How can I make my school better academically and culturally?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I do believe that there are some active steps that students can take to improve their schools academically and culturally.  They all involve a commitment to making your school a better place than when you found it and something that will be better for all as time passes.

I think that one of the most important elements to improving academic and cultural realities of a school involves inclusion of everyone.  When school settings are divided through cliques and isolation, academics and culture deteriorate. Think about it: If a student feels that there is no place for them in a school, there is a lesser likelihood of them wanting to do well in school. Validation in the form of feeling accepted, or at the very least not harassed, helps to enhance success in and outside of the classroom.

Students can help in this process.  One way is to create study groups that include as many people as possible.  For example, put up flyers in which you host a study group in the cafeteria after school.  Make your study group focus on an upcoming assessment that everyone has to take.  For example, advertise your study group as focusing on that upcoming exam on the quadratic formula, or that essay from Of Mice and Men, or on the events of the American Revolution.  Make it open to the public.  Everyone can attend and everyone can learn from one another.  Students do so much together that they might as well study and learn from one another.  Study group formation is one way in which school climate and academic pursuits.

Another way to increase student inclusiveness is to start an extra- curricular group or activity.  Finding students that share a common interest even though they come from different backgrounds can help to minimize student alienation.  You will probably need an adult to sponsor the activity, but creating a club or student interest group can help to make your school better. You will be organizing students based on their own passions and interests and thus enhancing student voice.

There are other ways to help your school become better academically and culturally.  I saw an awesome activity two years ago at our school.  Two students were tired of the increasingly negative atmosphere.  One day, they wrote 300 small notes, one for each person in their grade level.  The notes were small, almost a bit bigger than a spitball. Each note contained a one sentenced positive message. They were affirmations like, "I think that you have nice eyes" or "I love your style" and "You have a great sense of humor." They were not specific in terms of a person like, "Joe, you are cool," but rather general saying, "Someone out there thinks you are cool."  

The two students would walk up to a person and simply give them one of these notes. There was no explanation and no discussion.  Whether the person took it was up to them.  Initially, some students threw them away. However, as a couple students took them and saved them, more followed suit.  Soon, the buzz was what notes people got and how they were smiling over them.  As the two kids saw more people buying in, they encouraged more students to do it and soon, no one could figure out the source.  The only thing that mattered was that each day, people were smiling more about the notes.  

As a teacher, it was cool to see how the grade level climate improved because of students taking action.  It was also fairly righteous to see teachers try to reprimand kids for passing notes, only to feel embarrassed at intercepting notes that said, "I think you are very special" or "You are going to do great things in the future."  It was a small attempt that went far to bolstering student confidence and voice, elements that help academics.

Another similar thing that can be done is to get small post- it notes.  Write something about how beautiful someone is, how their inner beauty is really important, and how physical beauty is universal, and stick it on the bathroom mirrors in your school bathroom.  Keep doing this for a while. Kids tend to look at themselves in the mirror and see all the negatives.  The other option is equally true in that they see themselves as "beautiful" because other people deem them as such.  However, if the notes remind them that the mirror does not detect beauty as much as what is within, it is a thought that will burrow itself in their mind.  I think that doing this over time will get  kids to think positively about themselves and their school.

These are just  a few suggestions and you can find many more online and through pure thought.  If you are geared towards making your school better within the classroom and outside of it, make sure you are committed to including everyone.  This means that people like and people you might not know very well.  Social and academic conditions improve when everyone is included. You cannot pick and choose on this one as inclusion insists on universality.

Some people might not take to it and that is completely acceptable. They might reject it and say some foul things in the process of you trying to do the right thing.  It is what it is.   However, it has been my experience that when there is a sincere and authentic attempt to reach everyone, more times than the not the gesture is accepted because it seeks to keep an eye on the social and academic maintenance of the school climate.  Over time, your commitment will translate into making your school better for everyone.

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