Saturday, August 18, 2012

[NBI] Focus on culture

This post is part of the new blogger initiative.

My primary goal for the first week of school is the same as it was last year - begin to build a classroom culture that supports exploration, creativity, safety, and fun. I'm hoping to fail less this year.

Last year I failed for several reasons. First, I had no control over the physical environment. I was a traveling teacher without my own classroom, and the classrooms I was in were, well, boring. My wife is also a teacher, and we've sometimes discussed (read: grieved over) the fact that elementary school classrooms just look more inspiring that high school classrooms. Why is it that the typical second grade classroom looks like Google's offices and high school classrooms look like oversized cubicles? This year, thanks to a "bold" move by my school district, I will have a classroom. So that will give me more control.

However, that was far from the main reason that I failed. My chief failure last year was that I approached the building of a classroom culture as solely my responsibility. I didn't involve my students in its development. I planned activities, made seating charts, and listed important values, and then tried to project those onto my classes. In retrospect, I kick myself for thinking that I could build culture top down with any real success.

It's especially annoying since this is a lesson I thought I had learned from observing our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last ten years. Knowledge transfer is hard.

The bottom line is that I cannot impose a culture on my classes. Culture is developed by groups of individuals who share common values and practices. I can help guide the development of our culture and be intentional about which values are emphasized, but I cannot create it on my own.

So, concretely, what am I actually going to do? I've got about two weeks to figure that out. Here are my current ideas:

  1. Find a solid, collaborative, & creative task for my classes on the first day. I would like to begin our class with my students doing something
  2. Figure out a way to spark a discussion around the ideas of collaboration, creativity, risk-taking, and fun. Round it out with an explicit mission statement of our class.
  3. Have my student help design the physical setting of the classroom - decoration, seating arrangement, workspace design, etc.

I'd be very interested in hearing your ideas or words of wisdom!


  1. One of the best first day activities I've found is the Marshmallow Challenge—there are many layers you can unpack after the activity to talk about classroom culture. Here are two posts describing how I used it.

    1. Thanks, I might just try that! After I watched the video, I thought to myself, "I wonder if he showed the video after the activity." Then I read your posts. I really like that your students picked up on the importance of having a low-stakes environment.

  2. This is a great post for people to read right now. I have spent quite a bit of time on the elementary blogs this summer and their creativity amazes me. Culture can also be extended to the adults. I've noticed a difference in elementary vs secondary vs post secondary in the staff culture as well. I also agree that the first day can make a huge impression on the culture. I want my students thinking and doing math to set the appropriate tone for the year. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Thanks!

      I feel like there are a lot of things that we could learn from elementary school classrooms. The students are still so enthusiastic about school and unguarded that I think it gives their teachers the courage and mindset to do some amazing things. I want high school to be like that, too! Any elementary blogs that you would recommend?