Starting the school year off by focusing on school culture

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In a recent post, Michael Niehoff, an educator, and writer for Getting Smart, shares what he learned by starting the school year off not by focusing on academics, but on school culture instead. This accidental experience led to such great outcomes for his students that it became an annual tradition called SmartStart. Read more about the focus on school culture below.

In all my years as a classroom teacher, program advisor, and site leader, I worked hard to make the first day and week of school was engaging, inspirational and motivational as possible. But no matter how hard I, and many of my colleagues, tried, it seems that the institutional expectations took over and the emphasis became less about student engagement and more about rules, expectations, syllabi, policies, contracts, books and academics.

…Turns out a happy accident showed me what I always had known and tried to create. And that is if we focus on anything but academics to start the school year – such as culture, opportunity, creativity, relationships and the “why” – we may actually produce a more academically successful student and school year… 

…Our first week of school focused on all students getting to know one another, as well as every teacher and staff member. We shared lessons, activities, talks, simulations, challenges and guest speakers on things such as success skills, technology, relationships, careers, project ideas and more.

We had several goals (deliverables) in mind for this first week. They included, but were not limited to every student knowing whom every staff member was, how our school and their experience was going to be different, how we cared about what students thought and wanted, how they need to engage and produce in productive (but personalized) ways, how they now had good friends the first week of high school and how learning could be relevant and fun.

This first week of school, SmartStart, became a tradition that was improved, expanded and redesigned each and every year. It became a collaborative effort where all staff submitted lessons and presentations that were shared and commonly implemented. It expanded into tech integration and project management where all of our students (even when we had 500 students) would produce a video, a podcast and a presentation the first week of school. In addition to culture building and schoolwide lessons, we modeled that all students could and would produce high-quality work.

Topics for SmartStart sessions can almost be anything. Here are some examples we focused on each and every year (sample schedule here):

  • School-wide activities, challenges, culture building
  • School-wide messaging – i.e. digital footprint
  • School-wide skills – i.e. presentation
  • School-wide technology lessons – Google, other
  • School-wide forms, formats, rubrics, workflows
  • School-wide life lessons, professional lessons
  • School-wide products, sharing, showcasing, exhibiting
  • School-wide guests, professionals, experiences

SmartStart, or some derivation of the same, continues today at Minarets High School. And many other schools have been doing something similar. These have included school-wide design challenges, learning expeditions and service learning experiences – all with the idea of emphasizing everything but academics in order to build the skills and culture conducive to academics.

Each year, some teachers and staff members struggled with the concept. They fell the traditional pressure of “getting started” on schoolwork. We continuously had to remind them, and ourselves, that it was the student and staff culture we built that first week of school that would make high-level student work and academics a reality throughout the school year. Indeed, we knew whatever we created, or didn’t create, that first week of school, would indeed define the year. We also knew that whatever good things were born during SmartStart, that they would have to re-visited, nurtured, refined and modeled throughout the school year by staff and students.

This is the power of SmartStart. How we start anything – a lesson, a project or even a school year – might be the most important thing in terms of what gets finished or the end result. Let’s not only rethink how we do school, but how we start school. Here are some additional resources for SmartStart:

Read the full article, SmartStart: Starting the School Year Off Right here.