learning that meaning is created.  It is about curiosity, helping kids discover what they are interested in. Not only does inquiry act to engage, it’s actually been proven to be a better entry point into learning.  A Stanford research study into learning as a process revealed the following:

“We are showing that exploration, inquiry and problem solving are not just ‘nice to have’ things in classrooms,” said Blikstein. “They are powerful learning mechanisms that increase performance by every measure we have.”  Pea explained that these results indicate the value for learning of first engaging one’s prior knowledge and intuitions in investigating problems in a learning domain – before being presented with abstracted knowledge. Having first explored how one believes a system works creates a knowledge-building relevance to the text or video that is then presented, he said.”

Inquiry doesn’t make the facts (vocabulary) the focus, but rather gives meaning through the journey, the story, and the art. This can seem a rather obvious conclusion but it is fascinating how many schools strip away the journey to focus on the facts.  This is largely driven by policy and testing that requires the focus to be on the sound bites (facts) of learning at the expense of engaging the journey.  While this approach may result in some great data points that make us feel like we are improving our schools and doing the best for kids, at the end of the day it is an enormous disservice to children. Knowing vocabulary is not the same as experiencing meaning, and story, and art within words. I want children who can engage the world. Who are passionately curious about the world around them and want to dig deeper and add meaning.

Is this photo interesting?  Is it worth engaging?

Dreams of Education

 

 

 

 

 

How about this one?

 

Dreams of Education

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by: http:/flickr.com/photos/alicepopkorn

The first picture is a small portion of the second picture.  When we view something narrowly, we can miss the point entirely.

Too often curriculum narrows down a student’s view of a topic so much that there is nothing left worthy of engagement.  What they end up learning is very specific and doesn’t offer them any context.  Inquiry does the opposite, it gives students something interesting and worthy of engagement.  It shows them a fuller picture that urges them into a place of curiosity.

During our professional development time this week, I asked Anastasis teachers to engage the idea of inquiry.  To consider the role of the teacher, the role of the student, and the role of content within inquiry.

Role of the teacher within inquiry…

  • To be a learner- within inquiry, one of the most essential roles of a teacher is to first be a learner and to be transparent with that learning.
  • Within inquiry, teachers don’t limit learning by beginning with the end in mind.  Sometimes when the teacher has a very specific goal in mind, the rich learning experiences that could occur get sidelined because it isn’t the goal the teacher had for the learning.  For example, our students are learning about agriculture in kindergarten-first grade.  Typical standards for this age group would limit students to identifying parts of a plant and understanding that plants share similar characteristics.  While these are worthy learning goals, it limits the students by only expecting a minimum.  Our students were interested in germination, photosynthesis, and fascinated by the embryo within a seed.  Why limit?
  • To model curiosity and good questioning- students don’t always know how to indulge in their curiosities.  Many times they are so used to being asked closed questions (questions with only one answer), that they don’t know how to be curious by asking open questions (questions with multiple answers, or no concrete answer).  This has to be modeled for kids.
  • To be guides of learning- within the inquiry classroom, teachers are not directors of learning the way they are in a traditional setting.  The role of the teacher here is to be a guide for the learning.  It is being aware of when, and how, students may need direction and guidance.
  • To allow for students to own their learning- sometimes this means getting out-of-the-way of the learner.
  • To be aware- teachers must constantly be aware of and recognize student needs in the learning process.
  • To provide opportunities and help make connections- students don’t know what they don’t know.  It is a teacher’s job to orchestrate opportunities and offer materials that will provide the circumstances where students can explore and discover.
  • To come alongside students to help them learn how to think, NOT what to think.
  • To offer exposure to experts and experiences- as amazing as our teachers are, they can’t be all things to all children.
  • To facilitate students with understanding context and help them with discernment.
  • To offer opportunities for collaboration (both within the school and outside of the school).
  • To value a culture of thinking and curiosity.
  • To value student voice.

Role of learner…

  • To be open to questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.
  • To be willing to fail, and work through the failure (failing forward).
  • To make connections between previous and new understanding.
  • To collaborate with others.
  • To be a risk taker.
  • To be constantly reflecting and re-evaluating.
  • To actively think, not just fact find.
  • To be open to other perspectives and ideas.
  • To be contributing citizens now.
  • To be learners in order to achieve rather than just achieving learning.

Role of content…

  • Content must be evolving, not rigid or stationary. (Boxed curricula is stationary, it doesn’t allow for evolution as students interact with it.)
  • To be applicable, valuable, and transdisciplinary.
  • To allow for student ownership over learning (not predetermined outcomes).
  • To meet social, academic, and personal needs of each student.
  • To be limitless in the learning it allows.
  • To provide the necessary conditions for students to question and experience their learning.
  • To be flexible and transient.
  • “Well, first thing you have to do is to give up the idea of curriculum. Curriculum meaning you have to learn this on a given day. Replace it by a system where you learn this where you need it. So that means we’re going to put kids in a position where they’re going to use the knowledge that they’re getting. So what I try to do is to develop kinds of activities that are rich in scientific, mathematical, and other contents like managerial skills and project skills, and which mesh with interests that particular kids might have.”- Seymore Paperet

Educational psychologist Vygotsky said that, “children grow into the intellectual life around them.” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.88) It is important for educators and parents alike to consider what kind of intellectual life we are providing for children to grow into.  Is it a life full of factual soundbites?  Or is it a life full of experiences, problems to solve, curiosities to indulge, and meaning to discover?  Learning must be approached much more like a journey and less like a finish line.

The vehicle for this journey: inquiry.

Neglecting Value

Recently I found a new non-educational blog that I am really enjoying called Be Deviant. The Blog author, Justin Wise, recently wrote a post called 3 Steps to Make People Feel Valued. In the post, Justin mentions a book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working by Tony Schwarz. After reading Justin’s post, I was eager to read the book too. I am only a few chapters in, but haven’t been able to get Justin’s post out of my mind because it relates so closely to the other posts I have written recently on Dreams of Education. I hope Justin doesn’t mind that I piggy back on his thoughts as they relate to education.

The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working-Tony Schwartz

How we feel profoundly influences how we perform.  Feeling devalued pushes us into the Survival Zone-which increases our fear, distracts our attentions, drains our energy, and diminishes the value we’re capable of creating…Perhaps no human need is more neglected in the workplace than to feel valued.

Schwartz thoughts are geared toward the workplace here but how many of us could replace workplace with school environment?  There is a culture in most schools of devaluing students and educators.  That culture may not be overt but it is felt in subtle ways every time a students or teachers self-worth is based on a single standardized test.  It is felt when students aren’t treated as the individuals that they are, but are instead taught from scripted curriculum and moved from grade to grade because it is the next step and not necessarily because they are ready for it.  It is felt when politicians make asinine decisions like that schools make public whether teachers are doing enough to raise students’ test scores.  It is felt when merit pay is discussed as if the only reason schools are failing is because teachers don’t make enough money to do their job better.  It is felt when a student walks into a classroom and sees the utilitarian rows of desks and moulded plastic chairs that we ask them to sit in for 6 hours a day.  Schools neglect the human need to feel valued.  What results are schools that act out of places of fear, strapping teachers and students down even more so that they will perform on the test (forget learning).  It is no wonder that teachers are drained and may only last 3 years in the profession.  It is no wonder that students attentions are distracted and they do what they must to get by.  The value that students, teachers, and administrators are capable of creating wanes because they aren’t being valued.

In his post Justin offers three ways to value others, I’m using his three as a rough outline.

1.  Let people know what they bring to the table.

For students this means helping students find what Sir Ken Robinson terms The Element.  Tell your students what abilities you see in them.  Be specific.  I had a fifth grade teacher who told me once that I was a beautiful writer.  I never knew that about myself.  I didn’t generally enjoy writing at school because no one had ever appreciated it before.  As I came to learn, I quite like writing.  Don’t forget to let students tell you what they bring to the table.  The school day just doesn’t allow ample opportunities for us to discover all of our students gifts, so let them tell you about their passions, let them show you where they think their abilities lie.

For teachers and administrators this means recognizing what your colleagues do that is unique and valuable.  We may assume that our colleagues know what value they add to the school environment.  Tell them anyway.  Making someone feel valued means that we recognize that they are valuable and letting them know it.  If you aren’t telling your colleagues what you value about them they will start to believe that what they offer isn’t valuable.  Don’t let that happen.

2. Give Specific Feedback

For students this means that when you grade something they have spent time on, you take the time to let them know what specifically was good about it or needed work.  There is nothing more frustrating than spending hours working on something and then receiving a letter grade at the top.  What does that mean?  Giving specific feedback shows our students that we value the time they spent on an assignment or project.  It shows them that we value them enough to spend our time reflecting on what they have done.  When we do have to correct or offer a negative comment, it will be received from a much different place.  Instead of thinking “they have no idea how hard I worked on that and all they do is criticize me;” they may start to view the criticism for what it is, correction to help them grow.  Giving specific feedback makes you more than a teacher, it makes you a mentor and someone who disciples.  Discipleship is a lost art that needs to be reintroduced in the classroom.

For teachers and administrators this means offering thoughtful advice and encouragement.  “Good job” just doesn’t cut it.  Unless you are limited to 140 characters, specific feedback will always make people feel more valuable.  Being specific lets others know that you were actively attending to what you observed and that you appreciated it enough to elaborate beyond the “atta boy”.  If you are an administrator that is in the position of observing teachers, make sure that you offer initial feedback as well as specific follow-up feedback.  As a teacher, there is nothing worse than being observed by your boss only to have them leave without saying anything and offering an “it was a really good lesson” a few weeks later.  Give me immediate feedback with your initial reactions and then follow it up with more specific feedback.  Because I feel valued, I am more likely to take any advice you have to heart and work on implementing it.

3.  Celebrate the people around you.

We don’t celebrate our students enough.  We don’t let them know how much we are rooting for them, how much we want the very best for them.  Do something extraordinary and unexpected for your students.  In my classroom this meant giving them a “free day” where they could show me what neat technology they were using and act as the teacher.  Extraordinary doesn’t have to be expensive, it just needs to demonstrate that we value our students.  I had an exceptional third grade teacher.  Every once in a while she would hold a classroom celebration where we got to eat lunch with her IN the classroom.  She made this a really big deal, fun music, special games, and ice cream sandwiches at the end.  When we asked her why we were celebrating she would let us know how proud she was of the way we were growing and learning, so much so that she wanted to celebrate it.  This is the same teacher who would leave us special notes of encouragement in our desk (on purchased funny Hallmark cards), sent me a birthday card for two years after she was my teacher, and encouraged our parents to write us notes throughout the year.  She knew how to make us feel celebrated.  It doesn’t have to cost money, it just needs to be demonstrative.

For teachers and administrators this means going out of your way to celebrate them.  If you are an administrator, gift your teachers with an extra hour of planning throughout the year, stop in the classroom and take over so they can go to the bathroom, bring them a cup of their favorite coffee.  If you are a teacher let other teachers know they are celebrated, leave them a note of encouragement, slip a handful of chocolate on a long day, leave them flowers for no reason.  Celebrate every accomplishment of every teacher.  If someone has started a blog, that is cause for celebration, did someone try a new project or tech tool in the classroom? That is cause for celebration!

This is where Justin finished his list but I have to add one more.

4. Change the environment.

Environment can make us feel valued, for my complete thoughts on why, read my post Beauty Matters.

Ask your students what they would like the classroom to look like, and then let them help you make it special for them.  Classroom furniture is SO impersonal and factory feeling.  Think about how the arrangement of your classroom can change the feel. In high school I had a teacher who lined his walls with desks, they were not to be used as desks but as surfaces to display student work and achievements.  The rest of the room was completely open.  Many times we would sit in a circle of chairs, but he let us work the way we wanted to.  By the end of the year students had donated couches, bean bag chairs, and lamps to make the room feel more comfortable.  Everyone looked forward to that class because it was such a welcome break from the rows in every other classroom.

If you are a teacher or administrator, create a place that is just for relaxing.  Teachers lounge 2.0.  Decorate it with art, add a CD player, offer magazines and “real” chairs.  Make it comfortable and aesthetically appealing.  We all need a place to escape to sometimes, give teachers that place.  Let teachers have ownership in how the space looks.  Beauty matters, it is important and it sends the message that people are valued.

As it turns out, showing people they are valued isn’t hard, it just takes a conscious effort.  Let’s transform our schools into places where everyone who walks in the building feels valued.