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March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

Orchestrating School Culture

Ramon was defiant and angry and failed most of his classes in 7th grade. His friend Hector had transferred from another school, where he had failed 7th grade and accumulated a discipline rap sheet a mile long. Jessica, a gifted 6th grader whose father was a principal, consistently avoided turning in homework. Sixth-grader Troy rarely spoke up, choosing to be invisible in class. Sally was a 7th grade drama queen, focusing on the social scene rather than her academic work.
  • Ramon's parents had separated. It was not his choice to attend our school; his mother transferred him there because of fights with other boys at his previous school. To say he was not happy would be an understatement.
  • Hector was a bright, active young man who got caught up in peer pressure to misbehave in his former school. He acknowledged his mistakes but bristled when, as he put it, "teachers didn't see me; they saw my record."
  • Jessica put a lot of pressure on herself to perform perfectly. She often didn't turn in her homework because she believed it wasn't good enough.
  • Troy had a loving but domineering father. Sensitive and fearful, Troy was afraid of making even the smallest mistake. It was easier for him to say nothing than to risk saying the wrong thing.
  • Sally had a need to belong to the popular group and, at the same time, to feel significant. She put all her passion and energy into these goals, keeping her focus off academic performance.

The Powerful Needs of Adolescents

When considering these reluctant learners and the others I have worked with, I ask myself, "Under what conditions do human beings learn best?" To answer this question, we turn to the psychology of motivation.
Alfred Adler (1927/1992), a contemporary of Freud, identified two psychological needs of human beings: the need to feel significant as an individual and the need to feel connected with others. Abraham Maslow (1943) identified these as esteem needs and social needs. During adolescence, these two seemingly opposing needs surface strongly. Thus, some adolescents may sport pink hair to stand out but insist on wearing the latest fashionable hoodie to blend in. Some may act the part of class clown, trying too hard to be something they are not.
What appear to be opposing psychological needs are actually two sides of the same coin. When students accept themselves, they are more likely to accept others, thus building community. When they feel connected, they feel safe to be themselves. They trust their peers to accept their mistakes and to respect their opinions. They don't need to act up—they can relax instead of trying hard to be "popular" or "different." As a result, student engagement and achievement increase.
  • Make choices (because humans are self-determining).
  • Form positive relationships with teachers and peers (because humans are social creatures).
  • Have a voice (because humans are empowered by speaking).
  • Feel needed (because humans derive personal meaning from knowing that they matter).

Offering Choices

The desire to make one's own decisions is part of the trial-and-error process of becoming a mature adult. This natural tendency is evident in the middle and high school years as students challenge their parents about daily choices—what to wear, what movie to see, what friends to hang out with, and so on.
Rather than fighting this natural tendency, we find ways to give students choices—for example, allowing them to choose how to demonstrate their knowledge of mechanical physics, how to solve the problem of trash in the lunchroom, which five problems to solve on a 10-problem math worksheet, or which project group to join. Students become more engaged in the learning process if they are active in making choices.
Reluctant learners often feel powerless because they lack control over much of their lives. When teachers set the overall constraints but give students freedoms within those constraints, reluctant learners begin to experience personal power and develop self-esteem.

Building Relationships

The adage "People don't care what you know until they know that you care" provides another key to unlocking the puzzle of the reluctant learner. By building trusting relationships, we reduce the fear and anxiety that are at the root of the failure to learn (Krishnamurti, 1971).
It's easier for the reluctant learner not to try than to try and fail. But when the school is filled with adults who care, who encourage without indulging and who hold students accountable with kindness, the self-protective walls slowly come down, and students begin to take risks. When they begin to trust, they are less afraid of making mistakes.
Teachers have so much power (and responsibility) to influence students, both positively and negatively. In my first interview for a teaching position, my principal said to me, "You don't teach subjects; you teach who you are." We are continually sending implicit messages to our students. In 35 years as a teacher and administrator, I've used this thought to guide my behavior and that of my teachers.
Recently, I attended Pat Wolfe's symposium on brain-based learning and mirror neurons, which explain the physiological basis for the idea that "you teach who you are." As a student observes me teaching, identical parts of our brains light up. So if I am passionate about the lesson, if I am aware of my students' needs, if I engage them actively in dialogue and value their contributions, these behaviors trigger the mirror neurons in my students and convey lessons that are just as important as the curriculum content.
But passion is not enough. A trusting relationship between the teacher and students is the bridge through which the passion travels. To nurture that relationship, my school assigns students to advisories that meet daily first thing in the morning. Students have the same advisor, who is also one of their academic teachers, for 7th and 8th grade. The advisor is their surrogate parent and advocate at school—someone who understands their strengths and needs. Each advisor meets regularly with groups of two to five students who share concerns and successes as they learn how to listen to one another. We build a sense of family in the advisory groups through classroom meetings and by sharing and planning events, such as breakfasts or our Thanksgiving feast.
  • The 8th grade retreat, where students participate in group activities to break down walls and build trust and community so that they can become leaders of the school.
  • 6th and 7th grade community-building games, held monthly to nurture connections.
  • A weeklong outdoor education program, which mixes all three grade levels in cabins and hiking groups.
  • Our Amazing Race, a scavenger hunt in San Francisco, in which small groups of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders scour the city on public transportation, finding landmarks by following maps and asking residents for help.
These activities help us ensure that students are not anonymous. When they know one another as people, instead of as stereotypes (Goths, preps, and so on), there is less bullying and alienation.

Encouraging Student Voice

Stephen Covey's The Eighth Habit (2006) talks about finding one's voice and inspiring others to find theirs. Covey believes this habit to be the most powerful of his identified eight habits.
Schools can encourage students to find their voice by developing a culture of listening. When students know that their teachers and principal will listen to their concerns and ideas and take them seriously, they will speak up. When they speak up, they are engaged. When they are engaged, they care—and they learn.
To create a culture of listening, I model listening with my teachers, students, and parents. When I actively listen to my teachers, they learn how to do that with their students. They teach students in their advisory groups to listen to one another, again breaking down walls that divide people and lessen the capacity to learn.
We encourage students to find their voice in the student-led conferences that occur twice a year. Students present their work to their parents, reflecting on what they have learned, what they still need to learn, and their goals for the coming months. The classroom is filled with students sharing their academic progress. These conferences often go on for an hour or more.
Conflicts are a normal part of a community of people working together; we view them as opportunities for parents, teachers, and students to learn from one another. In mediation sessions that we call clearings, facilitated by advisors, lead teachers, or administrators, we take turns sharing and actively listening to address teacher-teacher, teacher-student, teacher-parent, and student-student conflicts. The goal is not to decide who is right or wrong, but to reach mutual understanding so that both parties feel heard and understood. Accomplishing this goal usually leads to more successful solutions.

Enabling Students to Feel Needed

Some years ago, I read a U.S. News and World Report article on the admission process at the University of Chicago. The admissions team had discovered over the years that students coming from rural areas or urban areas were more self-reliant and transitioned more easily to college life than those coming from suburban areas. They surmised that living and working on a farm provided young people with a strong sense of self-worth because they knew that their work mattered. Living in an urban area required young people to learn how to navigate through the city, using public transportation to school and to part-time jobs, which they often held to contribute to the family. These students learned to be responsible and independent. Today, with more and more students growing up in suburban areas, the challenge for schools is to find ways to help students feel that they can make a difference.
Like many middle schools, our school saw students developing an attitude as they moved to 8th grade. They had a lot of energy to contribute, but it wasn't being directed into any activity in which they felt needed. When I realized that they needed to put their experiences and knowledge to productive use, we started to include them in leadership roles beyond our student council. Our students started DIGA (Portugese for tell me), a peer mediation group; Big Brothers and Sisters, in which 8th graders take struggling 6th and 7th graders under their wing; the Earth Club to beautify our school and promote green practices; the Logistics Team to help set up for school meetings; and Student Speakers to assist visitors, conduct information sessions during open enrollment, and make presentations at conferences.
Our students don't live on farms or in bustling city neighborhoods; they live in a suburban community. Finding ways for them to serve has opened up a huge, untapped resource in our school—the students themselves. As a result, their negative attitudes have declined dramatically. Doing something that matters to others provides a balancing influence to the self-centeredness of adolescence.

My Five Reluctant Learners

The culture, or implicit curriculum, of any school teaches students just as much as the explicit curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The culture of River Middle School, which incorporates principles of healthy psychological development, transformed each of the reluctant learners described at the beginning of this article.
Ramon is now in 9th grade and made the soccer team, which means he has to keep up his grades. He has come to visit several times since June to share his excitement about high school. I saw Hector yesterday at the end of the day. He loves high school and likes all his teachers, especially his English teacher. He positively glowed with confidence. His mother shared his first progress report with me—all As and Bs. Jessica just graduated with honors from high school and plans to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara. Troy is attending a challenging technology high school with a strong project-based program in which students do a lot of oral presentations. And Sally, now in her sophomore year, made the honor roll her first semester.
Every school has an implicit curriculum. Every procedure, practice, and person in a school sends implicit messages—either empowering or disempowering—to students. When we pay attention to the messages we are sending, we can transform reluctant learners into excited and engaged students who successfully navigate through school.

Adler, A. (1927/1992). Understanding human nature. Oxford: One World. (Original work published 1927)

Covey, S. (2006). The eighth habit. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Krishnamurti. (1971). Education and the significance of life. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychology Review, 50, 370–396. Available:http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Maslow/motivation.htm

Linda Inlay has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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