School Culture Rewired:

How to Define, Assess, and Transform It

“The book is intended to help you better understand the general concept of school culture, learn the strengths and weaknesses of your school culture, and—perhaps most important—influence your school culture or, if necessary, shape a new one,” so write Gruenert and Whitaker in the opening of School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It (2015, p. 3). The authors explain what to do, what to expect, and what things to look out for when trying to improve or change your school’s culture.

Gruenert and Whitaker pose the fundamental question: “Is school culture something we can predict and control, or does it control us? Put another way: Is it the sentry at the door or the monster under the bed?” (p. 17). The book presents strategies for ensuring your school’s culture is healthy and adaptable to change.

Cultural changes are difficult to put into practice because they involve people, and people are not as cooperative as things. The culture of most schools is the status quo. People are satisfied with the way things are, and thus, prefer not to change. Consequently, cultural changes are more difficult to articulate, to implement, and to assess; however, when the administration and teachers collaborate and work together as a team (Amos 3:3), even though some teachers may not fully understand the worth of a change initiative, the change is usually a positive one for the school.

Gruenert and Whitaker’s observation on structural and cultural change is insightful: “The effectiveness of a new culture depends on the strength of the people behind the change and the strength of the pre-existing culture” (p. 4). Emphasizing the importance of teachers in the rewiring of a school’s culture, the authors assert that “when teachers feel they are making a professional contribution to their school, they enjoy their work more” (p. 71).

In conclusion, Gruenert and Whitaker focus on the importance of school leadership in bringing about needed change. Change never happens without a visionary leader, whether in the school or in the classroom. Effective leaders focus on future opportunities and use problems and past failures as stepping stones to future successes.

Reading this book will give insight for how to approach rewiring the culture of your school. Although Gruenert and Whitaker write from a secular perspective, Christian school educators can gain ideas for how to improve our Christian schools and better educate our students for the cause of Christ.

What are some ways you can improve your Christian school?

Resource

Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Copyright Journal for Christian Educators, Fall 2016 edition.  Reprinted with permission of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Watch out for the Either/Or Trap

I continue to see articles comparing teacher-led and student-centered learning.  While not rising to the level of the chicken or egg, the discussion about how to structure the classroom learning environment continues.  Many educators fall prey to the temptation of either/or, failing to achieve balance in the classroom; research shows that classrooms need active student learning to improve achievement.  Are you intentionally seeking to improve student engagement and create an active learning environment in your classroom?

In the traditional classroom, information largely flowed from teacher to student. Students had a smaller portion of designated work time to absorb and apply the knowledge gleaned from the teacher.  The problem is the skew towards teacher-led instruction, with averages often above 75 to 80 percent of allotted class time devoted to teacher talk time.

The truth is that students only stay engaged in listening for short bursts of time. One study I saw recently noted that students could recall about three-fourths of what the teacher taught in the first 10 minutes of a class; however, retention dipped to 20 percent of material presented in the last 10 minutes.

Jensen (2005) noted in his Teaching with the Brain in Mind that appropriate amounts of direct instruction time for kindergarten to adults only varied from 5-18 minutes.  While lower grade levels obviously have much shorter attention spans, Jensen found that direct instruction time for new content even for high-school age students should not exceed 15 minutes.

So what are you doing to improve student engagement in your classroom?

Here are a few reminders as you plan upcoming lessons:

  • Plan multiple short bursts during the allotted instruction time. Research shows student achievement and retention increase when instruction is segmented into smaller, “bite-sized” time frames. Early childhood teachers should think in burst of 5-8 minutes, grades three to eight in segments of 8-12 minutes, and high school teachers 12-15 minutes.

 

  • Plan multiple types of activities designed to engage various learners. Like Peter in encouraging believers to “add” to their faith, virtue; to virtue, knowledge; etc., teachers should add to their verbal (linguistic) approach, visual (pictures, images, objects); and to visual, aural (auditory) or music; and to aural, kinesthetic (physical).

 

  • Plan multiple strategies to deliver important concepts. Teachers should remain aware of how students are grasping concepts so that concepts can be repeated, reinforced, or perhaps lessons can be accelerated when students “get it.”

Some say that “variety is the spice of life.” Some educators, however, seem to take refuge in “consistency;” change and variety seem to scare them.  Immutability is part of the nature of our God; however, it should not be part of our instructional model.

Are you intentionally structuring learning activities in your classroom to control the teacher speak time?  What learning activities are you including in your instructional planning to increase student engagement?  What instructional strategies do you find effective in reducing students entering a zombie state?

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 2 of 4

What are the unique qualities all great schools share? We have observed that schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  We can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers. This should be reduced to a very short statement, such as “Know, Love, and Serve Christ”. If we fail to train our students to serve Christ and to lead in the workplace and the churchplace, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will soon cease to be relevant or matter very much at all.

The second is a clear MISSION – to enroll, educate, and equip tomorrow’s leaders. Attracting these young people is a “marketing” strategy in business terminology: our students are the very best advertisement for our school and word-of-mouth is the most effective recruitment tool.  Providing incentives for our friends to recommend the school to others is appropriate and productive – as long as prospective parents see in our students what they desire for their own children: Godly people of inner character and outer kindness.

Once they enroll, we must provide a solid academic education, and that means something traditional at its core but relevant in its content and delivery. Students need a broad and deep liberal arts education, and the STEM courses are essential if the secondary and even the elementary schools are to be competitive. Upperclassmen, for example, expect dual enrollment offerings. Christian educators need to know what is available to students in the ever-expanding variety of public schools.

Of course we need to insure that our Bible curriculum teaches content and doctrines.   But we had better be emphasizing and integrating a Biblical worldview through which to understand the other courses we teach.  Kids can retrieve this and infinitely more with two clicks on an iPhone.  We must teach them to read critically and to discern Biblically.  Bible worldview must be integrated on every grade level and for every subject (the writer will share his “Blue Papers” upon request), including math, and should culminate in a capstone senior course.  Graduates need such training in order to defend their faith and to attack error.

The fine arts, in particular music, are ministry tools and life skills. We must provide all the instruction possible on every grade level.  Additionally, intramural and interscholastic competition teach Christian conduct in a pressure-cooker unavailable in the classroom.  We need to do more with younger children.  Arts and athletics contribute mightily to a well-rounded, useful graduate.  They help us complete our mission.

Part 1: Mandate (Feb.21)         Part 2: Mission (April 18)          Part 3: Method (Coming soon)         Part 4: Remember the children (Coming soon)

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 1 of 4

We have already defined the characteristics of an excellent teacher and one might assume that a great school is simply a collection of great teachers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many great teachers do NOT a great school make, and some great schools have few great teachers.  So, what are the unique qualities all great schools share?

Schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  That being said, we can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers.  For our school, it is simply “Equipping Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders”.

We believe in the depths of our soul that almost all the leaders of the church 20 years from now are sitting in Christian school classrooms and home school study areas today.  For decades our churches, colleges, missionary force,  and day schools have been aging and decreasing in size and number. If we fail to train our students to lead, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will cease to matter very much.

So we teach them that there is no difference whatever in the value of God’s calling to churchplace vis-à-vis workplace ministry.  We show them this principle in the Bible from the lives of Moses, Daniel, and many others.  We model it by having church members in business and the professions speak in our chapels. We also invite school parents in the professions, and sometimes believers not connected organically with the school, to inspire the kids.  When Christians exercise political influence, we have a much better chance of living quiet and peaceable lives.

Training the next generation of leaders

The next mayor of North Charleston has to go to high school somewhere.  Why not this school?  So does the governor, congressmen and senators, supreme court justices – listen, the president of the United States will go to high school somewhere.  Why not my school?  How literally awesome would it be to have dozens of men and women like Asa Hutchinson in Washington!  The faculty must live and breathe this high expectation for every student, and the kids must embrace it.  This is the first hallmark of a great school.

Should You Be “The Sage on The Stage”?

Thoughtful educators continuously engage in reflective practice.  They read professional journals and articlesTeacher reading to class of teenagers (14-16) about education.  They listen to their students and the parents of those children.  They evaluate their instructional methods and classroom practices in light of classroom or school-wide assessments, standardized test scores, and other measures of student progress.  They are aware of current trends in education, and they weigh the value of new methods and tools for student learning.  They reflect on their practices and their beliefs about education, and they strive to make their classroom the very best place for meeting the very individual needs of the children God sends to them and parents entrust to their teaching and care.

Be a Critical Thinker

Thoughtful Christian educators engage in reflective practice but reject many of the practices of progressive American education because the practices and the principles those practices reflect conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Recently, Education Week published a blog by Maya Thiagarajan that questioned some of those progressive principles and practices.  Maya is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  I am going to consider each of the “five truths” in a series of posts, beginning with the third in Maya’s list.

Role of the Teacher

Truth #3: Good teachers are always “the guide on the side.”  No good teacher should be “a sage on the stage.”…With phrases like “sage on the stage,” American educational rhetoric literally ridicules the idea that a teacher has wisdom to offer young kids.  In every way, the rhetoric exhorts teachers to stay on the sidelines and play only a facilitating role while empowering kids to take the lead.

While I think that playing the role of a guide or facilitator has its place in a 21st century classroom, I’ve also started to think deeply about the Singaporean belief that the elder not only has wisdom to offer the child, but also has a responsibility to be front and center in the child’s life.

When I read American rhetoric exhorting teachers and parents to empower children by giving them more choices and greater freedom (and in the process, less explicit guidance), I can’t help but wonder whether it makes sense to marginalize the role of the elder.  When we let machines and peer culture teach our children, aren’t we devaluing our own wisdom and expertise?  Aren’t we abdicating a central responsibility that the elders in communities around the world have performed for millennia?  Don’t children benefit from some explicit guidance?  And shouldn’t there be some times when we are “the sages on the stage”?  (Thiagarajan, 2016)

What is a Sage?

Consider the meaning of sage—a wise and venerated elder.  Consider the pattern of learning repeatedly emphasized in Scripture—an elder (parent, grandparent, pastor, teacher) instructing, guiding, and mentoring one who is younger and/or uninstructed in truth.  Consider the example of Christ with His disciples.  Isn’t it apparent, then, that Christian school teachers should be the “sage on the stage” in their classrooms?  If you think that means a daily lecture in every discipline where students are passive listeners to your continual droning, then I pity the children in your classroom.  If you think that means a classroom without digital resources, online connections, and multi-sensory experiences for learners, then you are misunderstanding the real meaning of sage.

If your classroom is a place where you wisely direct active learning experiences for your students, connect to digital and online resources that enrich and reinforce student learning, share your knowledge of a subject with engaging lecture that sparks student questions and discussion about significant topics, and lovingly shepherd children and teens through their many social, emotional, and spiritual crises – then I think you truly understand what it means to be “the sage on the stage.”

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

This article will be included in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal for Christian Educators, a publication of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Upcoming Articles

Five week Series

We are excited to announce that Dr. Jeff Walton will be writing a five-week series for us at FOCUS.  Each week Jeff will be discussing a “universal education truth” for educators in today’s world. The first post will be discussing the role of the teacher in his/ her classroom.

Get to know Jeff

He serves as the executive director of the American Association of AACS staff member, Jeff Walton, photo by Hal Cook, 2015Christian Schools headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators. He has served in Christian education ministries for 33 years as a high school teacher, school administrator, college administrator, and association officer.

 

How to Be an Eternal Thinker

For a society that seems enamored with futuristic thinking, the youth of the present generation could be described as excessively fixated on the present.  In spite of the media bombardment that casts dispersion on

global-thinkingthe past and glorifies the unknown beyond, educators work daily with young people that seem to embrace the here and now.

The secular educational culture of the 21st century seeks to develop global thinkers.  In a recent article published in Educational Leadership, Veronica Mansilla, part of a team from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, discusses “ongoing research into global competence and how we can best nurture it in our schools.”  She explains that a significant outgrowth of the project has been the establishment of a definition of global competence that has been embraced on multiple continents and by the U. S. Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO):  the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.”

As I read the article, I questioned the goals for Christian education.  What kind of attention and effort is given to develop eternal thinking?  As I read on, I realized that as Christian educators called to live in this present world, we are also called to develop eternal thinkers.  Mansilla stated confidently that “nurturing global competence will require more that adding more [content] to our already full K-12 curriculum.”

In order to achieve global thinking, Mansilla proposed that educators cultivate four global thinking dispositions into their students—

  • A disposition to inquire about the world
  • A disposition to understand multiple perspectives—others’ and their own
  • A disposition toward respectful dialogue
  • A disposition toward taking responsible action

Mansilla continued to explain that to assist teachers in help teachers succeed in the quest to develop global thinkers, her group is working to develop global thinking routines.  Why?  Because research screams that “students cultivate dispositions not through occasional lessons, units, or . . . events, but through ongoing participation in classroom cultures in which these dispositions are visibly valued and extensively practiced.”

The author’s concluded “when teachers make these routines habitual practices—part of “the way we do things here”—they pave the way for the kind of learning need[ed] to prepare . . . youth for our interdependent world.”

Wow!  I conclude that Mansilla in “spot on” in her message.  To develop global thinkers, the secular educational system is diligent in integrating global dispositions into the fabric of the secular classroom, and it will be successful.  The system will produce global thinkers.

But what about Christian educators?  How focused are we on developing eternal thinkers.  Are we distracted from the quest to produce students that “seek first the kingdom of God?”  Have we become so focused on teaching material and educational excellence (and I understand that both of these have merit) that we have lost sight of the eternal mission of our calling?

As I reviewed Mansilla’s four dispositions, I found a renewed energy to develop eternal thinkers.  Truly, if our students “gain the whole world” and do not learn to think with eternity in mind, the educational process is vanity.  What “routine habitual practices” are a part of our Christian education classroom that will ensure that we develop eternal thinkers?  We can succeed, but we must be intentional in our efforts.  Eternity is at stake!

Can you share a disposition(s) for developing eternal thinkers that you have made part of your classroom or school?

 

Mansilla, V. B.  December 2016/December 2017.  Educational Leadership.  How to be a global thinker?  ASCD:  Alexandria, VA.

Principles For Crafting Effective Report Card Comments

Words Fitly Spoken

Proverbs 25:11 reminds us that a “fitly spoken” word is a beautiful thing!  Nowhere does this hold true more than in report cards comments.report-card

Teachers often find writing report card comments to be a daunting and dreaded task.  And, certainly, there are some pitfalls to avoid.  However, a well-crafted report card comment can bless our students and families.

Here are some principles for crafting effective report card comments.

Say something specific.  General comments like “Johnny is a good student” or “Sally needs to focus more” are too general to be helpful.  Be specific with comments, such as “Johnny consistently does his work and engages in class discussion” or “Sally is often distracted by extra materials on her desk.”

Keep it simpleKeep your sentences short and your word choice intentional.  If you haven’t conferenced with parents before, you should shortly after they read this comment.  Allow you comment to summarize a previous conference or set the agenda for a future conference.  A report card comment should not explain concerns in detail.

Compliment thoughtfully.  Comment on what makes the student different from other students.  Parents are encouraged when teachers share what they see in their child.

Choose one or two “opportunities for improvement.”  Word your comment carefully to help students and parents recognize weaknesses as opportunities.  For example, “Sixth grade offers Suzy the opportunity to strengthen her organizational skills.”

Make a target suggestion or goal.  Give parents and students hope by offering specific suggestions.  The sentence above about Suzy might be followed by “Getting her daily agenda initialed by teachers every day would be a great place for her to start.”

Keep comments student-focused.  Don’t refer to yourself too often.  A well-crafted comment often never contains the word “I.”  Instead of “I enjoy teaching Ralph” (too general and too teacher-focused), try “Ralph’s curiosity makes him a joy to teach.”

If in doubt, don’t.  Report cards follow students throughout their educational career.  If you are in doubt about the content or tone of a comment, don’t use it.  Seek advice from a colleague or administrator and try again.

Do you find writing report card comments daunting?  What have you learned as you’ve undertaking this challenging task?

 

Excellence without Excuses

School has been is session for approximately 9 weeks. Have you stopped to give yourself a self-evaluation? Take time this week to self-evaluate to make sure you are doing everything excellencewith excellence. Aristotle once said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Check your habits against these ten indicators to see if you are doing the small, day-to-day actions with excellence.

  • EXUBERANT – The American Heritage Dictionary defines exuberant as “full of unrestrained high spirits; abandonedly joyous; growing or producing abundantly”. Does this describe your testimony, attitude, spirit, or public relations style? Would colleagues describe you this way? I Corinthians 15:58 reminds us that we are always to “abound in the work of the Lord”.
  • X-RAY VISION – Have an “eagle eye” at all times. Continuously observe the countenance, demeanor, body language, and friend choices of your students. This will tell you how to help and encourage your students.
  • COMPASSION – Be considerate of parents and students. I John 4:11 states, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” Are you even-tempered? Do you love and listen to your parents and students? John 21-22 reminds us to “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference.”
  • EQUIPPED FOR THE DAY – When the day starts, are you ready for it? A teacher should be equipped for the day spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, and professionally. Do whatever it takes to be ready for the day when it starts. Ho Boon Tiong reminds us that “The more you prepare outside class, the less you perspire in class. The less you perspire in class, the more you inspire the class.” Being prepared and equipped for the day should be routine. John Maxwell reminds us that “You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
  • LEADER – Teacher-leaders should always be credible in what they say and do. Is your message reliable? Cooperative and flexible should also be attributes of a good leader. And a leader must work well with others in a collegial manner.
  • LIFE-LONG LEARNER – A teacher must be a life-long learner…always thirsty for more knowledge. Teachers need to be professional readers in order to stay fresh and vibrant in the classroom. Dr. William Glasser reminds us that “Getting the job done, even done well, is good enough for nonprofessionals, but continually improving the way the job is done both for themselves and others is the hallmark of professionals.”
  • ENERGIZED – An energized teacher shows excitement for the content material, takes pleasure in teaching, demonstrates involvement in learning activities outside school, and practices energizing others. Check your vocal delivery, word choice, humor, eye movement, facial expressions, gestures, movement, and energy level. Have variety in your delivery style. Our message is too important to bore students with it.
  • NEEDS-ORIENTED – Teaching with excellence means that you recognize the needs of students and can differentiate for them. “Effective teachers recognize that no single instructional strategy can be used in all situations.” One size doesn’t fit all! Anita Turner reminds us that “A great teacher has the ability to present a delectable assortment of activities or lessons that will satisfy even the most finicky intellectual, emotional, and social appetite.”
  • CREATIVE – Imagine what good teaching looks like, and do it! Be creative! Do not let inhibitions scare you from being creative. Get out of your box! Creativity makes a lesson exciting and memorable for a student.
  • EXEMPLARY – The American Heritage Dictionary defines exemplary as “one that is worthy of being copied”. Are you worthy of being copied in word and deed? The Bible tells us that whatever we do in word or deed, we are to do all to the glory of Christ. John Maxwell reminds us that “You are what you do daily.”

Teachers that strive for excellence do the small things well, care about others, constantly improve themselves, and give it their all! Willa Foster wrote that “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” Autograph each day with excellence.

Religion and Education

Religion is inherently educational, and education is inherently religious.

muslim-children

Photo Source: Wikipedia

In order to survive and flourish, all religions demand an educational component.  This is true of false religions as well as of Christianity.  Religion is inherently educational.

Militant Muslims

Muslims train and teach their children to become accustomed, willing, and in fact eager to commit the most barbaric acts imaginable to please Allah.  They plan to eliminate all other religions and create a global caliphate.  They intend to begin this themselves and for their children to complete the task.

Judaism and Christianity

Judaism and Christianity are thoroughly educational. Our Lord Jesus could have chosen to come to earth as a scribe, a Pharisee, a tax collector, a farmer, a shepherd, or some other kind of professional or manual laborer.  His choice was to be known as “a teacher come from God”, often called “Rabbi.”

The last words He spoke to us were “Go . . . teach all things”.  This is not “the great suggestion”: it is the great commission.  2 Timothy 2:2 describes this as a process: “the things that thou has heard of me . . . the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.”  Paul teaches Timothy, Timothy teaches faithful men, faithful men teach other faithful men, and so on until a faithful link in the chain teaches us.

All Education Systems

Just as important, but much more subtle, all education is inherently religious.  In other words, we educate for a reason.  We educate children in order to perpetuate our worldview, our culture, our religion.

We observe this in literature: every novel, short story, and poem is written with an educational purpose.  That’s why literature is so powerful, for good or for evil.  Art for art’s sake does not exist.

When Nathan had to confront David regarding his great sin, he was putting his life in danger.  He disarmed David by telling him a short story that stirred his righteous indignation.  The king determined the appropriate response, painting himself into a very small corner.

The process simplified is that literature disarms, engages, and persuades.  Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan precisely for this reason with the same outcome.  He often used parables in this way.

Insightful, alert English teachers play a critical role in Christian education.   How valuable they are!

Education may not appear to be religious and may even insist that it is thoroughly secular.  Me thinks they do protest too much.  Secular humanism is, of course, a religion.

Be not deceived:  Religion is inherently educational, and education is inherently religious.