“Creating a Culture that Cares” by Tiffany Eaton

Tiffany Eaton @votefortiff

So many times I have shuddered, hearing “but my kids just don’t get it” or “my students are just not interested in learning.” The question I can’t help but ask myself is: just whose fault is that?

 Surely kids are not innately programmed to sit on a dirty patch of carpet, cold flooring or at rigid desks and listen to us lecture about stuff that, quite frankly, they’re not interested in learning. At the age of 9 did I care if I used a comma in the correct place? How about memorizing the history of the country I lived in while happily sitting ‘Crisscross Apple Sauce’? In fact, even as an adult I was recently reminded (over the course of a 3-day course) that quite frankly, learning isn’t that fun. Or can it be?

I must admit, I’ve been there. Frustrated with the realities of orchestrating a class of 20-30 kids with varying abilities, interests, social skills and levels of ‘grit’ in a classroom. We all do our best with what we know, right? Getting a class invested and engaged isn’t always perfectly how we originally imagine it to be.

How do we move past these realities and create a culture that truly cares?

Dare I suggest we quit making it about ‘us’ as teachers or about the systems we work within and quite simply ask the students how they view their own learning and what they need to be successful? Why not provide the framework of learning and have the students guide each other? Why not stop sitting around talking about ‘what doesn’t work’ and instead, do more to teach kids to truly think, teach kids to truly care and to teach them to find their own true passions.

As educators we’re always talking about this constructivist model that we know—and research has proven to work – but all too often we get caught up teaching the mundane skills, providing random activities that don’t truly lead to authentic learning. We need to back the train up, get to know our students on a deeper level and create the appropriate structures to guide experiences and inquiries that will leave everyone truly interested in learning.

I’ve had several ‘a-buzz’ moments as of late that have left me energized, full of hope and reminded me what learning in a Primary school should be all about: letting kids explore, find their passions and abilities and choosing when they want to dig deeper. Through these various activities I’ve been reminded of the value in relaxing myself and in turn, allowing kids adequate time to make it happen….

1.    Concentric thinking:

Inspired by my PYP coordinator’s use of the ‘Concentric Thinking’ model, several weeks ago I ordered 56 graphic organizer mats to be printed for use in the classroom. How they would be used, I had no idea. However since spreading all 56 large mats across the hallway, my kids have been bright eyed and bushy-tailed about their learning…. independently. In fact, one student even came in this morning and the first thing out of her mouth was, “When can we use those big organizing mats again; I made a little one in my homework book!”

Once spread down the hallway, my class’ goal was to prove wrong the teacher that walked by chuckling at the abundance of mats everywhere and commented, “What are you going to use those for? I bet they’ll accumulate dust.” Not long after, I could hardly hold back the class and we stopped talking about the mats and simply started ‘doing’ with them.

The students automatically saw numerous graphic organizers that represented their personal thinking/passions and they physically jumped on different mats. Some used their bodies on the mats while others recorded their ideas with sticky notes, visibly showing their thinking. The class blew my mind and students explicitly taught their peers various ways they can use these organizers to shape their thinking. How to solve an algebra equation in two ways (“one way fast like a rabbit, one way slow like a turtle”); Vietnam in the past, present and future; an iceberg analyzing the depth of feelings; steps of travel; to reach the ‘core’ of their passion project.

Since then we have used these mats for UOI, Math, Passion Projects and our integrated literacy. Not only do I find myself amazed by the conversations that have ensued from these mats, but so have the visitors that have passed us in the hallways or pop into class. They have commented on our active discussions, surprised that 9-year olds can debate topics such as the impact of globalization, contrasting societal structures worldwide and modernization. I can’t help but think: why do we keep telling kids exactly how to do everything our way and then complain that our students these days don’t think for themselves?

2.    Passion Projects/Genius Hour/20% Time…. Whatever you want to call it:

Need I say more? If we want kids to think, sometimes it is as simple as giving them time to think about ‘what makes them itch’ (of excitement), pursuing their diverse talents and abilities.

Once a week my class is almost completely independent, with students engulfed in cooking, drawing, learning about Math, researching laws, writing, building airplanes to scale, etc. Whoever said that kids these days don’t care about anything have it all wrong. I can’t help but think that if they’re not interested, their learning must not be relevant to them or is being presented in a manner that makes more sense to the teacher than to the kids. Do you blame them for not caring?

If we want risk-takers in our classes and for students to, “Understand what [they] don’t know and be willing to explore things [they] don’t know without feeling embarrassed” as Sir Ken Robinson recently commented, don’t we as teachers need to be willing to explore new ways of teaching as well?

3.    Leadership Opportunities: Caring 4 Creepers

Running the Community Development Club could be a headache, organizing bi-weekly field trips, fundraisers and kids filling your room during breaks, screaming cheers they will use the next day to promote their causes over a mega-phone. Personally, I can’t help but feel the absolute opposite. In fact, having kids lead the school by example has improved their confidence, focus in class and ability to think outside the box.

When the year began the ‘Community Development’ group couldn’t think past running a bake sale. A bake sale that would involve their nannies baking beautifully presented cookies and cakes all night without any authentic learning occurring and students frantically buying. Spending money, that quite frankly, they didn’t earn (let alone doesn’t remotely cover the cost of the baked goods if we were to do the math…!).

Over the course of 6 months, the students have been hands-on in organizing, visiting and asking questions about the world and questioning the answers they’ve found. They are now throwing ideas of large-scale fundraising initiatives, huge awareness campaigns, and more sustainable projects. The apprehension they displayed on their first visits to our partner organizations as small children jumped and touched them has completely diminished and they are finally seeing kids as kids and are happy to learn together. It’s not perfect and it’s not always sustainable but they’re 9 and we’re going in the right direction…

The world is changing so rapidly that we can’t possibly teach to a text. We need to be encouraging kids to interact, kids to do kid stuff and kids to care. This isn’t breakthrough and we’ve heard it all before, however I can’t help but wonder:

  • W​hy do we keep telling students how and when to think, without giving them opportunities to truly feel any ‘why?’
  • Why are we directing our students to think in our way, guiding everything they do with checklists and step-by-step procedures? They’ve grown up in a new, more technologically complex world and by February, it’s time to gradually release our control at a rate that works for our class.
  • After our students (all too) obediently follow our specific instructions day after day, why do we then we complain that they are not capable thinking for themselves?
  • Why do we wonder when they go crazy at recess or when we turn our backs in class and they go wild? Then again, why do many teachers tremble when an Administrator walks in their classrooms door?
  • Are we really giving students the skills and attitudes to be successful? Do we as teachers really have the skills to be so-called ‘successful’ ourselves?

Let’s put aside our issues with the systems, standards and our own personal problems and let’s take a risk to liven up some learning. Let’s work together to challenge our students to take ownership in their learning. As educators, let’s challenge each other to make a better effort to share, collaborate and seek help from one another more, finding the best people to inspire a culture that really cares!

….. Maybe we should all be re-learning how to truly think, together.



  1. Desiree Finestone

    Sam you have hit the nail on the head! These kids have grown up in a different world and it is up to us to work out how best to engage these minds that engage in a different way to ‘what used to be’. The other day I told the kids the focus of our lesson and asked them how we should go about learning it. I was amazed at how seriously they brainstormed ideas. I went away, and had a think about their ideas. Next day told them I was implementing their ideas mixed with mine and we had the most amazing learning session. Kids were engaged and kept saying ‘ Let’s do this all the time! It’s such fun!’. My 23 kids who are well known to be ‘challenging’ ‘interesting’ ‘lively’ ‘lack focus’ were all fully engaged. And I loved every moment!!!! My Year 5 class are teaching me how to teach! I now have to be the risk taker!

    • sherrattsam

      Hi Desi, I can’t take the credit for this posting, it was written by my colleague Tiffany!

      I like that you handed over responsibility to the kids to decide how to learn something. Whenever we do that, they surprise us! And, they often come up with better ideas than us too.

  2. david

    Sam, I really liked how you are reminding us here what it really means to have the students in the centre of the learning experience. When I have those energizing moments that you talk about sometimes, i fear to get too outside the box or not following what I am supposed to do within my programme. As you say, we educators have to keep working and reflecting on our risk taking capacity and that’s not always comfortable or easy.
    Thank you for such an inspiring post!

    • sherrattsam

      Thanks David. However, my colleague Tiffany wrote the posting so I can’t take credit for it!

      Let your instincts take over, you can always get back to your programme and… very often… a lot of the progranmme will come up naturally anyway!

  3. Pingback: “Creating a Culture that Cares” by Tiffany Eaton | Time Space Education

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