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Tools for Critique: Chapter 9
School Culture: Where Good Teaching Makes Sense


Chapter 9, “The School Culture: Where Good Teaching Makes Sense,” identifies characteristics of schools that support democratic teaching and learning. The chapter describes several current reform efforts aimed at establishing healthy learning environments. The chapter also describes “inquiry”—a kind of dialogue that supports members of the school community to ask questions, reflect, and take action to improve the school’s culture and ensure socially just learning.

Chapter Headings

  • Schools as Cultures
    • School Cultures Shape Sense-Making
    • School Cultures Where It Makes Sense to Teach All Students Well
  • A Press for Learning and Social Justice
    • School Cultures Where Learning Is the Top Priority
    • School Cultures Where Everyone Succeeding is the Norm
    • School Cultures that Foster Multicultural, College-Going Identities
  • Access to Learning Opportunities and Resources
    • Access to Adequate Resources
    • Access to High-Quality Teaching
    • Access to a Rich, Balanced Curriculum
    • Access to Extra Help When It’s Needed
    • Access to Equitable Learning Time
  • Access to Caring Relationships and Practices
    • Schools as Places Where Every Student Is Known by Name
    • Schools as Safe Zones
    • Schools in the Post-Columbine Era: Care in a Violent Culture
    • Schools in a Post-9/11 World: Care in a Culture of Fear
    • Schools in a Post-Katrina Context: Care in the Face of a Broken Social Contract
  • Professionalism, Collaboration, Inquiry and Activism
    • Teachers as Participants and Professionals
    • Teachers as Partners in Teaching and Learning
    • Faculties as Inquiring Communities
    • Creating a Culture of Critical Inquiry

Generative Questions and Activities

    Schools as Cultures

  1. One high-school teacher featured in the text (who withheld her name) contrasts the very supportive and collaborative culture at her first high school with the “dysfunctional” culture she encountered at her new school.  Reflect on the culture at the school where you work (or plan to work).  Does it seem more similar to that of the first or second school she discusses? Why?  Give specific examples.
  2. The authors note that when one is immersed in a culture, he or she may hardly be aware of the culture’s characteristics or effects.  Because the culture represents what is “normal,” most K-12 students (as well as most adults) pay little conscious attention to how the culture affects them.  In fact, the cultural value for independence, for “being my own person,” and for rejecting peer pressure is so strong that young students and teenagers will often deny that the culture has any effect on them at all—proclaiming themselves immune from fads, school values, or other cultural influences.  Reflect on your own experiences within different school cultures—paying particular attention to those times when you felt somehow at odds with the school’s academic press.  Perhaps your disposition was to work harder or be more focused on school achievement than what the school seemed to support.  Perhaps you were inclined to work less hard, but were “carried along” by the press for high achievement in a class or at the school—it seemed as if everyone worked hard and valued academic achievement, so you might as well, also.

    A Press for Learning and Social Justice

  3. It is not uncommon for a school to have different presses for different students—perhaps according to an academic “ability” track.  Comment on whether an institutional press for high achievement was applied similarly to all students at your high school—in particular, on whether the press for high achievement extended to all students across racial, gender, and economic lines.

  4. Some classes seem to spend a lot of time in activities that have little to do with learning valued knowledge (any valued knowledge—not just that related to the subject being taught).  Often, students and teacher seem to “cooperate” in keeping the class occupied with nonacademic, time-killing activities.  With a group of colleagues, write and perform a 5-minute skit that incorporates as many as possible of the “typical” strategies you have seen students and teachers employ for not using time productively.  Then write and perform a second skit that proposes an alternative to the first, demonstrating strategies to help use time more productively.

  5. Keep a record of specific adult behaviors at a school (including exact quotes and campus activities) that show how high or low the school’s press for academic achievement is.  Pay particular attention to contradictory “messages” or behaviors that, on the surface, seem to be pressing for or against achievement, but, upon closer examination, may have the opposite effect.

  6. With a particular school in mind, compile a list of ten policy, curriculum, resource, or other changes that you believe would improve the school culture and markedly improve students’ achievement.  Explain how these changes are directly or indirectly aligned with making the school attuned to sociocultural learning principles, and how they are more sensitive to social-justice concerns.  Where you can distinguish between them, include both a specific practice and the more general rule or policy.  Consider, also, how such changes could be successfully implemented at your school.  What types of collaboration and interaction would be necessary to get things started?

  7. In describing the powerful influence of the school culture, the authors state: “Low expectations are not simply inert beliefs.  They exert their own kind of press; they press educators to take actions that align with those expectations—to translate low expectations into practices that make it impossible for students to succeed.”  Identify examples of teachers who have had low expectations for students.  Next, identify specific actions and practices that seem to have been informed by those low expectations.

  8. On the one hand, high or low expectations may be expressed unmistakably, explicitly, and purposefully.  On the other hand, they may be communicated so subtly and quietly that the students and the teacher are not even consciously aware of them.  Return to question number 7 and answer it with attention to communications that only an experienced and sensitive observer would recognize as “carrying” with them a high or low expectation.

  9. The authors assert that in order for college to be genuinely accessible, students must “see their cultural identities as integral to college preparation, matriculation and success,” rather than as something they must overcome.  Given that, what could you do as a teacher to promote college access for culturally and linguistically diverse students?  Using the grade you would like to teach as a starting point, design an age-appropriate lesson or set of lessons you think would promote college-going identities among your students.  Alternatively, consider that developing a college-going identity takes place over many years with students who experience countless encouraging acts.  Brainstorm a list of activities or classroom routines that could, over time, help students believe that college is for people who look like and speak like them.

    Access to Learning Opportunities and Resources

  10. The authors assert that, “Americans have a high level of acceptance for obviously unequal school resources.”  As an example, they point to the dire lack of qualified teachers and textbooks at Los Angeles’s South Gate High School, a problem that was only addressed after media coverage and a two-day student walkout.  Think about the culture at the school with which you are most familiar.  Do you notice an attitude of acceptance with respect to unequal educational resources there?  If so, to what do you attribute that attitude?  In your opinion, what role (if any) does race and/or racism play in influencing that culture of acceptance?  Given that South Gate High School’s enrollment is predominantly Latino, to what extent (and in what ways) do you suppose race and/or racism influenced the attitude of acceptance there?

  11. Consider how the authors emphasize equity and race in their discussions of the school culture and other topics that are addressed in this book.  Other reform-minded educators may be more inclined to emphasize “quality” or “adequacy” when considering what makes for good teaching and good schools.  Can schools be both unequal and good?  Can they be equal but of low quality?  Discuss your own views about the challenge to achieve the dual goal of equitable and high quality schools.

  12. Not all teachers who have credentials and expertise in the subject they teach are good teachers.  Yet some teachers who have a weak background can be highly motivating—especially if they are fascinated by the course topics and position themselves as eager learners alongside the students.  Write a profile of such teachers based on your personal experience and/or observation.  Add your thoughts as to how these teachers’ behaviors are, in part, influenced by the school culture.

  13. The authors observe that teachers are commonly “tracked.”  That is, teachers with less status, less training, or lower reputations are assigned to teach students who perform, generally less well, whereas highly qualified teachers with strong reputations are more likely to teach higher-performing students in higher-level classes.  Describe your observations of and/or experiences with this phenomenon.  Is this a practice that is openly discussed at schools with which you are familiar?  What do you suppose (or what have you heard) are the most common reasons given for teacher tracking?  Respond to these reasons with arguments for randomly assigning teachers or for making sure that all students have equal access to the most qualified teachers.

  14. With a particular school in mind, identify a particular teacher who has had a profound impact on the overall school culture.  Identify the specific ways in which this teacher has provided mentorship and inspiration.  What specific values, beliefs, and practices can you pinpoint?  How did this teacher’s positive influence affect student learning?  What steps might you take in order to have a similar influence on your school once you begin teaching?

    Access to Caring Relationships and Practices

  15. List several ways in which you have seen teachers show they care about and for their students.  List several ways in which an entire school culture can show care.  In each case, contrast these ways of caring with alternative ways—ways teachers or schools sometimes act—that show a lack of care.

  16. While the small schools movement is gaining in popularity and influence, most public schools throughout the nation remain overwhelmingly large.  What can teachers at large, impersonal schools do to create caring environments in their classrooms?  How can teachers and administrators work together to make large schools more caring places?  Give specific examples.

  17. Kate Castleberry and Kimberly Min both describe ways that they have confronted issues of race and racism at their respective schools.  Have you ever seen these issues dealt with in schools?  How would you confront these issues in a way that contributes to a safe and caring environment for students?  What lessons, activities, values, and classroom norms would help you achieve this?

  18. In the authors’ discussion of a study surveying middle- and high-school students, they report that “nearly 9 out of 10 LGBTQ respondents reported experiencing verbal and/or physical harassment at school in the past year, nearly two-thirds reported feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and nearly a third reported skipping at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.” Bullying, and bullying due to a student’s gender expression and/or sexual orientation, is a serious issue with potentially grave consequences for those bullied. Have you observed or created any safe spaces for LGBTQ youth in schools? What can teachers do to combat bullying and ensure that LGBTQ youth feel safe in school? How might you go about decreasing homophobia (among teachers and students) in your school?

  19. In the September 25, 2001 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, third-year teacher Mary Hendra writes about her discussions with students following the events of September 11th (see Focal Point 9.3).  The authors, taking their lead from Alfie Kohn, argue that these types of discussions allow schools and teachers to be wiser and more humane—that they “help children locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond the self, beyond country, to all humanity.”  Still, teachers who address sensitive issues such as September 11th may be criticized by parents or administrators; they may also encounter resistance among their students.  What might teachers do to “set up” this type of frank and difficult discussion—not only to lessen risk to themselves, but to be sure that the discussion or activity they have in mind is, in fact, responsible and sensitive?

  20. The authors pose many questions that students (and adults) asked about Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response. For example, “In a country so well resourced as our own, why did it take such a long time for the government to rescue its own people? Would the response have been so slow if the hurricane had struck a more affluent community, or a predominantly white one? How come news coverage framed some storm victims as doing what they needed to do to survive, while framing others as looters with questionable moral fiber? Could the more than 1,800 deaths, plus countless injuries, separations, and relocations, been averted if those outside the area cared more about those living within it?” These are serious questions with potentially profound implications. How might you address these issues (or other similar questions stemming from current events) in your classroom? Use Hurricane Katrina – or another current event that raises similar questions – and work in a group to create a set of lessons around the event. How will you help students make sense of the myriad issues?

    Professionalism, Collaboration, Inquiry, and Activism

  21. A common criticism of team teaching is that it may turn out that one teacher teaches twice as many students while the other teacher simply has some “free time.”  Then they trade.  However, the authors point out that team teaching is at the heart of many teaching reforms.  List the benefits of team teaching that you can think of or have observed.  How are these benefits consistent with sociocultural perspectives on teaching (and learning)?

  22. The authors describe inquiry as a process of “becoming informed about one’s own and others’ practices, connecting practices with theory, and developing trusting relationships with allies.”  Have you ever had the opportunity to engage in such a process?  Have you ever seen other teachers engage in this process?  Think about how you might go about initiating an informal inquiry group once you begin teaching.  What steps would you need to take?  Who would you invite to participate?  What texts and/or other resources would you need?  What would be the focus of your initial meetings?  If you felt so inclined, how would you go about attempting to extend inquiry to your entire faculty/staff?  Would you be willing to assist your administrator in institutionalizing the inquiry process at your school?  

    Creating Cultures Where Good Teaching Makes Sense

  23. This chapter ends with several questions that educators can ask themselves about their school culture, guided by the principles of the Stanford School ReDesign Network. Ask these questions with your colleagues: “How well do we really know our students? What are we doing to support them all to meet high expectations? How do we ensure that our students don’t fall behind? Where in our curriculum do we give students opportunities to make “real-world” connections and to take socially just action? Are we making the very most of the resources we have for learning? Are we doing enough to collaborate with one another—as well as students, families, community members and so on—to provide the most rigorous, responsive education possible?” After answering the questions honestly and discussing them with colleagues, think about how you might improve your school in alignment with these questions and principles. What are steps that can be taken immediately? What will require sustained, long-term effort? How might you go about making these changes?
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