Monday, January 6, 2014

La Cultura Es Todo

Ahh...winter break. The half-way point of any school year. Teachers use these two weeks to sleep in, sit back, relax and enjoy friends, family and holiday celebrations. I spent 10 days in Madrid, Spain with day trips to the breathtaking trips to Seville and Toledo. During this trip, I was immersed into the Spanish way of life– paella, flamenco dancing, beautiful cathedrals, incredible artwork and amazing music. Of course these are the things we think about when we use the word “culture.” Culture is the way of life of a group of people (e.g. Food, clothing, language, religion, art, music). Isn’t that what we teach our students? ¡Claro que sí!

Culture is like an iceberg. They say that when you look at an iceberg, you are only looking at about 10% of the entire ice mass, while the other 90% is below the surface. The bottom 90% of an iceberg is the biggest and most powerful part. That’s the part that Jack and Rose didn’t see when they were kissing on the deck. The bottom part of the iceberg is what sunk the Titanic.

When we say culture is evident in such things as clothing, music, food and art, we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg. The other 90% of culture are the intangibles—the parts that we don’t always see immediately, but lie below the surface and make up a majority of how people behave. For example:
  • Concept of time
  • Child raising
  • Concepts of personal space
  • Definition of justice and fairness
To understand why people behave the way they do means understanding the deep “bottom 90%” part of their culture--the values, attitudes and beliefs that guide their thinking and behaviors. These values, attitudes and beliefs—the intangible parts—are what I try to engrain into my classroom culture to ensure my students’ success.  (UPDATE 1/8/14: This is the most important thing I can do for my students.  Without a strong classroom culture, learning may not take place for many students.  In the age when the answers to almost anything is just a short Google search away, what is our job as a teacher?  My job is to empower students to be part of a culture where learning is paramount.  A culture where learning, collaboration, risk-taking and mutual respect is valued deeply.  The "bottom 90%" is where you will find the answers to do that.  Can you think of a time when being in the bottom 90% was thought to be positive?)

A former administrator once surprised me by saying that she could tell how effective a teacher was within the first 3 minutes of entering a classroom. For a while, I thought, this was a very short-sided, generic way to view teachers. Yet, I now understand that what she meant was that a classroom’s culture is obvious when you look for the right things. It is not the symmetrical bulletin boards, the plaid fabric on the walls, the matching polka-dot book boxes on the shelves or the colorful anchor charts that make students successful. Those are the things you can see in shallow water.

I know that I don’t always have the best guided reading lessons or do the best writing conferences. I may not do every math lesson as inquiry or use the latest trendy, cool iPad app. But those are not what you need to make a strong classroom culture. Instead, I try to go deeper and try to instill values, attitude and beliefs into my students so they can grow and thrive in the 21st century.

Here are 3 ways that I try to create a culture of success:

** The Flock – For the past 10 years, I have used this piece of writing as the foundation for my classroom culture. My students think it is really cool that we are the only class with a name. Not a day goes by that I don’t refer to this metaphor. We have daily Flock meetings to share highs/lows of the day, create class goals, and resolve any issues that come up. Each student also has a paper bird that hangs from our ceiling with a statement of intent of how they will contribute to our Flock. I also tell students that once they are in The Flock, they are always in The Flock. My hope is that students know that they are part of a team, where the success of one student makes it easier for the others.

** Essential Agreements – I start out the year introducing these five essential agreements as more than just our classroom rules. They are our bill of rights. We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe. We have the right to be treated with respect. We have the right to speak and be listened to. We have the right to work and learn in a positive and supportive learning environment. We have the right to do out best. I know many teachers would say that having the students come up with classroom rules is more empowering, and gives students more ownership. There are a few reasons why I don’t do that anymore. First, I couldn’t stand another year with students suggesting: Don’t hit. Be respectful. Don’t talk out. Don’t steal people’s stuff. Second, when we are born into our American culture, we don’t get to choose our laws. It’s our job to learn how to interpret the once already in place. Third, classroom rules tend to focus on the individual behaviors, and not how we should act towards others. We spend a great deal of time discussing what each of these five agreements mean and what they look like in the class. We act out skits and make long lists. This conversation doesn’t stop after the first week. It continues to be a main focus of our classroom culture.

** Mission Statement – In the first week of school, the class and I spend time answer these 4 questions: Who are we? What do we want to accomplish? How are we going to accomplish it? Why is this important? These answers are used to create a 1-2 sentence mission statement that states out purpose for coming to class everyday. It is posted in the classroom and referred to frequently. A few years back, I had a student say we should have a copy posted outside our classroom door, so our guests know what we stand for.

I do not want for a moment to come off as a teacher who portrays their class as perfect. We all know that is far from the truth. However, I hope that anyone who steps into our classroom feels our culture. Room 27 is not just a place. It’s an idea. I hope a guest will see students who: have a growth mindset, own their learning, critically think, give feedback, take academic risks and treat others kindly. We as teachers need to find our own ways to look beyond the superficial, surface-level, top 10% of the iceberg, and focus on creating a culture that extends deep into the sea of success.

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