One of my former colleagues in anthropology once told me that he gags every time he hears the word “culture.” Why? Because “culture,” he said, has come to mean everything under the sun and has thus become meaningless.
With my colleague’s gagging in mind, I will try to be careful in using the c-word in this post.
So let’s imagine going into a school.
What do you see? What do you hear the teachers and other staff members saying? What do the bulletin boards look like? How easy was it to enter the school? What are the children saying and doing? How noisy is it? Do you feel welcome or afraid? What is the general “feel” of the environment? All these questions and more pertain to the underlying stream of values and rituals that pervade schools. This underlying stream is the culture of that particular school.
The question I think about a lot is: Does a school culture influence strongly what values and rituals turn up in academic classrooms? Can, for example, a school’s athletic success stir pride in students studying history to show up before the tardy bell rings? Sit down at their seat and start answering questions on the whiteboard that the teacher puts up daily? Can winning the state championship in football spill over into math and science classrooms so that students become engaged in studying the content, work quietly with partners in doing an assigned problem, and turn in homework regularly?
I do not know the answers to these questions. I will explore them in this two-part post.
Let me sketch out an example I saw up close recently.*
I sat in four social studies classes in a California urban high school that is largely minority and poor. With nearly a thousand students in 9th through 12th grades, the school, one of a half-dozen in the city, ranked the lowest of the city’s schools on annual state tests and graduated less than 60 percent of its students. Metal detectors and pat-downs by uniformed security personnel were daily rituals. Its football team had won state championships and provided an annual pipeline of scholarships for athletes to universities.
Since I saw only one teacher teaching classes in U.S. history and world geography, I will not generalize about classroom cultures elsewhere in the school.
While 20-plus students were enrolled in each class, only one had more than 20 students appear. The other classes had 10-15 students. Most were in their seats at the tardy bell but late arrivals entered throughout the period. The 16-year veteran social studies teacher was prepared for each class, amiable with students, and firm in following school and classroom rules.
One of the four classes (the largest with 24 students but 30 enrolled) was U.S. history but this day they were preparing for the state graduation test by going over items from a booklet prepared for this test. The teacher had an overhead projector with transparencies of test questions and topics from previous years. She marched through the items slowly by asking various students what the correct answers were and explaining why they were correct. Of the two dozen students about 8 were engaged with the lesson, the rest chatted until admonished by the teacher, applied cosmetics, had their heads down on the desks, or were engaged in other tasks. Late-comers gave slips to the teacher. The period lasted 43 minutes. The students packed up their belongings a few minutes before the bell rang.
The three ninth grade world geography classes were studying 19th century European imperialism in Africa. The teacher had the state standard for the lesson and assignment listed on the chalkboard with three questions for students to answer as they filed into the class.
There were 10-15 students in each of these classes. The teacher walked around the room making sure that cell phones were put away (a school-wide rule). She passed out a worksheet drawn from the textbook chapter on imperialism. After 15 minutes, the teacher orally went over each question (she told them that for these questions they had copied down, the answers could be found on pp. 345-350 in the textbook and that they were going to be on Friday’s test).
Most of the students completed the worksheet and gave it to the teacher when the period ended. At least a third or more of the students in each class, however, chatted most of the time, slept, and did not complete the worksheet.
I do not know if these four classes were representative of classroom cultures in the rest of the school. Nothing much was expected of the students beyond textbook and worksheet answers. Most complied. The teacher worked hard at completing the lessons, collecting worksheets, and grading and returning them the next day. That was it.
From my perch in the back of the room in these four classes, I saw that students were largely disengaged from each lesson’s content. While school rules were enforced, the values, rituals, and habits favored the least amount of academic work possible. There were no disciplinary incidents that occurred in any of the four periods; the teacher maintained an orderly, safe classroom.
At the end of the fourth period class, I walked down the hall and stopped in and watched a joyous assembly of 11th and 12th grade students honoring athletes who had been chosen as all-stars to play in a U.S. Army-sponsored football game.
And here is where the contradiction I noted above about school and classroom cultures occurred. I take it up in the next post.
*I have disguised where the school is located and certain details to protect the privacy of participants.