Summer vacations may just be starting, but they promise to be very short-lived for most teachers. Despite the warmth of a summer sun, there is already a bit of a chill in the winds that swirl around our schools. This is a summer of “curriculum alignment” for most teachers.  Maybe, before these summer planning days melt into autumn realities, it might be a good time to consider an important design question: “Is the work we are about to do really going to result in improved learning or better lives for our students or for us?”

I fear that, as we begin our curricular design work, we are likely to start with a focus that is too narrow to meet our ultimate goals. Most of us are locked into a process that will have us look at our curriculum as it is framed by the four corners of a content-specific framework or syllabus or program guide. We will fret about teaching geometry or Spanish or earth science or British literature. We will worry about aligning the essential units of our courses with the overall content standards that are prescribed for us. We will generate “specific documents” to flesh out “broader documents”, and, for sure, we will end the summer with more paper on our desks and on our shelves.

Of course, we need to do this very specific kind of planning. I am not arguing against that, but I really do wonder if the proper place to begin our designing is with the curriculum itself or if we need to be looking at overall school culture first. In their book, Building an Intentional School Culture: Excellence in Academics and Character, Elbot and Fulton make the point that, “as educators, we tend to focus on improving our school’s curriculum, teacher training, and school leadership. Though we have made significant gains in these areas, we must look at the untapped potential of building an intentional school culture, for it is the school culture that serves as the medium for growing our students and teachers.” ( )

My own teaching experience tells me that school culture is the proper place to begin reform. That is what this post is about. It will not be a post for the squeamish. I am going to describe a real experience I had, and, since this post is read in my home community as well as by some of my former students, I am going to stick as closely as I can to the events as they occurred. I look at my own school (as well as at other schools I have been involved with in both the United States and the United Kingdom), and I have to be honest: the biggest problems I see have less to do with curriculum deficiencies than they have to do with school culture. What I am saying in this post is not a cautionary tale. It is an experience as lived.

I have already written a post about my introduction to constructivist teaching, and I am not going to repeat that here. I will say that I managed to modify my teaching style about midway through my career, and, while it was not an easy task, it was a very rewarding one for me. The experience that I describe here did not happen to a new teacher. It happened to me, a veteran teacher who somehow stumbled into a summer course on experiential learning in the early 1990’s. I know that, when I finished the course that summer, I went back to school really excited about teaching in that way. I was not at all sure that I could do it, but I wanted to.

In the weeks before school that autumn term, I did not align my whole curriculum. I just worked on getting ready for the year, and I only wrote one constructivist lesson plan. I have included that lesson at the end of this post. It was going to be my “make it or break it” lesson. If it worked, I was going to do more with constructivist teaching, and, if it did not work, I was going to put the course in the “interesting but undoable” column of my life and then get back into traditional teaching. I am, at heart, a kind of a perfectionist “either-or” guy, and mediating extremes has not always been a particularly strong suit of mine (but I honestly do try). It would be helpful at this point if you read the lesson at the end of this post now and then return to the next paragraph.


Now, this particular lesson was not all that remarkable. One of the extension activities in the textbook I was using at the time suggested having students design a t-shirt to show the fight with Grendel so I was not being particularly creative with that. I did not like that activity as it was suggested in the text because I wanted to tie it more directly to the objectives that I needed to teach (namely, the characteristics of epic poetry) and I just extended the t-shirt design to include that. I also wanted the students to actually get into the spirit of the task so I played around with the language to get them to see the activity as a bit of fun as well. The language I used to introduce the task might not be for everyone, but I knew the students and I knew that this would appeal to them. I had very specific product standards for the t-shirt because I wanted to be able to say at the end of the lesson that we had actually used that lesson to explore the content of what it was that I was teaching. Finally, since NY state was introducing “new standards” back then for their Language Arts Framework, I wanted the activity to be tied directly to those standards:

In the end, I felt comfortable with the task as planned and went ahead with it.

Despite some apprehensions, I felt that there was a good chance for success. When I distributed the task to the students, I had them read it, and it seemed to be well-received. When I was sure that they understood, I divided them into groups and told them to begin. The class fell apart almost immediately. They got up to move their desks, but they simply banged the desks around and created as much chaos as they could. When they finally got into groups, it took a while for them to even look at each other as they worked. They did use some specialist terms associated with the study of literature, but it is oddly dissatisfying to hear students say, “That is not an example of personification, you fucking asshole”. After a disastrous 20 minutes, I beat a rapid retreat from constructivism and simply put them back into rows and taught the remainder of the class in my traditional style.  It was safe and orderly, but I felt defeated and knew that we were a real long way from the stated standards in my curriculum framework.

Yet, as defeated as I was on that particular afternoon, I was strangely committed to that lesson. I guess if you spend weeks developing only one lesson plan, you would at least like to get to use it. After some coaching and encouragement from my wife, I returned to class the next day and spent an entire class just teaching the students to move their desks into various room arrangements so that at least that much could be accomplished without incident or bodily harm. It hurt to use a complete period for it, but, if they could at least move the furniture in my room around, the options for more active learning would increase. It was not quite the “basics” that I was expecting to return to, but sometimes we have to begin at the beginning. Life is not always fair, but it is almost always real.

Then, I did something that I was not particularly proud of at the time. In fact, I felt a real sense of shame about it then (and still feel a bit of shame now as I type this). It was not something I wanted other teachers to see, and I would certainly not want to have been evaluated on it. What I did was to copy over the same task for the students, but I left out the process bits dealing with ELA Standard 3. Instead, I wrote some simple “success criteria” on the chalk board for how I wanted the process to go:

* Play/ work safe, fair and hard

* Move desks carefully

* Look at each other when you talk

* Do not say fuck

I made sure that the students understood exactly what I wanted from them. The bit that was cultural was the play/work safe, fair and hard. I believed that we needed a community contract in place that would establish a social norm for our interactions. I wanted them to consider safety (both emotional and physical safety). I wanted them to be fair to themselves, to each other and to me. By this, I meant that there were certain rules that had to be followed and that they were as accountable for observing those rules as I was. I wanted them to work hard. Although the task was a little different from my standard assignment, it did not mean that they were any less accountable for doing it. I wanted them to commit to quality performance in whatever we did — whether it was an essay or a t-shirt design. Quality was its own reward. Those rules eventually became the defining “beliefs” for our classroom culture. No matter what we were doing (an individual reading, a pair share, a large group discussion, a test, an essay, a project or whatever), the same community contract applied: Play/work safe, fair and hard. If we could not commit to that much of a learning culture, the rest of what we wanted to do was not of any consequence. I believed that then, and I believe that now.

The students did eventually complete that assignment. They even enjoyed themselves. Once they were done, we had an extended debrief of the entire experience. We spent some serious time in reflection. They spoke about why they enjoyed it and how they needed to do more than to just be “dulled out by English”. They did not want a course where they “just read poetry and wrote about it.” I spoke about what was important to me with the assignment and why it mattered to me. In reality, I believe that they were as ashamed of their first constructivist performance as I was of mine. That debrief was the beginning of who we were as a learning community. It was the start of a much more intentional learning culture that sustained us throughout the year.

I will admit that my “standards” on those first assignments were not really ones that I would encourage others to have. It took time for our culture to evolve so that the state standards could be properly addressed, but, with each debrief, we drew closer to those standards. Students did learn to respect differences of opinions as well as how to give and receive constructive criticism. The reason we were successful, however, had less to do with the curriculum as it was stated in the NYS ELA Framework, and a lot more to do with the culture of the class. Culture trumps curriculum every time in my mind.

I look now at today’s teachers struggling to align curriculum with Common Core standards. I see the same kinds of broad statements that existed some twenty years ago in an earlier effort at reform. I think back to those students who engaged in my first “constructivist” lesson, and I think that, while the rhetoric might have changed, it is still all about “culture”. I am sure that somewhere there exists a classroom where, during the first week of school, a teacher might be able to stand in front of a class and say: “Here is what I want you to do, and I just want to remind you to engage with each other constructively.” However, in too many places, we cannot begin there. In too many places, we have to begin with “Do not say fuck”, and then we work backwards into the lofty language of a curricular document. That is just the reality for too many teachers for us to ignore it. We have to teach students how to engage with each other constructively, how to solve problems, how to think critically, how to manage time, and so on. It does not happen because we write flowery phrases on the assignments that we hand out to them. We teach it in concrete ways and in real settings. We need to begin with where they are and work from “here” to “there”. In real classrooms, sometimes the road to using “specialist vocabulary” in a literary discussion begins with “Do not say fuck.”

I know some things today, however, that I did not know back on that day I first did the Beowful T-Shirt challenge. I know that there has to be an intentional culture nurtured in a classroom for real learning to occur. I know that we must account for that culture in all of our curricular designs. I know that design is not just a front end, top down process. I know that most of what we teach is best learned in reflection after an experience than it is in front end lectures.  I know that more gets accomplished over the course of a full year when we build debrief time into the learning process. I know that we will have more success if we work from real learning experiences as they are lived and then “back” into the grand language of our curricular documents. I know that this is doable.

I think we would do well this summer to extend our design work just enough to provide for the building of an intentional learning culture into our plans. Given our circumstances, I think that the best we can hope for at the moment is that we can transform the culture in individual classrooms. But that is just a patchwork solution to get us past the first steps in reform. Real reform can only occur when we have the wisdom and the tools and the will to address whole school culture.