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Creating A Culture That Counts!

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Who has ever played the game of Dodgeball? Remember that excruciating wait for your name to be called so you could be added to a team? Man, everyone dreads this sorting ritual. No one wants to be called last. Teamwork can evoke the same kind of tension for students. Often, group work results in people being told what to do by one or two ‘leaders’. It’s possible that there was a group member who wasn’t fully participating. Someone ends up feeling they were putting in more effort than their fair share and not being recognized for it. And group grades seem genuinely unfair. Dysfunctional group or team performance continues to pass from one grade level to the next with very few interventions from teachers to check for students’ overall understanding of the group or teamwork process. Teachers often assume students know how to approach this kind of work. Students believed they do, also but the reality is far from the truth.

In my experience working with a number of students (15-40 plus) in the design, production and distribution of a yearbook, I had to examine team dynamics. I evaluated how teams/groups functioned within the context of a classroom and more broadly in the workforce. Discerning that we would be sustaining group work throughout the year, not just for episodic moments, I took time to observe classes involved in group work and confer with teachers about their approaches. It was apparent that the more successful group work was done in classes where the teachers took time to prepare students with specific expectations: a) setting norms within each group, b) tasks/job titles for each group member, c) strategic and time bound group sessions, d) work based on class resources and criteria, etc. Freedom expanded and evolved within a well defined framework! This affirmed what I learned in my professional coursework and in my own classroom practice. Conversely, group work in classes where structure and initial direction for the group was lacking became evident through the conduct of the group members. Communication was stilted or non-existent. Off-task behaviors significantly increased. Although some socialization is expected in a group context, there should not be a complete distraction or distancing from the learning activities. My conclusions of the teachers’ responses varied between classrooms. With the functioning groups, the teacher spent time listening and asking questions to motivate further discovery. With the struggling groups, the teacher spent more time redirecting behaviors, reteaching, and providing direct answers.

In order to sustain a yearlong group work environment, the classroom’s culture had to be definitively defined. I looked to the corporate world for inspiration. Producing the yearbook was probably the most ‘real world’ enterprise these students would encounter during their high school tenure. Looking at how a collaborative, corporate workforce manages their projects seemed a reasonable starting point. In fact, it became vital for me to gain an understanding of how companies and corporations created cultures of ongoing collaborative synergy. I researched two companies more in depth, IDEO and their Design Thinking and Pike Place Fish Market and their Fish! Philosophy. I unpacked their models, compared them to the successful classroom group strategies I’d encountered, and applied both to the yearbook class. Together, my staff and I began to change the culture of the class.

Changing the Culture–What We Needed to Clarify

All students had experience with group work. We needed to look at our collective experiences and define what worked and what didn’t, and we needed to release what was not going to work for us. We also needed to sort what was missing from our collective understanding of how group work functioned.

United Yearbook has a resource for classroom use that assists both the adviser and the yearbook staff to do just that. In Curriculum & Resources Instructional Guide No. 2, Yearbook Organization, there is a series of learning module presentations, and a specific one which addresses this issue: Staff Accountability. This presentation looks at group work through the perspective of each individual’s unique gifts. Once there is an appreciation for each member’s gifts and talents, there is an understanding of the accountability to a greater audience and an increased desire to manage mistakes well. This, along with the collective challenging tests that occur within a group context, builds each individual’s character and creates dynamic, effective teams. The Staff Accountability presentation has learning activities, resources, video and animated shorts curated to develop the great teams for yearbook staff. By engaging my staff in creating a classroom culture that supported the aforementioned markers, we were able to sustain the kind of creative collaborative environment necessary for a successful yearbook production. It wasn’t 100% of the time, but it was really close!

United Yearbook has resources to assist you in creating your classroom’s culture. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or needs you may have. We are ready to serve you!

Former yearbook advisor, Lucy McHugh

Contributor: Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing from a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former visual art teacher and yearbook adviser. She received a Bachelors of Science in Art from Columbia College in Columbia, SC, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000, and in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy enjoys her family, making art and gardening.

Editor, Donna Ladner

Editor: Donna Ladner obtained a B.A. in Education and a minor in English from California Baptist University, and a M.S. in ESL from USC, Los Angeles. After she married Daniel, their family moved to Indonesia with a non-profit organization and lived cross-culturally for 15 years before returning to the U.S in 2012. Donna has been working as an editor and proofreader for TSE Worldwide Press and its subsidiary, United Yearbook since 2015.

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