School culture is just as important as teaching practice, but work towards improving them doesn’t occur in a vacuum. In fact, teaching practice gives us an opportunity to build school culture, just as a focus on school culture can improve teaching practice. At the Shanghai American School where I work as an Instructional Coach, we have adopted a mantra in our team “Building Culture By Building Practice.” It has been a force that has driven our work and gives us a focus and meaning as a team.
Recently we asked teachers to partner with us on a professional development experience modeled after the Project Based Learning method. Our school is working on a guaranteed and viable curriculum, but we wanted to approach this process of curricular alignment in a fresh and meaningful way. Instead of taking the “deficit” approach where we communicate “Curriculum is not aligned, so align it,” we decided to focus on make the hidden curriculum visible to all which would lead to a place of refinement and reflection on not only curriculum, but also teaching practice. We answered the question “What is the story of learning” in our middle school. Parents wanted to know, teachers wanted to know, and administration wanted to know. More importantly, we wanted to curate and celebrate the great work teachers are doing everyday with students.
Through this project, 3Cs of school culture (similar to Fisher and Frey’s school culture pillars) have emerged for me and my team – Curation, Conversation, and Celebration:
Stories matter. Both teachers and students want their stories told. It is powerful o document experiences to learn from them. Why else do we watch documentaries? Part of purpose of curation wasn’t simply to have teachers fill out a form. A template doesn’t tell the full story of learning. In fact, simply curating standards, assessments and daily lessons aren’t that inspiring. We decided to curate both student and teacher learning through the use of Discovery Cards. In our Discovery Cards, we the coaches took on the heavy lifting. Instead of having teachers fill out a template, we had discussions with teachers and students. We curated driving questions and the overall description of the project. We also took photos of students engaged in the work to really make the learning come to life. Finally, we curated reflections from teachers and students, as we wanted to tell the story of learning of both teachers and students.
One misunderstanding of our professional learning project was that it was only about the Discovery Cards and Curation. In fact, the cards were a catalyst for powerful conversations. Once we curated one or more cards, we asked teachers to set up a time to engage in a reflective conversation on the project, task or unit we focused on. Teachers reflected on what worked, assessment practices, areas of improvement and more. The coaches helped teachers settled on dilemma or something to tune in protocols that occurred in staff meeting times. In summary, we had more organic, cognitive coaching sessions as well as structured conversations with protocols. Templates don’t align and improve curriculum and instruction, conversations and people do. Focusing on conversations can support a culture of collaboration and reflection.
The coaches knew we need to celebrate the work that teachers did. We decided to work on creating an anthology of learning which would include not only some of the information of discovery cards, but information from other partners and stakeholders. We included comments and questions from parents after they participated in a Gallery Walk of the cards. It included articles from the coaches and what they learned, as well as from administration and what they learned. We wanted teachers to walk away from the school year with a meaningful keepsake, and we will culminate that in a celebration to “book end” the project.
We hope to leverage as much as we can of this model moving forward. We have noticed teachers engaging more with us coaches in reflective conversations and invitations to come and visit classroom. We are also seeing a clear focus on talking about student work, curriculum and instruction. More importantly, we are already seeing a change in school culture. Instead of teaching in silos, we are constantly collaborating, opening our doors, and seeking constant refinement of our daily practice.
Andrew Miller is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? He is currently an instructional coach at Shanghai American School and is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. Miller is also an ASCD Faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development areas, and a regular blogger for Edutopia. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.