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Culture First: Setting the Table for Deeper Learning

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    Alexis Margolin



Authored by Principal Stephen Mahoney of EL Mentor School The Springfield Renaissance School, this Education Week Learning Deeply blog speaks to the seemingly minor details that make a school run and the drive toward authentic student-centered learning, that when combined in a balanced way, result in a strong school culture.   

Over the 10 years since I founded and have led the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts, where 100 percent of our graduates have been accepted to college, I've learned one truth when it comes deeper learning--school culture matters. And in many ways this is perhaps the most direct way a principal can support teachers and students as they push beyond the limits of textbooks, standardized tests, and the false choice of basic skills or complex curriculum.

At Renaissance, the work on school culture has been focused on finding the right balance between "sweating the small stuff"--the mantra of no-excuses schools--and student-centered authentic curriculum, instruction, and assessment--the meat and potatoes of Expeditionary Learning. While the latter invariably comes with joyful noise, and the former brings to mind pictures of students marching to class in silent and single file, if you look at urban middle and high schools like Renaissance you find that the two are more complementary than they are at odds. You'll also see strong evidence in both students and adults of the challenge, engagement, and the empowerment that characterizes deeper learning.

Challenging a School: Sweating the Small Stuff
So what do we do to strike the right balance? When we launched Renaissance we were, and remain, deeply committed to student-led family conferences, passage portfolios, and senior talks: high stakes authentic, self-assessments that students deliver to public audiences in order to cross the threshold from one stage of their Renaissance career to the next. We realized, quickly, that for these structures to work we had to ensure a school culture that had unusually high levels of trust, empathy, and emotional intimacy. The first task in creating such a culture was to eliminate sources of daily "disorder."

Teachers investigated and designed a small set of school expectations and consequences they felt would have high leverage on student behavior and school culture. The school's sweating the small stuff initiative--ranging from school uniforms for students and professional dress norms for staff, to no food in classrooms, to no bathroom passes during the first and last 10 minutes of 
class--tightened up hallways and public spaces.

Engaging a School: A Culture of Caring and Competence
We also knew that just having the trains run on time was not enough to have a school that embraced deeper learning for all our students. In the classrooms, we developed an instructional checklist for teachers and students to use as they planned and participated in the kind of teaching and learning that sets Expeditionary Learning schools apart from their contemporaries. The checklist was less a script for lesson planning than an articulation of what good teaching and learning looked like.

A key piece to the instructional checklist is the expectation that in every class session teachers and students are paying attention to, and sharing with one another, their performance on our character traits and habits of work. It really is something else to hear tough inner-city teens giving each other shout-outs for courage in the classroom or for assessing and revising their work in front of a group of their peers. We use the checklist as our peer feedback and supervision template, and our kids are as familiar with it as our teachers. You can see the effects of this focus in Julia St. Martin's classroom, which was featured in Libby Woodfin's recent post.

Empowering a School: Making Our Learning Real
Just as importantly, we have always structured our learning through learning expeditions: linked inter-disciplinary investigations of real world issues and dilemmas that answer the age-old question "When am I ever going to use this?" Learning expeditions use fieldwork, collaboration with adult experts, and assessments that model the work of scientists and historians, statisticians and archeologists, businesswomen and policy makers. Expeditions impel students to work with one another in ways that open them up to the various strengths and abilities hidden in the traditional academic classroom (and often more important to life success than the ability to write a five-paragraph essay).

So how do we get at deeper learning at Renaissance? We use a tight, purposeful, and orderly school climate as the starting place for a teaching and learning culture centered around the three Rs--Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships--in an intentional and transparent way. You can see our students exemplifying our focus on these three Rs in the video, "Challenge at the Heart of Deeper Learning."