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I hate to do this, but... Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines culture as, "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization."
Why would I commit this writing 101 travesty? Because it seems as if a lot of schools do not truly understand what culture is.
Before I talk about what culture is, and how to build it in a classroom and school community, let's talk about what culture isn't. Culture is not Silly Sock Day, Crazy Hat Day, Pajama Day, or Ice Cream Sundae Day. Can these be fun for kids? Sure. Should schools be joyful spaces? Absolutely. But, ultimately, these types of events are a poor substitute for an intentionally crafted school culture, because they do nothing to reflect the "shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices" of a school community.
Customs Build Culture
Culture is created through intentional, consistent customs. Customs by definition need to happen again and again either daily, weekly, monthly, or annually. In a school, these customs should be anchored in the school's vision. What does learning look like and feel like in this school? How do students engage with each other, their teachers, and their community in this school?
In my classroom, we start each day with a morning meeting. We spend five to fifteen minutes each day more or less the same way. We begin with a greeting chosen by one of the kids. Then we review our learning goals for the day. After that, depending on the day we may do a short meditation, discuss an event in the news, play a team builder, or do an activity from GoNoodle.
Morning meetings help shape a culture in our classroom where we try to welcome and include everyone, we care about our learning, but also care about each other beyond our "school selves." Over the years I've relied mainly on the Responsive Classroom's publications to implement morning meetings, but there are many other resources for all age groups. Morning meetings or circles can look different from class to class or school to school, but when done thoughtfully, they can do a lot to build a positive culture.
Another ritual in our classroom is celebrating students' work with "publishing parties." These parties are meaningful to our culture in several ways. First, it sends a message that students' work matters. By sharing their work with an audience, whether its the principal, family members, or 1st graders, students can see a bigger purpose for their writing. Secondly, we are creating a culture where we celebrate effort. They have labored on a math concept or a writing piece for weeks. Let's celebrate that! It also creates space for kids to share and reflect on their work.
While morning meetings and publishing parties mostly happen at the classroom level, your school should hopefully have at least one school-wide tradition. Whether it's an anti-bullying assembly, Field Day, or a Black History Month celebration, there must be opportunities for your whole school community to come together around an event or topic that really matters to the kids, teachers, and families. At a previous school community of mine, they host a Multicultural Potluck each year. Families bring in dishes from the Philippines, Japan, Italy, Mexico, Senegal, and many other places that are a part of the diverse fabric of the school community. Diversity is one of the many things that makes this school special. It's logical then that one of their school traditions honors this.Diversity is one of the many things that makes this school special. Click To Tweet
Culture is a Whole School Project
I'm not opposed to fun for fun's sake. Silly Sock Days can be a little way to brighten up a school year. But if you really want to create a culture that says that learning is joyful, meaningful, communal work, silly socks won't do that. Find ways to create customs and traditions that send this message implicitly and explicitly again and again. Most of all, these customs need to be school-wide to truly impact culture. Chances are you already have certain customs in your own classroom. Share them with your colleagues and find out what they're doing as well!
Ultimately, you can create a school culture, or one will create itself. You know you're a part of a powerful positive school culture when an outsider can sense it from the moment they enter your community. They can tell that there's a way things are done in this community that makes it special. To shape this, think about the relationships and the learning in your school. Aren't these what matters the most?
How will you ensure students treat each other kindly? How will you ensure teachers interact respectfully with students and each other? How do you welcome families and community members into the building? How does teaching and learning take place in a way that is meaningful and aligned with your values? It may take time to figure out the answer to these questions, but I can guarantee that it probably won't involve any silly socks.