On Building Classroom Culture

It’s the start of a new academic year, so it’s time to forge those classroom communities. In my experience (filled with success and failure), to build a community you need to give students a sense of belonging, a recognition of potential adversity, ownership, and a vision that binds them together. To do this, try my 13 To Dos:

  1. Meet and greet students at the door, and be present to wish your students well as they leave. Always. Get to know what makes them wonderful.
  2. It sounds counter-intuitive, but make your classroom focused on embracing challenge, the possibility of failure and the potential uncertainties on the way to a common goal (aka students learning things). Nothing forges a group more than adversity.
  3. Be sure students understand that their individual input is required for any group success.
  4. Ask for, and act upon, student feedback on how the class is run.
  5. Be the passion you expect and…
  6. …. regularly allow students to share theirs in student-led presentations from their favourite book to current affairs. I have used this protocol – Hot Reads.
  7. Have fun together, with whole class quizzes and low-stake, friendly competitions, e.g. Kahoot or Quizlet Live. Even better, compete with other classes…
  8. Actively and intentionally coach students to collaborate in whole class, small group and paired discussions, for example with the 7 norms of collaboration.
  9. Reminisce at least once a year. I’ve run this Memory Cafe lesson to do this.
  10. Place student work on your walls, showcasing both exemplary work and on-going, imperfect products.
  11. Allow students to work in ways that honour the differences in how they might best contribute to the community. Sometimes this is alone. Often it’s as part of a group. Create classroom space for both.
  12. Maintain a comfortable, clean, welcoming classroom.
  13. Take and display photos of students working, smiling, having fun. The Google+ photo assistant will even create a GIF if you photo burst your target.

In summary, ask yourself the following three questions:

  • Do you have routines in place that allow the group to experience a sense of community?
  • Do you have a shared vision for success? 
  • Does the classroom space mirror and promote a community you all value?

On Crucial Collaborative Spaces

Let’s cut to the chase. Hands up who unequivocally loves meetings. Just me? Hmmm… So, I think I’ll share some ideas for planning and delivering the dreaded ‘meeting’, a crucial collaborative space. To be clear, when I say meeting, I mean any gathering of teachers, from regular team meetings, to presentations to staff, to professional development workshops.

  1. Know Thy goal: Easy. The goal of every gathering should be, at its core, to positively impact student learning. That’s it –  the most sacred aspect of any meeting. And if it isn’t, re-think.
  2. Walk the Talk: I came across the term ‘double-track’ curriculum at the Principals’ Training Center (PTC), and have embraced it ever since. During a meeting, if you are not modelling the types of things you think make up excellent classroom practice, then, at best, you are sending mixed messages, at worst, you are modelling mediocrity. A simple fix – give your audience something great to steal.
  3. Essential Questions:  What do the people at your meeting already know? What do you want people to learn more about? What are the most engaging ways to close that gap? How will you accommodate the individual differences in terms of readiness, interests and learning profile? If you haven’t thought about most of those questions carefully, then you’ve missed a trick.
  4. The Golden Rule: A variation on the maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by’. Ask yourself, ‘If I was observing this in a classroom, what might I say?’ Long lectures? Not OK. Clumsy visuals? Not OK. Off-topic interruptions? Not OK.
  5. The 3:1 Ratio: Don’t underestimate your singular power to positively influence student learning via the ripple effect that might start in your meeting. Respect this knowledge and your participants’ time. Follow the 3:1 rule – three hours of preparation for each hour of meeting.
  6. Visual Storytelling: Slides are not scripts. Limit the number of words per slide, relying instead on visual metaphor and analogy. Talk to your audience, don’t read to them.
  7. Talk Less, Do More: Tell your story in no more than ten to fifteen minutes. Then, do something. There should be more creation than consumption.

The ideas, summarised here and in a manifesto below:
My Meeting Manifesto

On My Last, Best “No”

At my school, the divisional leadership conducts a transparent survey on various leadership competencies in order to inform divisional goal setting. I think it is excellent practice, not only for informing school leadership about its performance, or, more importantly, perceptions of performance, but also because it provokes reflection on behalf of the responder. I do something similar in my own classroom practice, based on the teacher competencies promoted by Charlotte Danielson and the research done by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation into teacher evaluation. Here are the essential agreements and list of questions that I, and my department, use.

When I responded to the school’s divisional leadership survey this year, I was struck by the following conundrum:

If each year we know how to do a better job, this often, but not always, involves doing more.

If we know more about what we can do to help our students learn and flourish, to what extent are we morally obliged to act on that knowledge, and at what individual cost? Rightly, most educational practice is based on the notion of doing what is best, at any given moment, for student learning. However, I wonder if this concept is dangerously blunt unless schools, as a community, can answer the following:

Do we have a clear communal understanding of what we, as school, value most highly in terms of student learning?

Are there things we should stop doing to focus our finite time, talents and resources on doing what we value most highly?

If yes, do we have the institutional confidence in our shared vision to do this?

If yes, what, and when, is enough?

I wonder if we need to get better, on an individual and community basis, at knowing when to say, “No”, with the understanding that the intention of a “no” is to ensure our skills, time and resources are focused on the projects that matter most for student learning in the context of a school’s vision. I’m trying to think of my last, best “No”… And I’m drawing a blank. I think it’s something I will look into this year.


On the Blindingly Obvious

I’m all for conceptual learning, and understand its importance in enabling students to retain the knowledge, understanding or skills that we believe we are teaching them. Back in early 2012, I re-mixed a video that captures the essence of a keynote speech made by Lynn Erickson at the 2011 IB conference in the Hague on this topic.

The trick, however, with any educational theory is putting it into practice. Last year was the first that the new Middle Years Programme (MYP) Key and Related Concepts were making the rounds in my class. Dutifully, I covered my walls in them, plastered them over assessment documents and unit overviews, and… well, I don’t know, I’m not sure it really came to life.

However, at a meeting before the end of the last school year with my Language and Literature colleagues, it suddenly occurred to me that the MYP Related Concepts, in particular, could work as a great lens to unpack any text, regardless of context. It’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation, and one I’m sure many, many others have already had and acted upon before me, but it felt good to finally catch up with the blindingly obvious. So, for this year, I’ve created a Language and Literature Related Concepts inquiry grid, as you can see below. I’m also going to use it with my IB Diploma Language and Literature students too to act as a point of continuity across language and literature studies in the MYP and DP.

By Phil Bruce. Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA
By Phil Bruce. Attribution-ShareAlike CC BY-SA

Creative Commons License
Language and Literature MYP Related Concepts Inquiry Grid by Philip Bruce is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

For some further blindingly obvious ideas with this resource, why not:

  • Divide up squares around the class, jigsawing responses by row, column or colour, as appropriate.
  • Cut up cards with the related concepts, distribute at random or differentiated for readiness (e.g. intertextuality might be trickier), and have students play just-a-minute or, more simply, think – pair – share.
  • Re-mix the inquiry grid to fit your own needs, e.g. to analyse a source in MYP Humanities or an artwork in MYP Visual Arts. Start by going here.

On Making It Stick

I’ve been reading Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel. In previous years, I’d read and forgotten, or, worse, convinced myself I’d become unconsciously skilled, in whatever the particular contents of my summer professional reading. However, I am mindful of the Conscious Competence Ladder and its implications for keeping your understanding of pedagogy, and your awareness of your own mastery of it, as sharp as possible. Failure to do so means you face the ignominy of slipping from being unconsciously skilled (good!) to being unconsciously unskilled (bad!). So, consciously practicing a bit of elaboration as laid out in the book, find below an infographic summary of the book’s central ideas, and two takeaways for my classroom, one new, one an affirmation of an established practice.

Make It Stick pt1

My summary of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel
My summary of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel

NEW: As mentioned here in my previous post, the “Mix It Up” Kahoot idea was inspired by one of the key learnings from the book that spaced, varied retrieval significantly aids retention of learning.

OLD: I’ll make more use of an activity I came across with the PTC called the “Circle of Shared Enlightenment”. You have students form two circles, one inside the other, with the inside circle of students facing the outside. You then ask one circle of students to retrieve information, elaborate on material, reflect on learning, or summarise understandings to their partner in the other circle. Typically, I insist that while one student speaks, the other actively listens. I also provide varied time limits. You can rotate circles to mix up partners. Examples of some instructions:

“Speak for one minute about the most significant theme in Macbeth.”

“Summarise what you’ve just heard in 30 seconds.”

“Elaborate on the last person’s explanation.”

It’s a variation on any kind of think-pair-share routine, but it gets everyone on their feet and feels more dynamic. To pick up any misconceptions you might miss when wandering around the circle, be sure to debrief the students by asking for questions, or posing your own.

An example of the confused, effortful retrieval that leads to long-lasting learning... Thanks Jon Stewart
The confused, effortful retrieval that leads to long-lasting learning?

On the Merry-Go-Round

Friend: Your holidays started yet?

Teacher: Yes, a few weeks ago.

Friend: Lucky for some, huh.

Teacher: [Pause] I guess so.

Friend: So what is it that you do with all those weeks?

Teacher: Go on holiday for a bit, obviously.

Friend: You get paid for doing nothing?

Teacher: Not nothing. Just different things. I guess it’s a bit like working freelance?

Friend: In that you don’t work at all?

Teacher: Hmmm, well not in the traditional, Puritan, work-must-be-unpleasant sense. It’s a time for creative renewal, before the merry-go-round starts again.

Friend: Merry-go-round?

Teacher: Yep, it’s the curse of teaching, that Groundhog Day paradox of “getting to do it again” and “having to do it again”.

Friend: What?

Teacher: Well, presuming I’ve reacquired sufficient patience needed to see it through, and the law of unintended consequences doesn’t brutally intervene, there are five things I’m going to evolve this year.

Friend: Five?

Teacher: Yep.

Friend: Do you know what, I don’t care. I’ve had my holiday for this year, and it’s my Saturday. Want a drink?

Teacher: Sure.

Merry-go-'round by Greg Westfall licenced under CC by 2.0
“Merry-go-’round” by Greg Westfall licenced under CC by 2.0

My Merry-Go-Round Five

  1. Shared vision. Provide a year long map of the year for the students in a live Google Doc.
  2. Mix it up. Keep coming back to the essentials, using fortnightly quizzes with Kahoot. The rules? After I model the first one, students are placed on a yearlong rotation in pairs to create a five question quiz on content studied in the previous weeks. If the students want it, I’ll run a yearlong leaderboard in Google sheets.
  3. Read more. Students will sign up for a Goodreads account to record and share books. Alongside weekly DEAR (Drop Everything and Read), there will be fortnightly Hot Reads, when, on rotation, a student will make a three minute presentation about a great book they’ve recently read.
  4. Write more. Students will establish and experiment with blogging. This will include time, fortnightly, to blog and comment upon each other’s blogs.
  5. Do less, better. To read more and write more, some content will be removed from the year to enrich essential skills and understandings.

Do you have a Merry-Go-Round five?