Celina Brennan and Ann Ottmar

Renewing Culture Through a New Mindset

An effective school culture is established by the work we do together on a daily basis, with values determined through a synergistic process. Our culture defines us and our ability to positively impact students and their learning. So how do we truly shift our school cultures toward positive changes that align with supporting the whole child? And how do we develop a collective mindset that leads to dynamic changes and, ultimately, sustains school improvement?

Here is a mantra worth considering: Students first, than standards, than curriculum.

STUDENTS: Putting students first in the planning process allows a culture to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Instead students' individual learning styles, intelligences, strengths, interests, passions, and academic entry points become the priority. Referring to the wise words of Marilee Sprenger (2005), "If you can't reach them, you can't teach them." Students must be understood with intentionality and celebrated for their unique traits. Putting students first requires flexibility in day to day planning, making adjustments on the fly, and relying on frequent collaboration to support a continuous flow of ideas and strategies to meet the diverse needs of the individual minds we are aspiring to engage.

STANDARDS: Identifying specific standards falls next in sequence. It is essential to find students' entry points within the standards and carefully design instruction that meets their needs, regardless if it is above or below their "grade level" expectations. Common Core State Standards use the metaphor of the grade level standards being "signposts" along the way, ensuring that students receive the precursor skills necessary or move beyond the grade level expectations when appropriate (2010, 9). Instead of allowing the standards to define students, assisting them with identifying strengths and goals within the standards proves more productive. The focus should be on helping students to deeply understand that their strengths can trump their weaknesses (Tomlinson & Jarvis 2006). This self-actualization process provides them with a strong foundation from which to learn and grow.

CURRICULUM: Finally, it is necessary to consider the resources and skills needed to support learners in the 21st century. A curriculum structure must be flexible in allowing learners to have different access points, along with a variety of materials at their disposal, to better serve their independent goals. The diverse learners in today's classrooms have difficulty relating to our standards and require relevancies to their lives in order to understand new knowledge and skills (Sprenger 2005). Project-based learning opportunities should be established to ensure authentic inquiry and innovation and should occur frequently. Students must see the bridge between information and purpose in genuine ways. Content is at the fingertips of every individual learner in our digital age. Curriculum becomes less about delivering content and more about the process of accessing and discovering information, evaluating resources, and selecting appropriate materials. Curriculum and textbooks should serve as one of many resources, not the be-all and end-all direction or destination.

Considering this mantra as a metaphor, imagine the student is a traveler on a learning journey. Think of the standards as the learning map; the direction one needs to go. Their individual strengths are the compass that guides them. The curriculum becomes the resources the traveler accesses along the journey. Each traveler has her own personal map based on the direction her compass points and will require different supplies to accomplish the variety of experiences and challenges she will encounter. The journey will be full of variety, diversity, and creative opportunities. She will meet and mingle with other travelers along the way, building relationships that allow them to conquer experiences together.

Speaking as a philosophy that meets the needs of the whole child, reflect on what road blocks would need to be considered? How do you see this fitting within your school culture? What changes would have to occur to adapt to this mindset?

Instituting any successful change begins from the foundation of trust, which signifies positive relationships as essential. We must truly know each of our students, not just by a number, but who they are as individuals in order to make specific decisions that will help them achieve their goals. It is important to discuss a group of students to identify systemwide patterns, but further improvement comes from looking at each individual child that makes up a part of the collective whole. If we start with students first, viewing them as unique entities, we can identify specific goals they need and personalize the educational process for them.

Passion becomes the driving force that can change a school culture. Maiers and Sandvold (2011) claim with certainty that by adding passion into the learning equation, we have a much better shot at meeting challenges and achieving goals. In addition, this creates much happier individuals in the process of doing both. This statement can be considered for all individuals within the learning community, students and adults alike. Being passion-driven ignites inspiration around us, for every learner.

Imagine being a part of a culture that develops a disposition within students of empowerment and self-direction with their learning. Tomlinson and Jarvis (2006) explain that we are most effective as teachers when we help our students discover the power of their own minds to work in their own way to achieve success. Our priority should become teaching students to set goals around their own needs. From this they can access a variety of resources suited to their own learning styles and levels of understanding in order to build on their knowledge and skills. A "students first" approach is centered on meeting students where they are, in any given moment, and guiding them to discover exactly what they need to move forward with success. Their voices need to become an essential part of every culture, guiding change and developing a new mindset.



Maiers, A. & Sandvold, A. (2011). The passion driven classroom: A framework for teaching and learning. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education, Inc.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). (2010). Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Washington, DC: NGA Center and CCSSO.

Sprenger, M. (2005). How to teach so students remember. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C.A. & Jarvis, J. (2006). Teaching Beyond the Book. Educational Leadership, 64(1).

Celina Brennan and Ann Ottmar team-teach 3/4/5 multi-age students at Salnave Elementary School in the Cheney (Wash.) Public Schools. Brennan is the recipient of Washington State ASCD's 2011 Outstanding Young Educator Award. They have opened their classroom to educators across the state as a model of personalized instruction that meets the social, emotional, and academic needs of all learners. Connect with Brennan and Ottmar on the ASCD EDge® social network, on Twitter @celinabrennan and @annottmar, and on their blog.

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