Saturday, January 27, 2018

Classroom Culture

I was recently asked to contribute an article on classroom culture.  First, let me say that I greatly appreciated receiving the request, and I am touched and beyond grateful to the colleague that suggested that the publication reach out to me. But I am struggling to write the article. It's not that I don't believe the topic is important - it is. It isn't that I don't have something to say on the topic - I do. I just don't think that anything that I could possibly share at this point would be considered to be particularly enlightened or noteworthy. There are numerous authors and revered publications that have covered classroom culture, and for me to think that I could somehow do them one better...I can't. I haven't studied classroom culture officially, I have no charts or tables with observations to reference, no summary of current research and no results from any survey I've conducted. All I have is what I have gathered from the time that I have spent in classrooms as a student, teacher, and a coach and what I have learned by the example of others. What I have learned about classroom culture is not going to surprise many of you because if you have been in or around education, for even a short time, you have likely drawn a similar conclusion - that to understand and impact classroom culture, we start by understanding and valuing people. Then we can look to 5 critical elements to shaping a positive classroom culture: relationships, values, expectations, passion and physical space.

Relationships matter.
Any teacher worth their salt knows the impact that relationships have in the classroom, whether we're talking about the relationships amongst the students, the teacher and their students, the family and the school or the relationships amongst the faculty of the building. The relationships that we foster within our school communities matter. I don't remember precisely the first time that I heard the saying, "they don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," but that is something that has stuck with me through my 15 years in this profession. I have seen time and again that it is true and that it just as easily applies to the adults we work with as it does to the children in our care. When you are in caring, trusting, respectful relationships with others it is far easier to assume positive intent, keep our minds open to new ideas, face challenges and to accept constructive feedback because ultimately you feel supported by your community. Your community is a safe place to try new things, to experiment with new ideas, fail and ultimately try again.

Values matter.
What we say we value, and what we actually prove through our actions has an incredible impact on the culture of our classrooms. If we truly believe that our young people matter, that the whole-child matters, then our classrooms need to reflect that. We make time for community meetings, provide opportunities for self-reflection throughout the day, take time to indulge natural curiosity and to follow a tangent and deviate from the lesson plan.  Our curricular content while important is not the singular focus because deep learning of content does not happen in isolation.

Expectations matter.
When I was in the classroom we had three agreements: be respectful, be responsible and be safe. These formal agreements lay the foundation for the collaborative practices in the classroom that centered on student voice and active participation. Pretty much every type of behavior could fit into one of those categories. Indeed, we spent a good amount of time discussing what it looked like, sounded like and felt like when those agreements were honored, and I am sure we spent just as much time debriefing and revisiting them as different situations and issues arose. After all, we all brought different and varied experiences with us to school each day, and our individual experiences shaped how we handled both the positives and negatives of the day. We all made mistakes and I would like to think we learned from many of them.


Passions matter.
Passion is infectious. There is actually plenty of brain research to support this, but just think about it for a moment and you will know it to be true. We feel most energized when we are around people that are enthusiastic and excited. Conversely, when we are surrounded by people who are whining, complaining or are just plain miserable - they seem to suck the energy right out of us. Think of the implications that this has for the classroom and the school community. Faculty that are passionate about teaching and learning, in addition to being passionate about the content they teach, will leave an indelible impact. There are so many ways that we can share our passions with our students and the larger school community, and in turn, ways that we can nurture the passions of others.

Physical spaces matter.
The design of our learning spaces impacts learning. Again, there is a whole body of research on this, but if we draw from our own experiences I think we can acknowledge some fundamental truths. Furniture arrangement can speak volumes. If you are looking to promote learner-centered discussions and collaboration you aren't likely to position desks in rows, you will consider an arrangement that promotes interaction.  You may also consider spaces that allow students to work quietly and independently - some of your more introverted students (like me) will appreciate a place where they can take a moment of pause and often work more productively. We also need to think about a balance between organized but perhaps sparse, with cluttered and distracting. Part of our job as educators is to create a space that will allow learning and creativity to flourish.

These are the musings of a student, teacher, and coach.
If you would like to read more about the topic of classroom culture might I suggest reading everything you can by Sir Ken Robinson, not that it particularly pertains to classroom culture, he's just that good, and then any of the following:

School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess and Transform It by Gruenert and Whitaker

UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools that Work for Kids by Sheninger

What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most by Whitaker

The Innovator's Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent and Lead a Culture of Creativity by Couros

Teach Like a Pirate: Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity and Transform Your Life as An Educator by Burgess

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Keeping It Real - Collaborative Post with Lisa Meade

A collaborative post written by Lisa Meade and Christina Luce

We’ve realized,  the longer we’ve been connected, there can appear to be a hierarchy of sorts online. We are quite clear where we rank in that hierarchy (near the bottom to middle) so recognize our perceptions may not match that vantage point of those near the top or wanting to be near the top.

We choose to be connected educators because we believe there is power in that connectedness. Twitter and other social media platforms offer many ideas, resources and inspiration for us to use in our practice and reflection. Many of these ideas are found in incredible blog posts written by our colleagues. And once in awhile, we write a post that we hope helps someone.

However, sometimes there are blog posts, comments and tweets that aren’t so incredible or inspiring. In fact, sometimes, they are downright condescending. Instead of encouraging, challenging or inspiring, these posts demean or ridicule the practices of others.

We acknowledge the desire to be innovative, to challenge the status quo, and to push the thinking of others. This is important to moving our profession forward. However, our work is too big for any edu-writer to spend time declaring a singular way to do something. School not ready for Google Apps? That’s ok. Your school’s not ready to abandon its math program? That doesn’t necessarily make you a bad leader or teacher. When you can admit that you aren’t there yet, It makes you honest. I know no one leader that has every initiative and effort fully implemented to the capacity he/she would like. We’re a work in progress. We are evolving.  We run human organizations with human needs. And, leading with heart and putting kids first doesn’t allow a prescriptive or standard approach.

Some of the best bloggers we know, including Peter DeWitt and the team behind Leadership 360, open the doors wide open and allow many guest posts on a variety of topics. We are grateful for that. The work of running schools and improving schools is a combined effort and one that requires all of us to be honest and upfront about what is really happening (and NOT happening yet) in our school.  There are enough sources outside twitter (and our respective PLNs) that work too hard to tear down the work of schools. We simply won’t feed it into that. Agree or not agree, if you write on a topic, remember your audience. People like us who turn to your blog post for ideas, reflection and inspiration.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Playing IS Learning

Well, Global School Play Day (GSPD) 2016 has come and gone. Students and faculties participated in record numbers this year; okay it's only the second year of GSPD, but you get the idea. Word spread, and this grassroots movement that began as a conversation between Tim and Scott Bedley (@BedleyBros) seems to be really taking off.

Supporting this movement was really a no-brainer for me. Over the years, I have noticed both as a teacher and as a parent the critical role that play, well plays, in a child's overall development. Play helps us hone our gross and fine motor skills, cognitive, language and social/ emotional skills. Play allows us to test certain hypotheses, indulge our creativity side, explore natural curiosities and make discoveries about ourselves and our environment. In short, play develops the whole child. Which is why it is shocking to me that there are those who guffaw at the idea of dedicating an entire day to play.

Play should be integral to what we do as educators. The idea that we need to justify the use of play in our classrooms and schools boggles my mind.  In spite of the rise of the maker movement, challenge-based and project based learning, I know there are many teachers, schools and districts that struggle with this. At their very essence, the learning initiatives listed previously are rooted in play. It seems to me that play somewhere along the way got a bad rap and that somehow play, particularly in the school setting, in of itself was not seen as "rigorous" enough activity for students. This is unfortunate indeed.

The day after GSPD I asked my students what their takeaways from the day were, and I spoke with my own children (who did not participate this year) about why they feel that play is important to them. See their reactions below.

"It's okay to make mistakes when you play. We just try to do it again. 
We put our heads together and figure it out."

"We learn how to share. We learn how to take turns. We get to try something new."
"You can get more fit. You can learn different games, and how to do different things.
Most of all you can have fun!"

So I'm putting out a challenge. If you did not participate in GSPD this year, try it next year. Here's the link to the GSPD website where you can learn more and sign up: If you did participate this year, I encourage to keep the conversation about the importance of play going and continue to find ways to incorporate more unstructured play into your school day.

Playing IS Learning!

Follow: @GSPlayDay

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Kids Say The Darndest Things

Kids say the darndest things sometimes. Especially when you give them the opportunity. When we take the time to get to know our students and take the time to listen, I mean really listen, it can be pretty amazing what they choose to share. When you take the time to build relationships with your students, they trust you with the most vulnerable parts of themselves. They give you a glimpse into who they really are, what the desires of their hearts are, what their fears are. 

As educators, we have been given an amazing opportunity. Sometimes it is overwhelming. Sometimes it seems a little too much. But I believe that we have been called, we have been called to love these children, and love these families in a special way. We show this love through our understanding and our empathy, we show this through the many ways that we make learning engaging and accessible to all, we show this through our enthusiasm and our determination, and we show this in the ways that we engage with one another.

To love in this way is not easy. There are times when you will be ridiculed, your motives and methods questioned, and there will be times when your love will be dismissed. But remember that the children, and the families that are the most difficult to love, the ones that try to push us away the most, the ones that are continually testing us, are in fact the ones that needest us the most. They need us to fight for them. They need us to repeatedly show them how much we care. They need to know that our love for them is unconditional. We must remember that they are our children, our family, our community.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Loving Our Students
I think one of my favorite conversations from today was with a student that I had to see for a discipline issue.

The student sat across from me, and sized me up. There isn't anything quite like being sized up by a skeptical fourth grader. As we talked he regarded me with much disdain, and through the initial discourse it was clear that he was sizing me up, and seeing if he could engage me in a power struggle. When it was clear that I would not go down that path, he tried a different tact. He launched into a decent monologue about how I must not like him. I was honest with the child, I told him I barely knew him given that I had only been an administrative intern in the building a few short weeks. But I also told him something else. I told him that while I certainly did not approve of the behavior that landed him in the office with me that afternoon, it did not impact my ability to love him.

At first he seemed skeptical. Then I shared with him a few things. First, that as a mom there are definitely times when I am frustrated by the choices that my own children make, but those choices do not cause me to love my children any less. He conceded that, that was possible, but that it was because they were my kids; so I continued. I showed him a picture that I had, of a former student and I together. I asked him what he saw in the picture. To which he replied, "You like that kid a lot; I can tell because of the way you both are smiling." I said, "You're right I do like that kid a lot! I love that student. But you might also be surprised to know that last year that student really struggled in school, he had a really hard time, and there were behaviors that I didn't approve of. Does it look like I love him any less?" He couldn't argue, and suddenly the sullen boy sitting across from me dropped his shoulders, and relaxed. Yes, it is possible to detest a particular behavior, to have to impart consequences, but it is also possible to continue to love the child.

I think one of the most important things that we can do for children is to have high expectations for learning and behavior. The other is to treat them with compassion, and to love them. Many are fighting a battle we know nothing about.

An Opportunity

I have been given a pretty amazing opportunity. This year I spend Monday thru Thursday morning, and all day Friday teaching in an Integrated Co-Taught classroom, and on Monday thru Thursday afternoons I am an administrative intern in another elementary building in my District. This came about through the tireless efforts of my Assistant Superintendent Dr. Maureen Patterson, and my amazingly supportive Superintendent, Dr. Mark Potter. Being split between buildings, and carrying out the roles and responsibilities that are required of each position is challenging, but it is also worth it. This unique opportunity is stretching me and growing me as an educator, and as a leader. I have the opportunity to see education through different lenses, and to gain a greater understanding of how our organization functions as a whole. I feel like this whole experience is Fullan's theory of action, The Six Secrets of Change, put into practice. In his book, Fullan talks about these Six Secrets:

  • Love Your Employees
  • Connect Peers With Purpose
  • Capacity Building Prevails
  • Learning is The Work
  • Transparency Rules
  • Systems Learn

I certainly feel that I have been given the opportunity to learn continuously, have purposeful peer interactions, develop new competencies and new motivation, and learn while doing the work. All of this is incredibly satisfying. Far more so than I would have anticipated, and I'm only a few short weeks in. I am grateful for this amazing opportunity, and am looking forward to the year ahead.


I would be remiss if I did not take the time to mention another individual that has made this amazing opportunity possible, and that is my teaching partner Jeannine Oliver.

Jeannine and I have worked together for a number of years, and over that time have really learned how to maximize our instruction and play off our strengths. We balance one another, and over the years have really found a rhythm that works for us and for our students. I owe my teaching partner, Jeannine Oliver, a great deal. I am certainly a better teacher for having had the opportunity to work with her so closely. You would be hard pressed to find a more dedicated, and tireless advocate for students than Jeannine. More than that, over the last three years she has been one of my strongest supporters. Thank you, Jeannine! I couldn't have done this without you!

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Grassroots Teacher Leaders

Nate Perry Elementary has always been like home to me. I began teaching there in 2003, and over the years my colleagues have become like family. They have been with me through everything, professionally and personally. They inspire me and challenge me, to be more, and to do more. In the last few years, many of the staff members that I began my career with have retired. I look around, and suddenly find myself one of the more veteran members of our staff. With that comes the realization that there are, or will soon be, people looking to me the way that I looked towards more seasoned members of our staff not so long ago. I looked up to these individuals not only because of their instructional expertise but also because of the way that they engaged the different members of the learning community. I looked to them to see how they interacted with colleagues and what norms had been established for our learning community. I looked to them for guidance and support, both formally and informally. All of this well before there was much mention of the role of teacher leaders. Teacher leadership seemed natural. It wasn't a specific job, title or role. It was something these individuals just assumed naturally. It grew out of the love they had for their profession, their students, and for one another. In our desire to promote teacher leadership, let's not forget the importance of this grassroots sort of leadership.