Middle and High School Culture - Simple Things You Can Do to Enhance It

These are some of the things I do daily/weekly/yearly to help foster a positive classroom culture.

Greeting Circle: I have my colleague Patrick to thank for this but on the first day of the week, we sit in a circle and we take turns answering a question about themselves. Some great examples of this are, "what super power do you wish you had?", "what word do you wish could be deleted from the English Language," or "if you were given one million dollars but had to give it away what would you do," (more great circle starters can be found in books like The Book of Questions).
In order to be effective (not take up a whole class period) you want to phrase the questions so they can be answered quickly in a sentence or less. There are also 5 rules of greeting circle that keep it respectful and sacred:
      1. No talking when others are talking.
      2. Do not comment on what others have said (even laughing is considered commenting)
      3. Share seriously so others feel comfortable sharing seriously.
      4. Use your Jamba Juice voice. I managed a Jamba Juice at one time and part of the training was helping new team members be loud enough to be heard by anyone.
      5. You may pass once but we will come back to you.
             Some weeks the conversation is silly and lighthearted, some weeks it is somber and deeply reflective. But it is always powerful and a good use of time. The first couple of times it may take a little longer but if you are hard and fast on the rules it should take no more than 10 minutes.

Chair Ceremony: I have a very nice chair that the school purchased for me but just does not work for my back. The students were always asking if they could use it so I devised a little ceremony on Fridays that incorporated this as well as contributing to our culture. The first week I announce that someone in this class has really helped make this class a better place for people, then I will say a couple of examples. That student then receives the chair to sit in for the entire week. The next week that student will perform the same ceremony and pass it on to a new student. A couple of key points are:

  • This is for culture not necessarily academics so it is not about best test score etc.
  • If you don't want to give up your chair feel free to use something else that is awesome.
  • After the official chair ceremony, I ask the students to honor others who have contributed to the class/school culture and made their week better. Often I have to pause for a minute while they reflect. I ask them to keep the ceremony sacred and not simply give shout-outs to their friends and they must say something more specific than "he is nice".
  • This ceremony takes about 10 minutes tops once a week, but with News and media bombarding us with all the negative things in our world, I think it is worth it to highlight the good that people are doing.
Content Conversations or Geek Time: Geek has typically been applied to technology fanatics but it is actually a more general term applying to anyone who is exceptionally good or interested in a certain topic. So there are Football Geeks, Spanish Literature Geeks, Computer Geeks, and the list goes on forever. If you just became aware by reading that last sentence that you are a geek, welcome to an awesome club. 

You are most likely paid to teach a particular curriculum and adhere to very specific standards. Once in a while (I will leave the frequency to you), I encourage you to geek out with your students. The science/math curriculum in particular takes a few years to update itself with all of the new advances and so you might love Black Holes, Quantum Mechanics, or a new technology but there is no established time to talk about it in your class. Whether it come up from a conversation, an article that you ask them to read, a YouTube video, please take the time to have a conversation about it. 

Students will feed off of your interest and energy and they might discover an interesting topic that they never knew about. You will form powerful connections with your students. I understand that if you did this too often you would fall behind or gain a potentially negative reputation so you need to be mindful about how you do it but please do it.

Note: If you don't have anything you can geek out about. I encourage you to immediately go to your bookstore/library and find something of interest (just wander around). BBC has incredibly interesting documentaries you can look at. Check out your local paper for groups or meetup.com to connect with others. No one should just go through life without something they are passionate about, and your students want to see you passionate about something.

Puzzles: I love puzzles and I have one up weekly in order to challenge my students. You can have one that is academically challenging as well but I also try to have puzzles that can be figured out and understood by anyone so the class culture is enhanced. This helps students see that math, science, literature is as fun as you consider it to be. You can find a tremendous number of puzzles online (I would suggest you slightly change the wording or your students will find them too), there is also great show on NPR if you get it called A Way With Words which provides a weekly puzzle as well.

Clean Up Procedure: Whether or not you work with power tools like my math/physics students, classrooms can get pretty messy. I discuss the Broken Window Theory with my students to stress how important it is to their learning that we keep our room clean. We spend the last 10 minutes of every class cleaning up my room. If you do not work with tools or computers you could shorten that a bit I suppose but it really makes a difference for students to come into a clean put together classroom. 

My jobs include computers, floor, desks, lab equipment, calculators, notebooks, etc with a description of each. There is also a supervisor who ensures that others do their jobs. The supervisor checks that each job is done and when they believe they are all done, they come to me and tell me that it is done. I excuse the other students and the supervisor will stay and clean up anything that isn't finished. This plus the rotation of the jobs each week ensures that the students do their jobs well and that my room is put back together. The supervisor allows this all to happen without me needing to be involved, which provides me an opportunity to prepare my classroom for the next group of students.

Saying Hello: Seems obvious but you would be amazed at how your relationship with your students will change if you hold the door open for them and greet them each morning by name.

One-on-One Conversations: Student are human beings, they are not just a GPA and every time they do not turn in an assignment or come late, there is a reason. Even if you think the reason is silly, they do not. Rather than acting in a vacuum and creating frustration with your students, seek them out and have a discussion. Some thoughts to consider:
  • Don't make it about a specific assignment, make it about the person. Instead of saying, "Why didn't you turn in your  homework," perhaps you can ask them how they are feeling, are they really busy, how is the family, etc. A student who was typically doing well in my class, stopped turning in work. I asked him how things are and he told me a lot about how things are frustrating at home. Our students are human beings just like you with stress, concerns, hopes, and dreams.
  • Try and have a conversation with all of your students at some point. All students regardless of their grade or status deserve to be heard and supported. Conversations should initially be a few minutes long so you can have more depth than one word answers.
Class Discussions: I try at least once a semester to have a class discussion about my class and school in general. You can do it sooner if you need to as Anne blogged about here. It can be as meaningful as you are willing to be open to. The conversation should focus on getting their collective opinions and thoughts on how a test went, a policy is working, a news story that impacts them, etc. They are already talking about it outside your class, the question is do you want to be a part of that conversation?

Habits of the Heart and Mind:
At our school our culture stems from our adoption of the Habits originally created at Central Park East Secondary Schools (CPESS) in Harlem by Debbie Meier and her faculty. The Habits are Refinement, Evidence, Mindfulness, Perspective, Perseverance, Cooperation, and Compassion. I will do another post about these in the future.

Isn't this obvious/Why do we need to do this?
You are right, many of these things are what you would do anyway with other people and perhaps you already do it in your classroom. However, many classrooms focus so much on the content and the impending standardized tests that they believe there is no time to acknowledge your student's personhood. I can tell you that your students will be happier and more able to do a great job if they know that you care and you will be able to better serve them if you are aware of what is going on in their lives.

If you have any additional suggestions for what works well in your classroom, please leave a comment!