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Uncommon Culture and Common Core

     Much is being written about the Common Core State Standards and the implied transformation and reformation of public education. For over 20 years, school reform has been a hot topic that has embraced everything from standards and accountability to career technical education to tech integration and more.

     And now, we have a new system that has been embraced by almost the entire nation, state by state. Seemingly, it is a move in the right direction. Under the new standards, the focus is on critical thinking, divergent answers, as well as processes and application. Again, this makes sense. Our previous implementation of standards focused on low-level rote learning that did not allow for in-depth analysis or higher-level learning. Although there are a lot of unanswered questions about the implementation of the CCSS, most have high hopes that it is a move in the right direction – at least in terms of the power of any set of standards.

     There is the rub. How powerful can a set of standards be? Essentially, they are a set of blue prints of what is expected. And naturally, we have to start there. However, we also know that it’s going to take a great deal more than new standards to reform, or better yet, transform education.

     Whether we look at dropout rates, student satisfaction, or maybe yet, employment rates of college grads, we know we need something different in education, especially at the secondary level. We need something that offers students a chance to have a very different educational experience.

     My friend and edupartner Jon Corippo (@jcorippo) always uses the terms “transformational.” Students need to have an education that literally changes, or transforms, their lives. They need something that looks and feel completely different than where they’ve been. Again, this will not miraculously happen from a new set of standards.

     Implicit in the CCSS is the idea that pedagogy will change as well. And with the onset of necessary tech integration, changing employment and career situations, as well as the new standards, pedagogy will have to change. What teaching is and what a teacher does will be very different than many of our traditional definitions. Almost all of the previous trappings of teaching and learning are going to be analyzed and forced to evolve.

     This is really about culture. Traditionally, school culture has only been talked about in limited formats such as school spirit or response to emergency situations. But school culture is really how the day-to-day educational environment functions.

     Culture will define the day-to-day experience for each student. What students really want and need are really reasonable and predictable. They want teachers who care and are available to support them. They want classes and learning to be about their interests, their needs and their goals. They want a system that supports them and helps get to wherever they are going in quality and successful manner. In essence, they wanted relevance, relationships, engagement and rigor (as redefined).

     How do we deliver these expectations in a new 21st century means? It is school culture. Everything that really makes learning possible starts with culture. Are our schools places where teachers care? Are they available and easy to connect with? Are they open to allowing students to pursue individual interests? Do they see themselves as facilitators of individual learning vs. the agents of some sort of innocuous set of standards?

     So, how do we get there? First, we have to make the topic of school culture first and foremost. So, as teachers learn in Teacher College, the importance of educational culture has to be emphasized. When our schools and institutions are being reformed, trained, transformed, etc., school culture has the be a major part of the backdrop. When educators attend professional development, learning or educational culture has be part of that on-going training.

     And what does this really look like everyday? Well, I am fortunate to work at high school that has not only embraced 21st century learning, but also embraced an emphasis on school culture every day. Here are some examples we’ve implemented to have a new and better school culture (don’t know why all schools aren’t trying these and more):

· Cell phones. Most schools ban them. Don’t. Try to figure out how to use them educationally or professionally.

· Staff Contact and Communication. Our staff just publishes our cell phones and other contact info. If educators feel uncomfortable with this, Google Voice is great. But either way, make yourself available.

· Social Media. Again, most schools just ban and ignore. We can’t ignore, ban or dismiss things that are changing the world. Indeed, figure out to use them educationally and professionally. Our school wants students to communicate with us so we don’t care if that’s a text, e-mail, phone call, instant message on social media or in person. This idea of teachers not connecting with or communicating with their students is archaic. We work together and therefore need to know how to contact one another. By the way, Facebook could easily be every school’s best newsletter. That’s just one example and there are many more.

· Student Surveys. We’ve done this in college for years, but usually at the end of the course. Good teachers have done these for years in a variety of ways. Bottom line is that we should be regularly asking students for feedback on their educational experience. Teachers need to be able to listen to their students about their needs and then adjust accordingly. That is mastery teaching and students have great ideas. Our school does this quarterly for all students and all classes. With tools like Google Forms, Survey Monkey and others, this is so easy. We need to ask often and adjust often as well.

· Old School vs. New (Nu) School. Many of the institutional elements of education are just bygone traditions that have not changed with the times. For me, it’s the library. Most high schools have large empty libraries that are kept perfectly quiet. Not many want to go there. They are not friendly, social or welcoming. Our school has a Media Lounge. Not only does it have books and wireless Internet, but it also features snacks, event sales, tutoring, school supplies, information, events, guest speakers and more. It’s our cultural center. School libraries could be cultural centers. But if they are quiet tombs with the quintessential librarian vs. being more like Starbucks or Barnes & Noble, then they won’t be.

· Break from the Norm/No Fear. Schools have largely become a place where all staff and students are afraid to try new things, suggest new ideas and more. Magic will only occur when the veil of fear is lifted. We have to allow teachers and students the chance to try that wild idea or go for that crazy project. We have to allow all stakeholders to dream big and go for it. At our school, it has been everything from a school wide lip dub day, all school field trip and activity day, backwards schedules, etc. Routines and norms are ok and necessary, but schools need to regularly break from them as well.

· Belief in Students / Trust in Students. As we move to more individualized and real-world projects or learning experiences, we’re going to need to trust our students. We need to back up their ideas and allow them to go for it. At our school, this has been things like our Senior Legacy Experiences (our version of the senior project) or even the idea of Student Project Coordinators. Instead of TA’s who just make copies and run errands, we have students who lead classes. They are assistant teachers and facilitators who lead groups, run sessions, assistant students one-on-one

     These are just a few examples of how one school has addressed and prioritized school culture. It can certainly be implemented in a variety of ways depending on any school’s individual culture and goals. But the key is that it is emphasized. If it’s a passing comment here and there, then it’s not part of the educational mission. Regardless of the standards or pedagogy, only a positive school culture will deliver real 21st century results.


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