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Climate, Collaboration, and School Culture

What are the assumptions can we make about a school from the moment we pass through the main entrance? Are those assumptions reinforced or refuted when we converse with members of the school community?

Traveling south on I-55 heading towards Springfield, host of IETC-2017, I'm taking in the last few bites of an Egg McMuffin, listening to sports talk radio, and enjoying the freedom of the open road at seventy-four miles per hour.

ChangeSchool comrade, Eric Bohm, had mentioned the tremendous response students were receiving for their "month of giving" charity program. I needed to stop by Pontiac Township High School to say hello and make a donation.

First impressions, PTHS was clean, accommodating, and safe. I was welcomed by friendly staff who were eager to help me with my questions. I intended to drop off some treats, make a donation, take a selfie with the principal, and get back on the road. Mr. Bohm, being the proud principal that he is, had other ideas, and I'm glad he did. After some pleasantries and small talk about declining enrollment typical of rural schools, it was time to take a walk. Walking is such a powerful stimulant for creative thinking and more fruitful conversation, it remains an underutilized professional learning strategy.

Employing school-within-a-school concepts, we passed through the freshmen wing and stopped into a mathematics classroom where students were processing geometry formulas on their ThinkPads. The instructor mentioned how students were helping each other master the fundamental concepts, not for rote memorization, but because the learning was necessary for their co-curricular projects. My attention shifted appropriately from the small class size and 1:1 technology to the collaboration and purpose driving the students' learning.

As we moved from classroom to classroom, Eric discussed plans to help teachers obtain flexible seating for their students. He mentioned successful strategies for improving the student attendance rate. He pointed to cafeteria tables piled with students' backpacks and belongings. "Lockers don't get used very often because kids don't steal from each other here," he said. A compliment to their community, I found the PTHS students to be friendly, engaging, and curious. Not surprisingly, I discovered these same qualities while talking with the several PTHS teachers and staff I met. How can teachers effectively cultivate school culture and promote positive school climate?

The culmination of the PTHS cultural celebration occurred in Paul Ritter's science classroom. Paul was collaborating with another instructor reviewing formative assessment results and preparing upcoming lessons. Mr. Bohm mentioned teachers have a common weekly period for cross-curricular planning and professional learning. Paul's passion for student-led, place-based education was undeniable. I was particularly interested in one of their ongoing cross-curricular projects, "Operation Gravestone", the restoration of cemetery markers.

Acid rain, as the science students discovered, was deteriorating gravestones at a rapid rate. Many impacted markers date back to the civil war. The science students were researching and analyzing erosion rate, testing strategies for balancing the acidity of rainwater and proposing improved material composition for replacement markers. The history students were diving into databases and original documentation to correctly identify the deceased whose names had been eroded from their gravestones. In addition to names and dates, they were investigating the person's life and the cause of death.

English students wrote letters to the federal government requesting permission to replace worn cemetery markers. They wrote letters to surviving ancestors, wrote eulogies and biographies about the deceased. Many families had no knowledge of missing relatives or where their ancestors were buried. Documentarians, these students were keeping community stories alive through literary research, composition, and presentation. How can teachers and students breathe purpose and relevance into curriculum thought to be lifeless?

After explaining how the applied technology students were helping to create new gravestones, I asked Mr. Bohm if there was any curricular discipline not involved with this exciting project. He said, "Physical education perhaps, but that doesn't mean they're not working on it." At that point, Paul shared a YouTube video highlighting the original music students created for a rededication ceremony for veterans of the military. By now I had all but forgotten about the technology conference, I was getting an inspired education in Pontiac.

After selfies and promises to keep our learning conversations going, I departed with a greater appreciation for the students and staff of Pontiac Township High School. I deliberately chose old route 66 for the majority of the remaining leg to Springfield. With my windshield wipers sweeping in time to Willie Nelson, the slower speed limit gave me time to reflect on what I had learned in ninety minutes of walking and talking at PTHS.

School climate and culture are more than buzzwords used to spark momentary attention during staff meetings. These are characteristics easily identified in what learners are doing, and what they are saying. The projects I learned about speak loudly to student agency, community connections, and local control of curriculum. At times, we get so deep into our forest we don't see the trees. It's good to get out to see what other educators are doing to make learning relevant in their schools. 

Even though Palatine High School and Pontiac Township High School are more than a hundred miles apart with very different cultural compositions, we are contending with similar issues and asking related questions about providing meaningful experiences for our learners. As is often the case with me, I found the road less traveled led me to a fascinating, worthwhile destination. 

Related Resources

Pontiac Township High School - "Operation Gravestone"

photo credit: Ian D. Keating The Getty - Geometry via photopin (license)


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