How can the culture of a school be changed?

I threw this question out on Twitter a week or so ago and got a fair number of responses.

One of the most reasoned responses came from Edna Sackson, an educator from Australia and the author of the blog What Ed Said. Edna shares many of my views on the importance of inquiry and we have collaborated from across the globe to create the blog Inquire Within.

Edna decided to open up the proverbial can of worms in a blog post and I will respond to it here.

Dear Edna,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question in such detail! I think the interest in this question likely stems from the fact that it is a question that we absolutely must answer in education. It relates to the current roiling debates about education reform in the U.S. and abroad.

A little background – I’ve taught for nearly 6 years at a small public high school on an American Indian reservation in Washington State. Our school enrollment consists of 90+% minorities, 90+% free and reduced lunch, and 20+% or our students have been officially classified as homeless. This is a difficult situation for anyone to teach in.

We’ve been in “school improvement” since before I arrived here due to scores on the state standardized assessments and our dropout/ graduation rates. In this time, I’ve experienced several reform efforts. I’ve had 3 superintendents and 4 principals.

Let that sink in for a second…

3 superintendents and 4 principals.

In 6 years.

No wonder we haven’t been able to establish a clear and consistent school culture!

My question stemmed from this experience but it also goes deeper. I really want to know what is working out there – without the media scrubbing or Gates Foundation brainwashing. I want to know the real details, without the slant that school administrators (their jobs are on the line, after all!) put on the progress of their school when faced with media interest.

When a “failing school” is truly turned around (not just test scores), what is the process?

What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?

How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?


I agree with you about establishing learning principles. I believe that this is critical. It creates common language for both teachers and students to use about the culture and focus of the school.

My school is headed in that direction, and yet, I have a fear nagging in the back of my mind – the group creating our learning principles does not include all teachers.

One thing I KNOW about teachers in our school is that we cannot agree about how students should be taught. Especially when it comes to inquiry and student-centered instruction!

Many of our teachers are very teacher/textbook-centric in their instructional methods. They look upon teachers like myself in one of two ways, either (1) I am too “loosey-goosey” and don’t teach the “fundamentals” properly, or (2) what I do is okay for me but too hard for them to replicate. Furthermore, our recent school reform efforts have caused many teachers to become more “traditional” and teach their classes in a more teacher centered, drill-and-kill style.

So, whenever we talk about instruction, we go in circles about how to do it.

This is not working for our students.


I think the real question here is how to go about creating learning principles that are the “right” principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?


What we’re learning about Project Based Learning

This past year has been serious action research for our 9th grade team at WSHS. We’ve been working on Project Based Learning type models in our classes for years. It was only about this time last year, though, when we really hit on a vision of a model that could really take us to the next level. Based on the model of High Tech High, among others, we set out to create our curriculum integrating biology, English and history.

It has not been easy; don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise! It has been extremely rewarding, though.

Right now, I really feel like we are beginning to hit our stride with this Project Based Learning model.

One core concept that we’ve learned is that an engaging project must incorporate at least 1 (preferably 2) of the following 3 criteria:

  1. a significant and relevant (to students) problem for students to investigate and create a solution for;
  2. a clear role for students to play in a situation or simulation that causes them to think like an expert;
  3. significant student choice about how to attack a project

To keep student motivation high and “keep the pressure on” (in a good way), a strong project must culminate with a product that is presented to an audience. Preferably this audience would be one that has a reason to care about the results of the project. This part is difficult but we have found that students are much more motivated for an audience than for a grade!

Finally, for true project success, the students must be crafting high quality work that they are proud of. They need lots of opportunities along the way for feedback (self, peer, teacher) and revision.

What are your thoughts?

Have you tinkered with project based learning?

What makes for a great project?

PBL Challenge – Balancing content vs. project

balance rock

One thing we’re really wrestling with in PAWS (Power Academics at White Swan – our integration of biology, English and social studies) right now is the balance of content and project.

We have a tendency to want to deliver content to our students to prepare them to do a quality project. This has resulted in a model where we mostly control the activities and direction of the classroom for a few weeks at the beginning of a project. Then students are basically given 2 or 3 weeks to put what they’ve learned into a project.

That has paradoxically caused some projects to have too little content integrated into them.

So we are pushing toward a more recursive model:

  • Hook the students into the project with engaging activities, field work, video, provocative text, data, images, etc.
  • Give them the big picture of where we’re going with the project and ask them to “attempt” the project (by answering the driving question, having a discussion, drafting relevant writing, a simulation, etc.)
  • Allow some time for inquiry and research
  • Deliver chunks of content and necessary skills along the way where they make sense and where the students have a “need to know” (via labs, texts, lessons, discussions, etc.)
  • Ask students to revise their work to integrate the new learning
  • Give more time for research
  • Repeat

Here is the model based around our current project, which is a mock trial project about the issue of salmon populations on the Columbia River and the role of dams in the issue. The driving question for this project is “What would happen if all dams were removed from the Columbia River and its tributaries?”

  • We hooked the kids with data about salmon populations, images and video, followed by a visit to a local dam and a wildlife refuge near a local stream
  • We introduced them to the real legal issue that has inspired this project
  • Students chose roles in the case (attorney, expert witness, media)
  • We’ve had guest speakers – an attorney that works with tribal hunting and fishing rights and a member of the Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (we’re working on getting a speaker from the Bonneville Power Administration)
  • Each student is generating an authentic piece of writing within their role (case arguments & discovery for attorneys, expert witness reports, news articles)
  • We have delivered targeted texts and lessons about the issue. For example, I did an interactive presentation about the role of salmon in the river ecosystem.
  • Students have generated 3 progressive drafts of their RAFTS and had peer revision workshops and teacher feedback
  • They are preparing in earnest for a mock trial on 4/26 by doing depositions, preparing witnesses, conducting interviews, making exhibits for evidence, etc.

This project has nearly all students highly engaged. When we have delivered bits of content, they are genuinely interested in learning it because they clearly see the connection to the issue and the court case. They are doing high quality writing and deep research.

This circular model of project –> inquiry –> content –> skills –> project seems to be working.

So far, this has been a very successful project and I expect the mock trial to be outstanding!

Project FAIL: Genetics of Race

So, being the high minded individuals that we are, my co-conspirators in 9th grade project based learning at WSHS decided to attack racism. Hit it head on. Just tear that sucker down!

Of course, we’re just 3 white dudes working on an Indian Reservation with a student population that is 60% American Indian and 30% Latino. Maybe that was our first mistake, I don’t know.

Actually, the meat of the project went pretty darn well. Kids enjoyed the learning, were engaged and handled a prickly issue with class and grace.

In Biology, my piece of the puzzle was to teach them genetics and some evolutionary biology to help them understand what race is (and isn’t), where we think it comes from, and how genetically similar we humans really are.

In World History, the students learned about Hitler, Nazis, WWII and the Holocaust.

In English, they read Maus and wrote various essays about it.

Our common project pieces were meant to be a Public Service Address campaign including an announcement (to be read over the school’s intercom), a poster (to be displayed on campus) and a video (to be shown to fellow students).

Here is where the problems really begin.


We had students call my Google Voice number to record their announcements. These were mostly not very good. They were unfocused and -frankly – just plain boring. Somehow, they mostly managed to have both too much and too little information.

The posters turned out okay, although they took way to long to do. For the amount of time we put into them, they were underwhelming at best. Kids made these in PowerPoint and then we printed them with our school’s large format printer (these are awesome, by the way!).

The real debacle, though, was the videos. These were filmed with Flip Cameras (RIP, Flip!) purchased through We thought we had very clear expectations for the videos. The kids went through a process of brainstorming –> storyboarding –> drafting scripts –> filming. All should have been well. They were engaged. They were excited.

Videos were filmed and then the problems began.

We used JayCut for editing. The site is really slick but uploading video to it took hours. We had some editing glitches (mostly just learning the program) but some groups lost whole videos and had to re-upload (hours wasted). Then we found out that finished videos could not be easily shared on our network (internet filter strikes again!).

The project dragged on. And on. And on. A tight 5 week project became a bloated 8 week nightmare.

That wasn’t even the worst of it.

My aforementioned colleagues and I assembled one day after school to view and assess the videos. 13 of our 15 student groups had submitted video.

They were awful. < Cue trombone playing wah – wahhh>

At least 3 groups dedicated large chunks of their videos to fight scenes.

One or two groups actually seemed to be promoting (or at least making light of) racism.

The only group that kicked out a strong product totally cancelled that out by tacking on a 5 minute rap song at the end full of F-bombs (and not relevant to the project) and accompanying images making light of the holocaust and black stereotypes.

Finally, with the exception of maybe 5 groups, there was little relevant science actually integrated into their product. Most of the rest just threw in the psuedo-fact that “genetically, we are all 99.9% the same.”

Part of this is due to the epic disaster that was our attempt at a drosophila genetics lab. We lost several populations of drosophila to rotting media. This was ironic because the media was not supposed to rot. Well it did. It rotted HARD. One student described the smell in the room as a combination of vomit, urine and sharpie pen ink. He nailed it – that was EXACTLY WHAT IT SMELLED LIKE!

All that being said, I know the kids did learn a significant amount about genetics based on my other assessments. It was just REALLY frustrating to see a project that took so much hard work (on our part and theirs) turn in to a steaming heap. In a lot of ways, this project was a great example of an assessment FOR learning but not an assessment OF learning.

And, yes, in the end, all I really care about is their learning. Except I also really want them to do beautiful work. Work that they are proud of. Work that CLEARLY demonstrates their learning. This did not happen here.

So my questions to you, dear readers, are:

  • What did we do wrong?
  • What should we do differently next year?

Blog shift? or just BS?

I’m not sure where this is going but I feel like I need to do something different with this blog.

My basic modus operandi of the past year has been to write posts that are esssentially informative, persuasive or motivational.

While this has been fun and has helped me to hone by beliefs about education into a clear and cohesive message, I don’t know how sustainable it is going forward.

What I’d really like this space to become is something more reflective. I’m a very reflective person and I believe that reflection is critical for my students. With that in mind, I’m going to try to use this space as a reflective journal for a while and see what happens.

I hope not to lose readers because I don’t just want to broadcast into the ether. That being said, I’m at a point where I feel like writing for myself is more authentic. If anyone else out there benefits from my ramblings, so be it.

Please continue to comment.

Ask questions.


I hope we learn something together.