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Sustaining Strong Classroom Culture Throughout the Year

March 20, 2015 / by Sarah Brown Wessling

For too many years, I used to think my classes would either have good chemistry, or they wouldn't. Sometimes there was a group of students who just clicked, but more often than not, students don't know each other when we begin together. And even though my department offers our students many courses to choose from, they are always filling a requirement when they come to one of my English classes. Some bring their natural enthusiasm, others their implicit skepticism, and at least a few always have to be won over. Finally, I decided to get honest with myself, to take a step back and look at why some classes just "had it" and others didn't. That honest look taught me some careful lessons about class chemistry.

First of all, it wasn't about chemistry at all; rather it was about culture. And when I realized that difference, I realized why some classes clicked and others didn't: I was counting on it to just happen, rather than setting out to create it. Over time I learned that culture is something learned, that we have to work at it, that I have to speak it in order to live it. This week we're highlighting a series of videos that take a look at the lessons I learned.

Strategies to Get Started

Creating culture doesn't require a brand new semester or year, it only requires a fresh state of mind. In fact, I've learned that even when I've worked hard at establishing culture, this is the time of year when I need a good reminder, that I need to bring those habits out of automatic pilot mode and back into the realm of deliberate decision making. With that mindset, let's start with this video -- Building Classroom Culture: Strategies for Getting Started. Watch for a few of the tenets I try to live by when setting out to create, sustain, or re-energize our classroom culture.

Creating Experiences

As I started to focus on the patterns that surrounded productive, positive, sustainable classroom culture, the intersection of authenticity and purpose as a means to create rigor became increasingly clear. What I had learned about rigor in my early teaching days (more of it and faster, which was often toxic to classroom culture), was replaced with much more careful design. In this next video, we'll peek into a sophomore Integrated Language Arts class from early in the school year, where the designing of specific experiences (more so than assigning a task) plays a crucial role in both developing a framework for classroom culture, and deeper learning. As you watch, look for how the lesson design aims for an authentic experience and learning together.

Empowering Learners

It's also important to remember that creating culture isn't best achieved in isolation; rather, it's best achieved when we wrap it around meaningful content and challenging work. Unlike traditional icebreaker activities, this kind of culture is created because our students need each other in order to advance their learning. It's why purposeful experiences that challenge and empower our learners will advance the culture of our classrooms in the most meaningful ways. To think more about this premise, let's take a look at my Pushing the Limits class (an English course option for juniors and seniors), as they work to process and analyze a bundle of texts we'd just read. As you watch, look for the ways in which we're trying to live our expectations of classroom culture.

In my ongoing inquiry for creating and living the kind of classroom culture that empowers and fuels learners, I continue to pay attention to the lessons my students teach me. They want it to be real, they want me to be "all in" with them, and they need to learn together. With this in mind, I hope this playlist reminds you that it's never too late to start building the culture you want.

Topics: Professional Learning, Class Culture, Classroom Experiences, Video Playlist

Sarah Brown Wessling

Written by Sarah Brown Wessling

Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and is the Teacher Laureate for Teaching Channel. Connect with Sarah on Twitter – @SarahWessling.

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