“People eat different foods in different parts of the world. We might find it unusual that someone would eat a bat, and someone else might find it unusual that we would eat a cow,” said the teacher to the 4th grade students. “Sometimes we aren’t even aware of the choices that we make, or that we don’t make when it comes to the food we eat.”
“I think some people who visit this country probably find it weird that people walking on the street will say hello to total strangers that they pass,” said the 6th grade student. “That seems like it isn’t something that is part of everyday life and culture around the world.” The other students paused to consider this.
In our Humanities program, the concept of culture propels each unit of study and ties together different strands of the curriculum. Earlier this fall I observed a Middle School class that set about identifying elements of U.S. culture such as social structures, customs and traditions, language, morality, government, and the very challenging idea of cultural expression. After surfacing their own knowledge and ideas, students returned to the framework repeatedly over the following weeks to fill in more information they gathered from their classwork and research.
The study of human lives, and how we organize ourselves, begins in our Elementary School program. During the Family Culture Share in 1st grade, students and their parents/guardians share photos and images of ancestors, as well as special artifacts, memories, and traditions from their lives. Our 3rd grade curriculum looks deeply at the lives of the Amah Mutsen and other Indigenous Peoples who lived in this area before the arrival of the Spanish, while 4th grade students study the history of California and the people who have shaped it over time.
At Gateway, the word culture is one of our key themes for the year (along with connection, as I wrote about last month in my blog called In Search of Connection, and consistency, which I’ll write about next month). I like to define culture as “the beliefs and values that drive our words, actions, and choices”, and with that in mind, this year we are asking our community the questions, “What is our desired school culture?” and “What can we do to move towards that together?”
One activity we did on this topic was to ask the staff to describe the best attributes of a powerful learning community, which we then boiled down to four key ideas: effective leadership, successful work, engaged professional growth, and a healthy culture and social environment. Words we shared that characterize a healthy culture included Belonging and connection, Equality, Humor, Intentional listening, Reciprocal and respectful, Support and encouragement, Thoughtful and reflective,Trust and safety, and Universal buy-in. I love how this describes the collaborative and collegial environment our team seeks to create.
The forces of culture outside of Gateway are powerful. Sometimes we are asked about the school’s approach to cultural events such as the National Hispanic Heritage Month that runs September 15-October 15, or the LGBTQ+ History Month that runs October 1-31. At Gateway, we’re wary of a so-called “celebrate and ignore” approach that reduces the experiences and identities of people to a single day or month. Instead, we aim for our curriculum to inclusively address the experiences of the marginalized and oppressed in an ongoing way. At the same time, we know that events and theme months are opportunities to kick-start those conversations; and, ignoring them, even for a well-intended deeper approach, can unintentionally communicate that we don’t know or care. So we share resources, and teachers make careful choices to weave the curriculum together with our core value of the courage to promote a just society, and our commitment to teaching students to be upstanders, squarely at the center.
For some people, understanding culture is a challenge. While marginalized individuals often see the shape and impact of a dominant culture, those inside it may not, which explains why white people in this country don’t always know how to describe white culture, or why men aren’t always aware of the experiences of women, or so on with ableism, sexuality, etc. A crucial beginning point is to understand and accept that we make big assumptions about language as having fixed meaning, and learning how different people talk about a nuanced topic — such as Hispanic or Latinx — can be an important first step in gaining new perspectives.
Peter Drucker, one of my favorite organizational psychologists, famously encapsulated the power of culture thus: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s why, as both individuals and a school, there is no state of being finished with this work; the journey towards a braver, more compassionate, and more rigorous culture is what matters. I invite you, our parents and guardians, to consider the culture of our community — the social structures, customs and traditions, language, morality, government, and cultural expressions — and to lend your voice and ideas to our efforts in your child’s class and with your peer group. Indeed, the culture of our enrolled families is a major factor in the school’s success and our ability to help our children grow and thrive in today’s world.
Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School