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Guest Post @soperwritings: Cultivating Classroom Culture

Cultivating a Learning Culture that Empowers Students

As a middle school social studies teacher, one of the very first things I teach my students each year is a unit on culture. Sure, the concept of culture is first up on my curriculum guide, but the overarching concept of culture is something that is essential to setting the tone for a productive year.

We begin the unit as most would expect: we define culture, we identify our own cultural markers, and we examine the cultural makeup of key civilizations throughout history.

But then we take a turn. I shift the conversation from cultural identification to cultural activism; we look at how the problem of cultural extinction is rapidly changing the face of our world. The students engage with stories from the past and from the present about how real people are faced with the challenge of carrying on and preserving cultures that are fading away forever.

For my students, the culture unit is no longer about defining cultural elements, it becomes about cultivating and preserving cultures in the face of increased globalization.

This may seem like a heady ask for a room full of 12-year-olds (…and it is), but by infusing a sense of agency into the learning, students buy in. They aren’t learning because they have to, they engage because they have a felt need to learn. By learning about culture in this type of classroom environment, I am setting the table for a classroom culture that will empower my students to be active learners.

Empowered learning is engaged learning

This trend of trying to motivate students to learn from an intrinsic place can be truly challenging. I have spent time as a part of a Learner Active Technology Infused Classroom (LATIC) cohort over the past three years that has worked to try to bring about this fundamental shift in our respective classroom pedagogies. It’s a lot of work, but it’s important work.

The studies are out there, but any educator who has had the experience of watching a student or even an entire classroom of students chasing knowledge knows the impact of a learner-driven environment.

In order to do so, whether it is in a classroom or a small group tutoring environment, there are a litany of considerations that need to be made:

  • Students need environments that are differentiated and choice-driven.
  • Students need meaningful task statements and unit rubrics to help guide students through their choices and growth.
  • Students need access to technology and resources to be able to pursue their self-driven learning.
  • Perhaps most importantly, students need authentic assessment experiences where they are expected to engage with real world issues. After all, learning without a goal or any potential for true impact will come at the expense of student buy-in.

The educator as a resource rather than the tour guide

Again, this type of pedagogical approach takes a lot of work. There’s no denying that. But when students are the ones running their own show, it frees up the educators to facilitate learning on a one-to-one or small group level rather than trying to apply a one-size-fits-all approach.

In an era of increased automation and privatization, the best educators are the ones who are able to create meaningful connections between students and content. No computer program or software suite will ever be able to do that!

By front-loading the preparation efforts to create student-driven experiences, the relationship between educator and student can be tailored on the fly to help create true understanding and engagement. These are the classrooms of the future.

Sheldon Soper is a ten year veteran of the teaching profession and currently serves as a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey and as a writer for The Knowledge Roundtable, a free tutoring marketplace. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He holds two degrees from Rutgers University: a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. He holds teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. You can connect with him on Twitter @SoperWritings.