Start At The Bottom

It’s not every day that you have an epiphany while sipping tea in a cafe in Seville, Spain.  Yet, that is what happened to me two years ago.  I sat there watching the world pass by over the rim of my mug and thought about how I was experiencing this rich, vibrant Spanish way of life — paella, flamenco dancing, beautiful cathedrals, incredible artwork and lively music.  The food, clothing, language, art and music were the first things I thought about when considering this different culture.  

After a few more sips of tea, I thought about some other cultural differences I had experienced.  For example, it’s typical in Spain to eat lunch between 2-3pm followed by dinner around 9-10pm.  Also, siesta is no joke; many businesses close between 2-5pm for a post-lunch rest.  These were not things I could immediately observe; yet, they were just as much a part of Spanish culture.  Perhaps they were even more important.  At that moment, it occurred to me that I had only been thinking about the physical, observable traits of Spanish culture.  There is so much more to consider than just the art, dancing and food.  My a-ha moment: there are observable and unobservable aspects of any culture.

Can I consider my classroom a culture?

Do I need to spend more time focusing on the less visible aspects of my classroom community?

Do the daily routines and physical space of the classroom accurately reflect what I value about teaching and learning?  


There is this idea that culture is like an iceberg. When you look at an iceberg, you are only looking at about 10% of the entire ice mass. When we say culture is evident by clothing, music, food and art–we are only looking at the tip of the iceberg.  We are only noticing a small piece of a much larger whole.  The other 90% is deep below the water line.  This other 90% of the iceberg is intangible—the parts that we don’t always see immediately, but lie below the surface.  The power of the bottom 90% comes from the fact that this hidden part informs and influences how people speak and behave.  Like an iceberg, there are parts of our classroom communities that we can see, touch and describe easily (our routines, desk arrangement, wall decorations, anchor charts, classroom library, etc.)  However, there are also many deeply rooted ideas in a classroom, and being mindful of these intangible values, attitudes and beliefs is what can elevate a community of learners.

At the beginning of each school year, I start at the bottom.  I contemplate the 90% below the surface.  I don’t cover the walls. I don’t arrange the desks. I don’t make name tags.  Before any of that, I have to take time and consider these questions:

  • What values, beliefs and norms do I want my classroom culture to revolve around?
  • How can I instill these into my students so they can be active learners and citizens in our classroom culture?
  • Do the classroom routines and daily practices we establish (i.e. the top 10%) demonstrate our core beliefs and values (i.e. the bottom 90%)?

I strive for a classroom to not be just a physical place, but a culture of its own.  I hope that anyone who steps into our physical classroom space–students, parents, administrators, and guests–can feel a classroom culture of learners who:

  • have a growth mindset,
  • own their learning,
  • critically think,
  • give feedback,
  • take academic risks,
  • have choice and voice in their learning, and
  • treat others kindly.

With this in mind, I have to think about how I can instill these into my students.  I know these are not just activities that we can do in the first few weeks of school.  These are year-long pursuits that become part of our daily routine.  Here are brief descriptions of 3 ways that I try to create a culture of active learning, all of which I will write about in future posts:

1) The Flock – For the past 12 years, I have used this piece of writing as the foundation for my classroom culture. My students think it is really cool that we are the only class with a name. Not a day goes by that I don’t refer to this metaphor. We have daily Flock meetings to share highs/lows of the day, create class goals, and resolve any issues that come up. Each student also has a paper bird that hangs from our ceiling with a statement of intent of how they will contribute to our Flock. I also tell students that once they are in The Flock, they are always in The Flock. My hope is that students know that they are part of a team, where the success of one student makes it easier for the others.

2) Essential Agreements – We start the year introducing five essential agreements. We talk at length about how these are more than just our classroom rules. They are our bill of rights.

  • We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe.
  • We have the right to be treated with respect.
  • We have the right to speak and be listened to.
  • We have the right to work and learn in a positive and supportive learning environment.
  • We have the right to do out best.

We spend a great deal of time discussing what each of these five agreements means and what they look like in the class. We act out skits and make long lists. This conversation doesn’t stop after the first week. It continues to be the main focus of our classroom culture.

3) Mission Statement – In the first week of school, the class and I spend time creating a 1-2 sentence mission statement that states our purpose for coming to class every day. It is posted in the classroom and referred to frequently. A few years back, I had a student say we should have a copy posted outside our classroom door, so our guests know what we stand for. Since then, our mission statement has been posted on our door every year.

Reading the previous posts on this Classroom Communities website has already helped me look beyond the surface-level, top 10% of the iceberg, and focus on creating a culture that goes deep.  I have learned that without a strong classroom culture, learning may not always take place.  I hope the classroom community to which my students and I belong empowers students to sustain a culture where learning, collaboration, risk-taking and mutual respect is paramount.  That might not be something you can see or touch, but bottom 90% is powerful nonetheless.  Remember, the bottom 90% is what sunk the Titanic.


photo credit: jeffmikels deep cover graphic base via photopin (license)