The Annual Summer Kickoff: Establishing a Democratic Learning Culture

PUBLISHED: April 9, 2016 - 12:00 p.m. EST

The Sci-Ed Fellowship begins with a two-day-long kickoff event in August prior to the start of the school year. This blog post explains the function and role of the Kickoff Event in the development Sci-Ed’s culture. The following Q & A raises and responds to the big ideas of the Kickoff Event and highlights its most important features.

What are the big learning goals for Fellows during the Kickoff Event?

  • Learn the structure and goals of the Sci-Ed Fellowship
  • Meet and connect to their colleagues in the program
  • Engage in a design challenge as a template experience that mirrors the long-term process of the Fellowship
  • Collaboratively develop group agreements, or “rules” for maximizing hopes and minimizing fears
  • Experience the structure of a typical Fellowship Workshop  (including an opening and closing circle)

How does the Kickoff Event support the development of Sci-Ed culture?

While each cohort of Fellows is composed of a unique collection of STEM educators, we understand that all groups (including the classroom) follow a relatively predictable developmental trajectory. Psychologist Bruce Tuckman has described these stages of development as “forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.” The Sci-Ed kickoff supports the forming stage.

In the forming stage, Fellows tend to be both excited and anxious. What is this program exactly? Who is a part of this group? Will my voice be valued? Behavior tends to be cooperative, positive, and conflict-averse. We work with Fellows to build relationships with other members, understand the group’s structure, and learn the expectations for participation.

The Kickoff Event is designed as a parallel process and microcosm of the classroom. Much like establishing routines and structures in a K-12 classroom, the Kickoff Event introduces the routines and structures that will successfully support adult learning throughout the Sci-Ed Fellowship. As such, Sci-Ed pays close attention to the forming process in our own group in order to study and understand the best ways to develop a constructive classroom culture with our talented STEM educators, who will be doing the same in their own schools several weeks later.

What are the structures and activities we use to establish a democratic culture?

  1. An opening circle. An opening circle consists of an icebreaker and then a whole group debrief of the process. The icebreaker invites Fellows to learn about each other and to try out ways of socializing within the group. Examples of icebreakers from previous Kickoffs are “Categories” and “I Didn’t Catch Your Name”. The debrief is an opportunity for fellows to put into words what they liked and didn’t like about the icebreaker, and how it could be adapted for use in the classroom. A time-limited open discussion flows from the icebreaker. At each subsequent Sci-Ed Workshop, the opening circle supports Fellows’ transition back into the Sci-Ed group through dialogue. Fellows’ voices are at the center of this structure.
  2. The program overview is the most didactic part of the Kickoff. Fellows learn about the history of the Sci-Ed Fellowship program, the democratic STEM teaching framework (DSTF), glimpse the Sci-Ed Expo, preview the structure of the final showcase (our “product”), and review the terms of the fellowship contract. This part of the kickoff will outline the mission of the Sci-Ed Fellowship: to develop Educators’ critical agency by examining classroom pedagogy and STEM education through a lens of social justice.
  3. A collaborative design challenge establishes the important Sci-Ed values of purposeful collaboration and choice-making within constraints. One of our favorites is the Marshmallow Challenge. In this activity, Fellows work together to build the tallest structure with spaghetti, tape, and string that supports a marshmallow; they have eighteen minutes to do so. This experience serves as a template for collaborative work throughout the Fellowship and surfaces important questions for Fellows to explore. What roles did members of the group take? How do educators with different professional experiences effectively collaborate to accomplish a goal? How do constraints impact the collaborative process? What are the feelings that surface? These design challenges give fellows an “inside” perspective of classroom group work, which enables them to empathize with students as they, too, are entering new groups in the new school year.Copy of IMG_6132
  4. Collaboratively negotiated group agreements. Fellows participate in a protocol that helps the group to develop a list of shared agreements that serve to maximize hopes and minimize fears over the course of the Sci-Ed Fellowship. The end result of this protocol is an initial list of agreements that is revisited in subsequent sessions over the course of the year. By asking the question, “What agreements should we have towards accomplishing our goals?”, we invite Fellows’ voices into the process of creating our group’s learning culture right from the beginning. We return to these agreements and decide, together, whether to change or add any over the course of the year. This parallels the way a democratic STEM educator negotiates the space between the official school rules and the unique learning culture she establishes in each of her classes. In the language of the DSTF, the group agreements activity supports shared and transformational authority.  image00
  5. A closing circle mirrors the opening circle. One member of the leadership team team facilitates a whole group debrief of the Kickoff. What reactions arose during the Kickoff? Are there subgroups in our group? How did we do together? How did our work parallel the classroom? At Sci-Ed, we understand that emotions are a valuable data point for Fellows to study and understand, both inside of themselves individually and in the group more broadly. The closing circle, then, is a time for the group to verbalize feelings in order to study how they function in the classroom. The closing circle surfaces Fellows’ voice and, over time, becomes a forum for studying how the Sci-Ed Fellowship models pedagogical strategies aligned with the DSTF.

How do the routines established at the Kickoff develop over time?

In addition to launching the routines in our “classroom,” the Kickoff provides Fellows with tools for establishing a democratic learning culture in their own classrooms. Many Fellows immediately use the activities and structures from the Kickoff in their classrooms and faculty meetings. They may, for example, establish group agreements with students or host design challenges during faculty meetings.

The Kickoff is the way we begin the culture-building process, and there is much work to be done as the year unfolds. Like any group members, Fellows challenge our group agreements through behavior, such as coming late to workshops, monopolizing “air time”, or not meeting work deadlines. Such broken agreements are not only inevitable, they are valuable. The breaks in agreements that occur in Sci-Ed workshops give us something to talk about and help us to better understand the emotional undercurrents that exist in our group (and, by parallel process, in our Fellows’ classrooms).


We encourage Fellows to view behaviors in our Sci-Ed “classroom” as important data. We believe that behavior always communicates something important and that we can collaboratively understand the meaning of behaviors when we translate them into words. This is the function of the opening and closing circles. At Sci-Ed, we know that any tool we can give our Fellows to approach behavior from a standpoint of curiosity allows them to creatively develop different and additional classroom interventions to more traditional ones that focus only on the behaviors themselves (a.k.a. “acting right”). We recognize that unexplored assumptions about students’ behavior limit educators’ capacity to effectively create a democratic learning culture.

Fellows are beginning a longer process of productively questioning inherited designs from professional development, school design philosophy, and pedagogical best practices. We encourage this as a way to develop critical agency. We believe that this feature of the Sci-Ed Fellowship contributes to the enhancement of professional capital in classrooms throughout New York City. Our Fellows gain the capacity to productively develop democratic cultures in their classrooms by tapping into their students’ unique voices. Concomitantly, Fellows begin to impact the professional development culture at their schools and wider professional networks through the development of democratic learning cultures for other educators. This ripple effect is an impactful outgrowth of the work that starts at Kickoff.


Keywords: Forming, Frame, Group Process, Agreements, Parallel process

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