Intentional Culture Creation

We’ve already talked a bit around the relationships between intentional culture, physical and social-emotional safety, and self-directed learning. In this section, we’ll take a deeper look at what culture is and the nuts-and-bolts of how to foster a healthy, inclusive microculture at your ALC.

What Is Culture?

In general, culture can be defined as the customs, beliefs, norms, and way of life of a society or group. For most of us, we often think of culture in terms of the macroculture - the overarching or dominant culture of our society. Terms like Pop Culture or Western Culture are a type of macroculture that we tend to experience as something we’re born into and that influence us in one way or another.

Then there’s the idea of a subculture, like the Beatniks, Cosplayers, or Dead Heads. These are smaller cultural groups within the larger macroculture that are organized around more specific ideas, interactions, or ways of being. Within a subculture, you may not be completely anonymous and detached like you are in the macroculture. In a subculture, you can point to the specific people and ideas that have shaped its identity. You are more likely to actively participate in a subculture, rather than simply exist within it as you do in the macroculture.

Drill down a little further and we have the idea of a microculture, a smaller, specialized subgroup that may have its own jargon, rituals, ethos, and agreements. The uniqueness and power of a microculture lies in the balance of existence of both the individual and the collective; the ability for each individual to shape the whole and for the whole to shape each individual.

The goal of a successful ALC is to foment a microculture where children feel safe, seen, and free to self-direct their learning in creative, authentic ways.

Creating a Microculture

In our experience, it’s much more powerful to define the positive elements of your ideal culture and work towards those, rather than trying to suppress the negative elements you don’t want and expect the positive to emerge from the gaps.

Human brains are weird; if we tell you not to think about a pink elephant sitting in the corner, it’s likely that your brain will conjure that exact image whether you were trying to or not. It’s the same with creating microcultures: we give power to ideas by articulating them. We like to start with basic Foundational Agreements (more on that in a minute) and establish rituals and practices that invite children and ALFs to identify the kind of culture they value and create community agreements that speak to those values. Many times, what we want is very similar (a peaceful community, to feel safe, to feel respected, to have choices, etc).

Remember to include play and offer lots of space in conversations about the culture you want to see in your community. Many children will be more able to engage in a conversation after having an experience, so sitting down in a room and asking them to come up with community agreements might leave you with blank stares and silence! This process is intentionally iterative, so don’t be surprised if it takes longer than expected. Children are not adults. Consider the age and developmental needs of the children at your ALC and decide from there what will create the most positive cultural impact. Consider these questions as you are in your space:

  • How much time is spent talking about culture creation and developing agreements, and does this amount of time need to adjust?
  • Are there games and activities that you can offer to promote the cultural skills you want your community to practice? (Specific examples of these can be found in the bonus content of the Facilitation Starter Kit)
  • Have new students joined the school? Is the beginning of the school year or a re-start after a break? Do the students remember why some of your practices are in place, or are they doing things because “that’s the way they are done?”
  • Are people in the space feeling resentful? Can that feeling be tied to specific practices or agreements? More of the same will not make change; maybe it’s time to do something different.

Foundational Agreements

In order for everyone in the community to have equal opportunity to pursue self-directed education in an environment where they feel safe and supported, they must be able to share space, time, materials, experiences, and resources with the other people at that ALC. While negotiations about what that looks like will be complex and ongoing, it’s vital that everyone involved know what kind of culture they are opting into before the community begins to engage with the process of building a microculture.

To that end, decide what the non-negotiables are for your space and make those your foundational agreements. Be clear about what they mean from the beginning. We like the structure of a “Student Agreement” contract - a few, clear written agreements that make explicit the expectations of the community and give the students the choice to opt in. (If they don’t, or they can’t hold those agreements, they can’t be a part of the ALC community, which is in itself a powerful tool for checking the idea that “there are no rules here.”) We have the students sign them either on the first day of school or upon their enrollment.

Revisit these items regularly to decide if change is necessary. Also, consider your age range. If the children are too young to actually understand what they are consent to, it’s might not be useful to have them sign an agreement. Here are two examples of Student Agreements from established ALCs:

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