My findings section can also be accessed through going to the Action Research page and downloading the FREE pdf version in green below the  graphic of the book. The Findings can be found on pages 31-117.

Cultivating a Culture

Cultivating a culture began before my students ever stepped foot on campus.  If my goal was to create a community of learners based on collaboration, offer meaningful and challenging curriculum, evolve our work through critique and celebrate students’ accomplishments, I would need to design a classroom environment that spoke to this. 

I arranged student desks’ in groupings of four to eight so that students always had a peer and a peer group with whom to collaborate.  While my room does have a front and a back, I designed the desks so that students were facing each other, not the doc cam and projector screen.  I wanted students to know from day one that we were a community, and as such, we would be working together. 

Because I was teaching a mixed ability class I wanted to make sure that table arrangements were representative of the diversity of students’ experiences. I researched students’ previous academic grades, California State Test scores, and special program involvement.  Special programs include both gifted and talented certification and special education.  In addition to this, I also identified students who were English language learners.  With this information about students in hand and some advice from their previous’ years English teachers, I carefully designed the seating chart.

The first activity my students participated in was Welcome Back Pictionary.  This activity required they introduce themselves to each other at their table groups and then one by one use a small white board to illustrate, without talking, one thing they did over the summer vacation that brought them joy.  While this may have been a risky activity for the first day of school when anxiety is high, and students are shuffling into classrooms that hold new faces and unknown territory, the overall response of students was enthusiastic, and at times quite loud as they called out their guesses.  Because I modeled the activity and provided a few examples before I let students go to work in their own groups, the expectation was set.  I let students know that I was there to help them if they needed an idea and walked the room to observe and pitch in.

On the surface, Pictionary may have appeared to be just another activity to take up time, but on further analysis it requires that participants symbolically illustrate a meaningful event.  Each participant must think critically and creatively to depict an idea so that the other participants can guess what it is.  The game requires collaboration on everyone’s part to come up with the answer.  I found that it was an effective icebreaker for first introductions and it immediately put students in a situation where they had to rely on and build upon each other’s responses to make an interpretation.   In The Power of Protocols: An Educator’s Guide to Better Practice, the authors mention opening moves and the importance of introductions: 

Introductions have two general purposes.  The first is to get everybody present to say something right away—something that connects each to the business of the group.  People who speak early at a meeting are more likely to avoid the prolonged silence that might otherwise envelope them and become a source of tension for themselves as well as others.  The second purpose is to help everyone know something relevant about each of the people joining them in a learning activity (2007, p. 218).

Pictionary served these two purposes in a meaningful, engaging manner and served as a bridge so that the next day when students came into class they knew a little about their table partners and had some conversation starters to pull from based on the information shared in the icebreaker.

In addition to getting to know their peers, I also wanted students to know me and in turn I wanted to know all about them.  In their book How to be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School(2001), teachers Harry K. Wong  and Rosemary T. Wong emphasize the importance of teacher introductions on the first day of school.   Students wonder, “Who is this teacher as a person?”  So I launched a PowerPoint that I created to allay any wonderings students might have about the 40 something year old lady walking around the room.  The PowerPoint presentation included how to pronounce my last name, my teaching experience, my own educational history, information about my family, my pets and my interests.  Using this PowerPoint as a model, I had my students generate a list of topics they could include in a “Me” project.  (You can find the student generated “Me” project in Appendix D.)  So, in some sense, this was their first informal introduction to model critique.  Because students did not have access to technology at school during the first few weeks, we also generated a list of project formats, such as a letter, comic strip or poster.  I allowed students choice in whether they wanted to share their “Me” project with just me or the entire class.  In the class that I did my action research in, every single student opted to share their project with only me.  This was unlike my other humanities block, a gifted seminar class, where kids had been scheduled together for years and knew each other well.  The seminar class opted to share their “Me” projects with their peers.  I knew from the outset that I would need to provide my diversity cluster with many community-building experiences so that they would feel comfortable sharing their work with each other.  Their decision about who would be their audience for the “Me” project reinforced this for me.

Coming to a Common Understanding of Beautiful Work

I treated this initial project as a lens through which to gauge my students’ abilities.  What could they create on their own given my model and a list of criteria and presentation styles? What would their work look like?  Because this was a project about them, would they turn in beautiful work? 

Well, kind of…students created everything under the sun—pizza boxes, cereal boxes, movies, a locker, crossword puzzles, even t-shirts.  Their imaginations in regards to products were unquantifiable, yet the majority of their revelations were on the surface and did little to set them apart or capture their uniqueness.  Their work was ripe for revolution.  This was going to be a GREAT year.

Following this, I presented students with curriculum and an idea—it takes practice and hard work to be good at something. I didn’t say this in words.  I didn’t lecture.  I showed them.  I had them watch a video of Olympic 400 m. runner Michael Johnson and then we read the poem “Dig Your Starting Holes Deep” by Frank Horne.  We discussed the idea that in order for Johnson to win the gold, he had to put in hours of practice.  His performance was the culmination of effort and hard work.  It was beautiful.  Likewise, “Dig Your Starting Holes Deep” advises the runner to “think only of the goal, run straight, run high, run hard, save nothing, and finish with an ecstatic burst that carries you hurtling through the tape to victory.” I thought more than ever, because this would be the first year students of mixed abilities were scheduled into a humanities block together, it would be appropriate to ring in the school year with this poem.  We could all run, but we needed to practice in order to hurtle through the tape to our individual victories.

Cultivating a culture that values beautiful work began with assessing what experiences students had had with beautiful work. “What is beautiful work?”  I asked them.

“Beautiful work is anything that makes someone feel happy, amazed, or makes someone think about it.  Beautiful work could be the Mona Lisa or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Your own beautiful work is anything you are proud of.” – Tyson

“Beautiful work moves you in a way that words, themselves, cannot.” –Rachel

“Beautiful work is something you are proud of, something that you are not afraid to show people and won’t care if they like it or not because it represents you.” – Jasper

“Makes you stop and think, ‘Why did he or she go so far, was it their hard work or their passion?’ ” – Mika

So, students believed that beautiful work not only has an emotional impact, such as making you happy or moving you in a way words cannot, but beautiful work also engages the brain, it makes you think about it.  This took me back to the idea of Howard Gardner’s belief that good work has lasting value.  Students also thought that beautiful work was something that was personal and its creation was something that would make them proud.  Beautiful work has a transformative effect.  When I read Frank Horne’s poem to students, I had them discuss in table groups and then as a whole class, 1) The meaning of the poem, 2) The connection between the poem and a new school year,  and 3) The elements from “Dig Your Starting Holes Deep” that made it a beautiful piece of work.  I’ve found that providing students with time to discuss a text, a concept, or ideas with each other helps them unpack the task at hand and results in more comfort and participation when they are asked to participate in discussion as a whole class or individually show their thinking.  This is a norm in my class.  Going back to Rogoff (1998), learning is a social endeavor, and communicating with each other helps students create deeper understandings as well as establish community.

From here, I asked students to tell me in writing about a time they created something beautiful, something that they were proud of and reflect on what made them proud. Here is what two of my focus students revealed:

“When I was in 5th grade, my grandpa got lecemea.  He got very sick, but is still alive.  It taught me to never give up.  In 5th grade I made some of my best work because I wrote about my grandpa and the sadness that it brought me.  I will never forget that time.” – Rachel

“When I was in 6th grade I did a poem called ‘The beauty of Life.’  It wasn’t homework because I actually enjoyed doing it.  It was the best thing I ever did.  To me it was beautiful the best thing in the world.  I read it aloud to my class and the principal was there.  What made it feel like an accomplishment was that everyone liked it.  The principal and my teacher said that they were both proud of me.  My mom and dad were astonished and proud of my beautiful work.” – Mika

            Both Rachel and Mika’s anecdotes reveal that beautiful work emanates or originates from a meaningful task.  While Rachel’s experience captures the idea that beautiful work is a result of putting one’s heart into it, Mika’s experience touches on the impact of audience.  Having an audience beyond the teacher can result in students understanding that their work has value.  This made me think about their “Me” projects once again, and the fact that they had chosen to only share them with me.  Students in this class had experienced the impact of audience, yet weren’t ready to go there.  It was the beginning of the school year.  My students had attended traditional schools throughout their seven years of education, perhaps them wanting to share with just me was the norm to them.  And then again, perhaps they weren’t ready yet because this was a new setting.  I had 34 students in the diversity cluster, twelve who were certified gifted and talented and had been enrolled in cluster classes for years.  The other twenty-two showed up to my door on the first day of school and found out they were now in a cluster class.  I wondered what, if any, impact that had on them and how that might have influenced their decision about sharing their “Me” project with others.                                      

            I then asked students to consider and jot down the elements that went into creating a piece of beautiful work.  Tyson wrote, “Something that gives you the awe factor.  Put your own heart into anything you do and that thing is beautiful.” Jennifer commented “Deep, creative, specific words and thoughts” are elements of beautiful work.  Rachel answered, “Practice,” and Amy responded, “What I think goes into creating a piece of beautiful work is you wanting to achieve it.  You working really hard on it.  Putting your mind on it and only that.”  In the words of my students, beautiful work consisted of focusing, practicing, putting your heart and mind into action, and being passionate.  My kids already had a good idea of what beautiful work was, because I had asked them to reflect on a personal experience with it.  Whether or not it was their performance in a football game, a piece of art work they created or a book report, students had a grasp of the elements that went into beautiful work.

Cultivating a Mindset

My belief is a lot of people have intelligence and you’re not born smart, you get smart and you’re not born a winner, you’re not born a loser, you’re born a chooser.”  -Nikki

Creating a culture that valued beautiful work also involved instilling students with the belief that they could achieve, whether they had been labeled as underachieving, certified gifted, testing below basic on the California State Tests, or were classified as English language learners.  I spent the first few weeks dosing students up with Vitamin C curriculum, such as the Reader’s Digest article “The Secret of Straight A Students” which discusses strategies that help students succeed and “The Trouble with Talent” by Kathy Seal, which argues that people are not born smart, but get smart by working hard.  Months after we read these articles, I asked my students what they believed about intelligence and ability.  Rachel said, “My belief is that you have to work hard to achieve greatness and good work doesn’t just happen, you have to work for it.”  Thomas responded, “People who put their minds to something and don’t give up can accomplish the thing they set out to do.”  Nikki commented with the quote above in stating, “My belief is a lot of people have intelligence and you’re not born smart, you get smart and you’re not born a winner, you’re not born a loser, you’re born a chooser.”  Jennifer stated, “You have to work hard.  No one is born smart and you have to keep going and never give up when it gets hard, stay committed to your goals.” 

I would love to think that I had successfully brainwashed my students into thinking that success and achievement are a result of effort, but most of them already felt this way when they came to me.  When I surveyed them at the beginning of the year before reading “The Trouble with Talent” and asked, “Are you born smart, or do you get smart by working hard?” Thirty-two out of thirty-four students believed that you got smart by working hard.  Two believed people were born smart. Months later, one of the students who previously had stated that people are born smart still believed this to be true.