Classroom Culture Works When Teachers and Students Construct Norms

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Every other Wednesday, our Eagle Rock School instructional team convenes for a professional development session that revolves around a predetermined annual theme. The theme this year is classroom culture, which rests on the notion that effective teaching and learning best take place in a healthy classroom culture built on high support and high expectations.

Among the founding principles of our organization is the simple idea we are all in this together, and it takes everyone — staff and students alike — all pulling the oars in the same direction to make a place as unique as the Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center truly work. However, in order to effectively pull those paddles, there needs to be a solid foundation of trust and acceptance. We believe this foundation inside the classroom is built on classroom norms, which have a decisive impact on culture.

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Educational researchers Robert and Kana Marzano explain this foundation in their article entitled The Key to Classroom Management (PDF file). They write, “Research has shown us that teachers’ actions in their classrooms have twice the impact on student achievement as do school policies regarding curriculum, assessment, staff collegiality and community involvement.”

We couldn’t agree more! Healthy classrooms help teachers react to the wide array of situations that can arise in a class setting. Co-constructing these norms with students often offers necessary transparency and expectations around in-class behavior and interactions, and allows students to be stakeholders in the classroom environment that is created.

As a result, in the case of Eagle Rock School classes, setting up norms is often one of the first thing our instructors do with each new class.

As a Public Allies Fellow, I recently completed co-teaching a 10-week Research class designed to give students significant independent work time in order to produce high-quality writing. The class typically began with a short mini-lesson based upon topics such as speed reading, note taking, identifying logical fallacies in academic writing, and the construction of a strong thesis statement.

Then, following each mini-lesson, students were given independent work time, and teachers moved throughout the class for individual conferring sessions. I found student success was rooted back to the co-creation of norms built on high support and high expectations. Among these norms:

  • Meet yourself where you are and seek the help that is needed
  • Be here and be present

In order to hold students accountable to these norms, as well as offer support, my co-instructor and myself asked each student to fill out an exit ticket rating — on a scale of one to three — outlining their level of responsibility and engagement for the day.

Our World Languages instructor roots his classroom norms on the ancient Mayan law known as In Lak’ech, which translates to “I am you and you are me.” In this way, Lak’ech is really a statement of unity and oneness that roots students in thinking about how their actions can effect their fellow classmates and the overall culture of their learning environment. This Mayan saying was a core part of their class curriculum, so it was a strong connection to use in building their class norms.

Other norms that instructors at here at Eagle Rock have co-created with their students include:

  • Humor and seriousness are both acceptable behaviors in class, and students must learn when each is appropriate
  • There is one mic in the classroom. Respect the individual who is holding it.

Earlier this year, our professional development focused on building class norms. As the year progressed, we then took it one step further by focusing on restorative practices when those norms break down. Among these practices are the Plan B Cheat Sheet, Principals and Practices of Nonviolent Communication , and Restorative Circles.

In writing Use of Classroom Routines to Support the Learning Process, Catherine Kaser notes that in order to prevent problem behaviors in the classroom, “it is often necessary for teachers to change their own behaviors.”

After attending professional development sessions on classroom culture for the past six months, I am discovering that our effectiveness to build quality classroom culture and norms for our students begins with the culture of adult learning.

This is something that Eagle Rock cultivates for its own instructors. It is a practice that emphasizes teacher development and supports instructors with resources that enable them to be reflective and accountable for their own behavior and effective in the classroom.

As professionals, our own learning development and self-reflection trickles down to our students and can play a crucial role in building a healthy classroom culture built on high support and high expectations.

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Aaron Segura was the 2016/2017 Public Allies Fellow in Curriculum at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colo. There, Aaron worked with teachers in developing creative, interactive learning experiences, and with students to facilitate innovative extracurricular opportunities. Aaron grew up in rural Ohio before attending Clark University in Worcester, Mass., where he received a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Government. Prior to Public Allies at Eagle Rock, Aaron worked as a dorm parent and coach at Oliverian School in Haverhill, N.H.

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