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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Designing a Classroom Culture

Middle schoolers can sometimes be mean. When someone is different from them, they sometimes react by excluding them even further.

But. I also know these young people to be extremely compassionate, infuriated by injustice, and endlessly kind. It was my desire to bring this side of my grade 7 students to the forefront of the fabric of our classroom this year.

Instead of dictating a series of classroom expectations or guidelines, I decided to leave this up to my students this year. To do this, I turned to design thinking. During my visit to IDEO last year, something an IDEOer said stood out to me:

You can't design culture. But you can design things that impact culture.

An IDEOer who is a systems designer showed us this video:

So I wondered: what is the milk in our classroom that will get our Scotties, or our students, moving together?

I started by loading us all up with inspiration. I looked for examples of workplaces and classrooms with vibrant, collaborative cultures. I looked for inspiration where wonder, curiosity, and character were at the forefront.

Here's what we did:
After we'd saturated our brains with all this inspiration, we use the Innovator's Compass to make sense of everything we'd learned to design an experiment we could try.

At this point, I introduced a How Might We question. Eventually, my students will be the ones coming up with the HMW question, but this early in the school year, I scaffolded this step for them. Our question was:

How might we design a classroom culture where everyone belongs?

We used the Innovator's Compass to identify what was already happening in our classroom culture (Discover Observations) and then understand what we need next in order to create a culture of belonging (Design Principles).

Sidenote: At this point, I ran my own design experiment. For a couple of days, we renamed our classroom "Quoogle" (Quinn + Google). We used our observations from the article we read about Google to organize our classroom: students could choose the order in which they wanted to do their tasks, students could monitor their bodies to decide when they needed to take a quick body break, and there was a high level of trust and a high level of accountability in getting work done. Students came to work with me in small groups (they decided when, of course) at the Innovator's Compass. After a couple of days, I sought the students' feedback about how the experiment went, using my own observations as data points, too. They loved being able to choose the order in which they did their tasks, but didn't like that I wasn't available to answer questions or support them in independent tasks because I was working with small groups at the Innovator's Compass. They decided that Quoogle would be a good way to work when students were doing independent work, but not small group or whole class projects.

Apologies for the laminator glare.

From there, students got into groups of three. They chose one Post-it from the Design Principles section of the Compass. These were things like, "We need to communicate" or "Everyone needs to feel valued" or "We need to really know one another." Then, they Dreamed Ideas. They came up with lots and lots of ideas about how we could make this need become a reality. They used these Brainstorming Rules to help them here. They drew from the inspiration we gained through the Discovery/Empathy phase of the design process to give them ideas. They diverged as they dreamed big and let wild and crazy ideas be okay.

Then, they narrowed their ideas, by refocusing on the Post-it they chose from Design Principles. They selected one idea that met this need, and got to work Designing an Experiment they could try in our classroom. They also designed a way to get feedback: was the prototype successful in doing what they intended?

Every few days, we're trying another experiment.

One group came up with a plan to get students to know one another by sitting next to a different student each day and learning three new things about them.
A chart to keep track of who each student has sat beside and what they learned about them.

Another group wanted to make positivity the main mode of being in our room. They created a "Positivi-tree," where students can attach positive statements and compliments about one another.

Another group developed a process that students can use to help one another if they are stuck.

One group, inspired by Google's cafes, wanted us to eat together. Most days, students disperse in a lunchroom and eat with friends from other classes. One day last week, this group of students booked a conference room, and we sat around a big table, eating our lunches and chatting with one another about things unrelated to learning. They wanted us to have a chance to get to know one another as people, rather than as learners. They sought feedback from their classmates, and learned that most students really liked the opportunity to break bread together, and thought it would be a good idea if we did this once a month.

Whether these experiments are working or whether I've just got a group of really kind students, anecdotally, my classroom is becoming a place where kindness is the way to be. They have been so supportive of one another. When one student in my other class won first place at a cross country running meet, my other class decided she needed to be celebrated, and we all snuck over to the other classroom to give her a standing ovation. 

What I'm learning is that my students absolutely can be trusted to make collective decisions about the way our classroom works. When students feel like they have agency over the way we work and learn together, they are more likely to be respectful of the norms they create. This is such an obvious realization that it seems almost silly for me to write it, but it's so absolutely not the case in many classrooms. But if we just let our students be our teachers, we will learn so much.