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Iowa Writing Project

Ron Berger. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students

Posted on Wednesday, October 26th, 2016

Introduction: Long a full-time elementary classroom teacher in western Massachusetts (25 years when the book was published) who also worked summers, vacations and some weekends as a carpenter, Berger is now Chief Academic Officer for Expeditionary Learning. In the classroom or on the building site my passion is the same: if you’re going to do something, I believe, you should do it well. (p.1) He sees “craftsman” as a high compliment connoting integrity, knowledge, dedication and pride in work. I want a classroom full of craftsmen. The introduction sets up his approach – and the approach of his school & colleagues – to cultivating craftsmanship in all students. I have students whose lives are generally easy and students with physical disabilities, and health or family problems that make life a struggle…In the end, they need to be proud of their work and their work needs to be worthy of pride. (p.2) He attributes remarkable & demonstrable success to a hard earned culture of the school that instills an ethic of excellence. I don’t believe there’s a shortcut to building a new culture. It’s a long-term commitment. It’s a way of life. (p.4) Some points:

  • The key to excellence is this: it is born from a culture…Once children enter a culture with a powerful ethic, that ethic becomes their norm…what they know. 1

  • …the process of schooling itself imbues values – we have no choice about this. If we want citizens who value integrity, respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work, we need to build school cultures that model those attributes. (p.7) 2

  • You need a focal point – a vision – to guide the direction for reform. The particular spark I try to share as a catalyst is a passion for beautiful student work and developing conditions that can make this work possible…work of excellence in any discipline is beautiful to me…

  • … work of excellence is transformational. Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. There is an appetite for excellence. (p.8)

Distinguishing between architects of educational policy and teacher-builders, Berger promises a voice from the building site – a teacher’s view of how to get to excellence.

Chapter One: An Archiver of Excellence shares many examples of what Berger sees as unforgettable student work…stunning student projects…students presenting their work… sometimes in staff development settings with disbelieving colleagues. His archive derives from student portfolios, project reports and work products of service to school and community, slides of the developmental processes of particular pieces, and student presentations during regular celebrations of hard work, dedication, support, critique and revision. It is the fruit of sweat and care. It showcases…a school ethic and culture that compels students to achieve more than they think possible. (p.23) Some of the work comes from his school’s use of “graduation by exhibit.” One of my jobs as a teacher…is to be an historian of excellence, an archiver…I am on the lookout for models of beautiful work, powerful work, important work…documenting these models with the integrity they deserve is important to us…[when] showing slides of impressive student work, I want those slides themselves to fit our standards of quality. (p.30) 3 Berger begins new class projects with models of excellent work by former students and work gathered from other schools during his consulting. We critique and discuss what makes work powerful: what makes a piece of creative writing compelling and exciting; what makes a scientific or historical research project significant and stirring…when students arrive at school in the morning they often drift right over to this library of excellence – on the walls, on counters, in boxes – and recharge their vision. (p.31)

Chapter Two: The First Toolbox, A School Culture of Excellence

I, too, am worried about performance…obsess over basic skills…understand the pressure of high-stakes tests…care deeply about academic success. To improve these things, culture matters…Thinking that projects or critique or portfolios are a magic solution… is as silly as thinking high-stakes testing will turn schools around. Only as part of a strong classroom culture or school culture are these tools valuable. (p.34) 4

Berger sees family, neighborhood and school cultures as largely governing student achievement. Teachers must reach out to all three in order to cultivate a peer culture in which it is “cool to care.” Part of a socio-cultural advantage for many students is knowing it’s perfectly normal to work your tail off to get good grades. (Ultimately Berger’s focus is powerful learning, not grades.) Because this advantage (ethic of caring & work) can exist in all kinds of schools, Berger has a particular interest in what it takes to fit in, socially and academically, in different school cultures. He believes we should be engaged in conversations about this with students and others, pushing the discussions to include behaviors toward schooling and learning. He consciously cultivates positive peer pressure…for a safe, supportive environment for student learning. (p.36)

One thing clear to me though is that the power of culture rests in community…though the settings and resources are often widely different, every effective school I’ve seen has a strong sense of community…Students and staff feel they are a part of something – they belong to something. (p.41) Beyond physical, safe also means to take risks and to care about trying hard. His school is small and rural, and he contends that building strong school communities means fighting the social trend of bigger everything. Berger says it’s more useful to consider schooling not as a delivery system but as an experience. What does a student go through in the course of a day? How does a student behave in this school in order to fit in? Where do students feel safe? What are the opportunities for the student to contribute, to create, and to be recognized for his or her talents and efforts? What motivates a student to care? (p.44) 5

Chapter Two addresses building a foundation for community, taking pride in places of learning and the impressions they give (modeling an ethic of caring), cultivating a vision of excellence, and supporting community inside and outside the school. Berger and his colleagues are conscious of the perpetual need to earn the trust of the community to shape our school (p.51) through arduous faculty collaboration & governance. Along with local control comes a high level of accountability…we need to convince them all year we are doing a good job. This is accomplished especially through what the community sees students doing and learning – and how they see them behaving – outside the school, including through projects which help the town. Service is considered an active part of citizenship… enacted excellence as a human being. (p.53) 6

Chapter Three: The Second Toolbox, Work of Excellence

We can’t first build the students’ self-esteem and then focus on their work. It is through their own work that their self-esteem will grow…All the self-esteem activities…won’t make them feel like proud students until they do something they can value. (p.65)

Powerful Projects…the first step in encouraging high-quality student work is to have assignments that inspire and challenge students…In my own building, we structure most student assignments within projects…teachers use interdisciplinary themes…for weeks or months at a time, and within these themes students complete projects…the primary framework through which skills and understandings are learned. They (projects) are not extensions or extras when the required work is done (but) are themselves at the core of the curriculum. In the course of a thematic study there may be three or four significant projects, most of which require research, writing skills, drafting skills, and sometimes mathematical or science skills…these skills are put to immediate use in the service of an original project with high student investment in) a school culture where high-quality projects are celebrated everywhere in the building. (p.66) 7

the project model where I teach is predicated on every child succeeding. Not just finishing, but producing work that represents excellence for that child…the classroom is the hub of creation, the project workshop. The overall quality of the work that emerges is a concern for every member in it…there is a sense of peer pressure to keep up with the standard. These projects are made public and every student knows it. (p.70) 8

Berger stresses the role of mandatory components of projects, completed by everyone, and original components completed by those ahead of the group pace. Though the process is universal, the products are not uniform…within this frame…is latitude for personal choice and artistry. (p.71) The rest of Chapter 3 addresses:    9

  • Building literacy through the work – continuous capacity building; many contexts

  • Genuine research – teacher & students exploring new ground together

  • The power of the arts – aesthetic considerations; presenting self & work with care

  • Models – images of what quality work looks like; what makes work strong?

  • Multiple drafts – quality means rethinking, reworking and polishing, not 1 draft

  • Critique – a habit of mind suffusing all subjects; practice and culture

  • Making work public – reason to care; worthy of presentation to the community

  • Using assessment to build stronger students – Imagine if students and schools were judged on the quality of student work, thinking and character. The most important assessment…goes on inside students.

Chapter Four: The Third Toolbox, Teaching of Excellence

I look at this group of teachers and I’m filled with admiration. The building is a wreck, the administration is awful, the students are transient and struggling, the newspapers attack the school and the teachers with criticism over test scores. But these people aren’t giving up! ...If schools are to improve, it must begin here with the teachers. (p.118)

Teaching as a Calling -                                                                                                                           What can schools do to recruit and keep teachers who are passionate and talented?  …Forget the gimmicks…Instead assume that strong teachers do view their profession as a calling and that what they want most is an environment that respects and supports the growth of their teaching practice… [offer] a salary structure that acknowledges the importance of the profession…But improved salaries alone won’t solve the problem. A strong teacher won’t stay in the profession very long unless she is given the time, respect, resources and support necessary to be proud of her work.

[New] teachers struggle in isolated settings, often without support, trust or respect. They are quickly overwhelmed and soon disheartened. That is the worst part. (p.121)

Berger addresses the impulse within reform to focus on materials and delivery, to try to teacher proof curriculum, to have a system that is teacher independent – a legislated short cut - and why that is so wrong headed. Those who want to improve education so often were themselves powerfully influenced by teachers! 10

Teaching as a Craft – Given his experience as a carpenter, Berger reasonably desires more apprenticeship in the development of teachers, from initial preparation throughout a career. Teachers are left alone in a classroom. First year teachers are left alone in a classroom. Even in schools with recently established mentor programs, the mentor is far away in another classroom – another world…my work with staffs around the country has made it painfully clear to me how many teachers have become isolated, self-protective, and insecure…One can’t learn to teach sitting in a classroom any more than one can learn to build houses sitting in a classroom…”apprentice” teachers struggle alone; they’re not assigned to team teach with a master teacher. Yet they still bear the same degree of responsibility as their mentor teacher.  (p.129)   11

The Scholarship of Teaching  - There is nothing new in the idea of teacher scholars: in America there is a heritage of teachers researching their own practice by documenting their work, writing about their work, observing the work of others, and comparing… practices…problem is that not too many people in the US are even aware of teacher scholarship. Few public school teachers are supported or encouraged to engage in scholarship centered around their practice… few administrators or policy makers have any idea of the power of scholarship in improving instructional practice. (p.131) 12

Berger identifies many opportunities he has had to pursue the scholarship of my craft… given the keys to a valuable world: a wide community of practicing teachers and educational researchers who want to study together. (p.133)


  1. One key point is that immersion in a culture with a negative ethic also “norms” – as true in school as in community or at home. Might/must TLs lead the ethic?

  2. Holding the desire for these attributes, who is “we”? Assuming shared ownership, what congruence of school operation creates and sustains a culture modelling such attributes? What TL behaviors invoke and sustain (transform) congruence?

  3. Another matter of congruence – how we consider and treat student work can be consistent with how we treat other credible work. And our appreciation of it is shown by gathering (valuing) models and displaying work purposefully. TLs can lead such efforts – one district institutes “walls of excellence” in each building.

  4. Crucial here is the insight that our other solutions, too, are not magic but are tentative, temporary workable answers to specifically contextualized knots in the fabric or grain of our practice and the realities of student learning

  5. IWP’s teaching deliberatively work with civic literacy explores the concept of safe public spaces – including schools as public spaces for learning experiences, not reception of deliverables. How do opportunities recognize motivation as internal? We have long considered the challenge of writing from intention rather than from being “motivated” externally – crafting from drive more than drawn by carrots.

  6. This gets at why learning service is more robust than service learning; living citizenship is more robust than teaching civics. A challenge, of course, is engaging all students – a matter of scale of effort and incredible access to opportunity. The latter, of course, requires seeing opportunities for what they are.

  7. I believe we overuse assignments (term & concept), as does Berger, but it is our jargon. I suspect more could be done with rich arrays of invitations within which students could find authenticity and purpose. That he means by projects those activities and experiences at the core of the curriculum (surely a stronger use of that term than the more familiar bastardization thereof) reassures – as does the commitment to celebration & display of exemplary work throughout schools.

  8. As Berger describes this hub in action, classrooms clearly expand, extend, to incorporate lived spaces and experiences beyond school walls, sometimes making school grounds into learning labs – gardens, playgrounds, climbing walls, museums, etc. – as well as community places needing maintenance/restoration and populations needing care of all kinds. What TL & student efforts might serve the elderly, they very young, the homeless, the hungry, the poorly clothed? How might learner choice invite ownership of authentic work, not compliance?

  9. This point, to me, seems better served by what we are learning of protocols than by what we know of rubrics. What of our universal processes can be made procedural, the routine articulated, to the benefit of not uniform, of the emergent idiosyncratic result of personal choice and cultivated artistry?

  10.  Over my 38 years of writing project work in a 50 year career, I term few notions anathema as strongly as I do teacher proofing! Of those both powerfully and positively influenced by teachers, I doubt many were the result of teacher proofed curricula or instruction! And by now, except during efforts to get across Iowa when I have too little time to do so and obligations to meet, I’m wary of shortcuts! Surely teacher leaders can help systems avoid these pitfalls?

  11.  Much here with which to agree, despite the inevitable breakdown of any metaphor at some point. Apprenticeship is an enticing idea, and elements of it could serve well aspiring teachers and the systems producing and employing them. As with most challenges, however, tweaking any one variable will not suffice. Each year I see new teachers leaving college with debilitating debt, a problem exacerbated by a longer or more complex preparation program, and entering a low-paying profession despite all efforts to attend to that problem – in the name of recruitment, retention, credentialing, etc. Mentored experiences, coaching, distributed responsibility and load – without negatively affecting students, including by how coaching positions are staffed? A conundrum…

  12.  Teacher leaders, at least those emerging through IWP/TESS, should have a strong handle on the scholarship of teaching, and be able to draw upon it as foundation and source for enacting leadership. From being able to espouse one’s philosophy and beliefs and explain one’s practices, to providing an apt article at the right time, to having titles at hand to recommend for shared reading by a department, PLC, building or district staff, to serving as a responsive audience for an administrative colleague attempting, even tentatively, to grow toward transformation, TLs (you) are agents if transformation is to occur where you live!

So what is the core of a PAR cycle with which you can start your next year as a change agent, a force for the transformations, the ethic of excellence we need?

Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann 2003.
Ital = quoted; otherwise paraphrased.                        
(# = JSD question or comment on p.5)