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“I would signal to turn left, someone would offer up what they saw as a nice gesture, and I would curse them from inside my car before eventually making the turn,” Cory Olson writes.
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What driving in New England taught me about building a robust classroom culture

There’s a sense of belonging that comes from knowing — and feeling ownership of — the rules of the road. 

After growing up in the rain-soaked shadow of Mt. Rainier in southwest Washington, I earned my teaching chops in classrooms on the southern coast of New England. Despite the bone-chilling winters, it was a beautiful place to be.

Often, while driving there and trying to make a left turn, a car headed in the opposite direction would stop — unprompted by any sign or light — and briefly hold up the traffic behind them while I turned.

Cory Olson
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The first few times it happened, it was something of a standoff because I didn’t completely trust them to remain stationary, and I was more than a little annoyed by their refusal to follow the “normal” rules of the road. Things went on in this way for a while. I would signal to turn left, someone would offer what they saw as a nice gesture, and I would curse them from inside my car before eventually making the turn.

Somewhere along the way, it changed. Not the driving custom — that was as solidified as the same folks grabbing an early morning iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts — but rather my perspective of it. Slowly, I began to develop a tolerance for the offering of a free left turn. Then I came to appreciate it. Once I built some trust with the other drivers on the road, and could better predict what they were going to do, I realized that if you approached it from a collective perspective, it actually saved drivers time. One driver sacrificed a few seconds to save the other driver a few more, and in all likelihood, it would sooner or later be reciprocated.

Although it was a simple driving custom, this experience taught me a good deal about culture, trust, and belonging. My comfort level was determined by a sense of belonging, or lack of it, to that culture and the people who shared it. I needed to build trust with others who already seemed to belong. It is something often overlooked in our daily lives and, more specifically, in our classrooms.

When we educators set out to build classroom culture, assuming that we do, it can be tempting to do so with a unilateral vision that we know will lead to a safe, engaging, and effective learning environment. The trouble with that, aside from the fact that we may not know quite as much as we think we do, is that there’s a bunch of other autonomous humans occupying the same space with their own version of how things should operate. Without any sort of shared culture, which requires deep discussion, tough compromises, and an understanding of the class’ free left turns, all of those visions will continue to exist separately. Eventually, they will crash into one another.

The time it takes to make space for all voices when establishing classroom norms and culture is worthwhile when you consider the sense of belonging that comes from knowing — and feeling ownership of — the unwritten rules of the road.

It takes little more than some markers and chart paper to get started. If students have not engaged in this process before, it can be helpful to provide a prompt. I use something along the lines of: “What do you want to be true in this space?” If you find that too abstract, you can ask them how they want to be treated in this classroom. Have them work in small groups at first, and then share their ideas with the whole class. It may seem treacherous, but I give everyone veto power for this part of the process. There must be a consensus for anything to be transferred to the final list of classroom norms. Once complete, students and teachers should sign or initial what will become a living, breathing document.

In my experience, students tend to be very reasonable throughout this process. One area that can require compromise, though, is around the use of technology. It’s quite possible that students will overestimate their self-control when it comes to their phones. Students can be given the benefit of the doubt initially, and if need be the norms can evolve through an abridged version of the same process. In fact, this will only work if you return to the norms as issues arise, as students resist accountability, and provide opportunities for them to remember their input and agreement.

Sometimes I share with my students the story of being new to the New England roadways. On the road, free left turns save time; in school, they can yield a strong and cohesive classroom culture.

Cory Olson is a high school science teacher and department chair, currently teaching physics and biology at Empower Community High School in Aurora, Colorado. He founded the Liberatory Laboratory to help students take control of their learning and be change agents in their community.

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