Towards a Culture of Learning

This post was written for the TG2Chat blog, and originally published September 29, 2018.

Culture has memory and momentum. It helps us understand both what to expect and what is expected of us. Culture manifests itself at different levels in public education. Over time, a school develops its own unique ‘persona,’ and anyone who has visited several schools can speak to the vast differences that can be found among schools, even within the same community. Classrooms are no different. Teachers and students create smaller ecosystems that function within the greater school culture. Both school and classroom culture are strongly influenced by the norms and beliefs that exist in the greater community, and by the policies dictated by the state, province, or county.

My school board serves more than 50,000 students in over 100 schools. I spent three years as part of a central team, working with a brilliant team of educators to support teacher professional development. We had a strong focus on innovation in education and worked hard to create opportunities for meaningful, personal learning for our teachers. Although the work was satisfying, it was often frustrating. Despite our best efforts to reach as many people as possible, we were acutely aware that our actions would not have an immediate impact on the predominant culture. We were attempting to steer an enormous, slow-moving ship with nothing but elbow grease and some brightly painted oars. I loved that work, but also felt some relief when I returned to my classroom to focus my energy on a more manageable 100 students.

Changing classroom culture in a way that challenges institutional norms can also be difficult. In making the shift away from grades, I found that the biggest barriers to changing the classroom culture were my students’ expectations. After 10+ years in school, they were all very comfortable with traditional grading norms. Many of my students didn’t just want grades, they needed them. The first time I returned ungraded work in my biology class, one of my students had a visceral reaction; she was pale and shaking when she asked, “But how will I know how I did?”

The culture of previous classrooms had not trained her for that moment. The dominant culture in education dictates that teachers hold authority and students are supposed to comply and accept their fate. Taking away grades signals a fundamental change in the power dynamics of a classroom, and students need to be supported in order to thrive in an environment that doesn’t fit their current schema.

When I stopped grading student work last year, many of my classroom norms stayed the same (respect for self and others, everyone is welcome, everyone is capable of succeeding) but any norms related to assessment and evaluation had to change significantly. This is the first time I have attempted to verbalize some of the new norms we adopted:

  • Learning is never over. There is always room for another attempt to demonstrate what we know.
  • Learning is not a competition. We learn as a community and grow together as we share our understanding with one another.
  • The purpose of feedback is to help us identify the most important next steps in learning. Using feedback is how we move forward.
  • Learning is hard work. We embrace challenges and learn from mistakes.
  • We share a responsibility for documenting learning. Evidence of learning collected by students will be used alongside evidence collected by the teacher to assess progress.

So, what did I do to help develop this culture? It’s not an easy task to recall and explain everything that we did in my classroom last year, but I can identify some important themes.

Transparency
I was completely honest with my students from the very first day. They knew what our path was and why I thought it was a good idea. They understood that my choice to not use grades was based in research, and not just a crazy idea I cooked up. They knew I was prepared to make mistakes and that I would work hard to fix them. This complete vulnerability was a far cry from the authoritarian approach I used in my early years as a teacher. Frankly, I don’t think I could have pulled this off earlier in my career. This level of honesty was only possible because I was confident in myself and the choices I was making. Teenagers are great at sniffing out signs that their teachers are not being authentic, so it is not enough to just say the words. We have to be willing to let our students watch as we make mistakes, own them, and learn from them.

Collaboration
I made my students full partners in the development of the new norms and routines. I listened to their concerns and made changes based on their suggestions. I collected feedback formally (and anonymously) at least once each semester, and invited constructive criticism on an informal basis almost daily. Driven by real suggestions from students, I tried out several different versions of student portfolios, tested out different ways of giving feedback on their work, and varied the frequency of conferences. It was not possible for me to foresee some of the challenges students would face because I myself had only ever been a student in a traditional classroom. In addition, at the start of my gradeless journey I had very few examples from other content-heavy gradeless classrooms (so many examples being in language and the arts) and therefore could not anticipate some of the problems and concerns that were specific to my situation.

Trust
I asked for my students’ trust and worked hard to keep it. In order to relieve the extreme anxiety of some students—particularly the seniors—I asked each student at the start of the year what grade they hoped to achieve in the course. I made a promise to my students that if at any point in the semester I had concerns about them achieving their goal I would speak with them about it. Students had the ability to revise their goals at any time based on their progress. This acknowledgment that their final grade was important to them (for university and college admission) was one of the keys to my success last year. Had I ignored the fact that I was legally bound to put a grade on their final reports, I don’t believe I would have had as much support from students. In a perfect world, I would not be bound to assign a grade. In this world, grades are a reality that needed to be addressed.

Perseverance
I followed through on the plan. Students were given multiple chances to demonstrate their learning. I provided meaningful feedback and helped the students learn how to do the same. Students had opportunities to use the feedback to improve. Students were encouraged to collaborate, debate, and listen to one another. I modeled the change in language that our new culture required. “That question is worth three points,” became “I will be looking for a logical argument with at least two pieces of supporting evidence.” Conferences gave students an opportunity to share evidence of their learning and gave me a more complete picture of their capabilities. Students appreciate it when teachers stick to the plan, even if things are a little messy. In the words of one of my biology students, “I liked how you didn’t waver even though a lot of students wanted marks. At the beginning I kind of wanted marks, but after not having received them for a while, I was okay with it and kind of relaxed.”

This year, there are other things I would like to incorporate into our classroom routine to help nurture a culture of mutual trust and respect. I am intrigued by the idea of incorporating a daily classroom discussion (see Monte Syrie’s ‘Smiles and Frowns,’ for example). I want to become better at developing students’ ability to give feedback to one another and to help them see the value in this skill. I am also hoping that more students take advantage of opportunities to improve their work; some seemed reluctant to revisit things they felt were “good enough.” There are so many things I have yet to try, but I am extremely thankful that there are so many teachers willing to share strategies and stories that I can bring into my classroom.

I have made great strides towards changing my classroom culture, although I still feel like I’m in a little rowboat trying to fight the momentum of the big ship. That said, my students’ feedback from last year helped affirm the choices I have made:

  • Many teachers I have encountered are set into their ways and don’t look to improve, so I’m happy you allowed me to share my feedback with you.
  • Students feel safe to ask you for help or just talk to you.
  • This class helped me focus on actually learning and not about achieving the highest mark. Thank you for this new perspective!
  • I have grown as a student and as a person.

As I finish writing this, I have nine more sleeps remaining until the start of a new school year. Every few nights in August I experience my usual back-to-school dreams which haven’t changed in 15 years (I’m late and unprepared; the students are out of control and then the principal walks in). My waking thoughts, on the other hand, have a much different focus than they once did. Now, more than ever, I find myself thinking about how I can create a space where students thrive and learning is valued. Instead of spending hours trying to figure out how to get a calculated grade to reflect what a student knows, I can spend those hours providing meaningful feedback that promotes growth. Investing in my classroom culture has transformed the way I do my job, and the rewards will sustain me for years to come.

Last Week’s Lemons

The first few days of school are always a bit of a blur for me as I get back into regular routines at work and at home. This year I want to focus on building strong relationships in my classes to support our feedback-focused work, and I felt that the first few days were crucial for setting a tone that will help us move forward successfully. I wrote a short post after the first two days of school to share the progress of our new ‘class meeting’ routine, and was looking forward to keeping that momentum going.

Sometimes life just doesn’t cooperate with our intentions.

I woke up at 1:30 AM on Thursday in a significant amount of physical pain. I woke my husband and had him drop me off at the hospital. Now, I’m not a wimp. I’ve only been to the hospital three other times in my adult life; two of those times I was in labour and the third time I had been hit in the eye with a bungee cord. The pain was excruciating, and I had no idea what it was, though it was on my lower right side so I suspected appendicitis.

On the way to the hospital, I used my phone to book a supply teacher. After I was through triage, I emailed my principal, then agonized (literally and figuratively) about what to have the supply teacher do with my classes.

What about the class meeting? I didn’t think the students were ready to run one yet. What about the activities I had planned? The supply teacher might not know any chemistry or biology, and most of what I had planned to do probably wouldn’t fly in that case.

I emailed my fabulous colleagues to ask for their help in getting some lessons together for my students, knowing that they would come through for me and that, in the end, I would just have to let go of any control I had over my students’ destinies that day.

I spent several hours in the ER, enjoying two visits with doctors, some lovely pain medication, great care from the nurses, 1.5 library books, some sock knitting, and an ultrasound. I was diagnosed with a ruptured ovarian cyst. (Shameless plug for Canadian health care…I am so lucky to live here.) I was thrilled that an appendectomy was not required. I would be able to return to work on Friday if my pain was manageable. The doctor who discharged me, upon discovering I was a Science teacher, gave me a detailed description of my problem and the reasons it can be so painful. He enthusiastically encouraged me to share this information with my students, because he knows that ‘real’ biology stories are far more entertaining than those you read in a book.

While I was at the hospital on Thursday, my students did some worksheets and read their textbooks. When I returned on Friday, we picked up right where we had left off on Wednesday. At our class meeting, I told them all about my adventure at the hospital (ovaries and all!) and expressed my gratitude that I hadn’t had to be away from them for longer than a day. They had questions for me. I answered. They shared some of their hospital stories. After that, we learned some Science together. It was a good day.

On Monday – yesterday – I had the distinct feeling that my unfortunate medical problem had had a really interesting influence on our class culture. My mysterious disappearance and return, our ensuing discussions…these things accelerated our relationship-building in a way that we could not have accomplished with other activities. When our newly-formed community was temporarily placed in limbo, we had a chance to consider the significance of losing it.

In one of my classes, our daily meetings have already taken on a relaxed, friendly vibe where people have shared all manner of ideas, concerns, and information. In another, the students are shyly growing into the idea – they still seem to be on the fence about whether this time together has a tangible value for them. The third group is energetic, and we are at a stage where they are figuring out how to slow down and take time to listen to one another.

So, a pretty interesting first week. Lemonade from lemons, to be sure. 🙂

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First 2 Days – New Routines

We are two days into the new school year. Our building is hot and humid, but it has been a pretty good start-up. Some construction at our school prevented most teachers from getting into their classrooms until the morning of the first day of classes, which made yesterday a bit frantic, but we all survived.

This year we will be starting each period with a ‘class meeting.’ This move was inspired by some amazing educators (Sarah McLeod and Monte Syrie, among others) and I have decided to adopt this practice in order to build a positive, supportive classroom culture. The norms we have set for the class meeting are that we stand in a circle and face each other, and each person has a chance to share something. While someone is sharing, there is an expectation that others listen. Each person can share something about themselves, an idea, a story, a concern…anything that they feel they’d like the group to know. As an alternative, students can simply say ‘pass.’

As I expected, things were a little awkward yesterday and today as we explored this new routine. We had more passes than we had people sharing, which I expected, though we did have each person share their name to help us all learn them. We discussed the expectation for listening, and acknowledged that sometimes it is a challenge to actively listen to each other. We decided it was OK if your attention wandered, but agreed that it should not ‘look’ like your attention is wandering. 🙂

I’m excited to see where this routine takes us, and how it might change the vibe in the first couple of weeks of school.