Lesson Plan: School Culture

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In many places across the United States, "school culture" is a hot topic. How do we create schools that are safe and respectful and that inspire academic success? This lesson provides a way to involve students in that discussion.

Students will be introduced to the definition of "school culture" and use it to examine the school culture at I.S. 318, the middle school featured in the film Brooklyn Castle. At I.S. 318, the chess team is as popular as any of the school's sports teams or other clubs, and it has been that way for more than a decade. Students will compare what they observe in the film with the culture at their own school and consider whether any of the things they see in the film could apply to their own school. The lesson ends with students looking at their own roles in shaping the school culture in their school and deciding whether they want to take steps to change it or to reinforce what already exists.

The video clips for this lesson are from Brooklyn Castle.


By the end of this lesson, students will:

  • Learn the definition of "culture."
  • Examine stereotypes that associate being smart with being "geeky" or unpopular.
  • Examine their own school culture and its messages about achievement.
  • Write or produce a short, persuasive argument.
  • See themselves as having agency to help shape the school culture in their own schools.




Civics/Student Government
English/Language Arts
Multicultural or Anti-Bias Education/Stereotyping
Social Studies


  • Internet access and equipment to show the class online video


One 50-minute class period plus homework.

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Clip 1: "Popular Geeks" (approx. 01:30 min.)
This clip begins at approximately 00:32 seconds into the film with the graphic Brooklyn, NY and the I.S. 318 sign. It ends at approximately 2:22 with a headline from the New York Post touting the middle school's victory in a high school chess tournament. This clip shows the school principal, Fred Rubino, saying, "In some schools, if you go by a stereotype, if you're in the chess team, you know, you're this pariah which no one wants anything to do with you. In 318, you know, the geeks, they are the athletes."

Clips 2 and 3: "At a Tournament" (00:19 sec. and 4:10 min.)
Clip 2 begins at 1:20:00 with John Galvin polling the chess team to see who has been to nationals. It continues until 1:20:19, when Pobo jokes about being the greatest tutor in the world. Clip 3 begins at 1:23:45 with a montage of students arriving at the hotel for nationals and the title United States Chess Federation Junior High Nationals. It ends at 1:28:12 with Pobo saying to Patrick, "Don't worry about it."

Clip 4: "Honoring the Graduates" (1:35 min.)
The clip begins at 12:26 with the chess team in the hallway posing for a picture. It ends at 14:10 with students cheering for Rochelle.

Clip 5: "Funding Dilemmas" (2:50 min.)
The clip begins at 1:04:00 with Pobo announcing budget cuts. It shows a meeting with parents and ends at 1:06:58 with a slate that announces restoration of $100,000 in funding.


1. Introduce students to one or more definitions of "culture" (see Resources). Discuss to ensure that students understand the definition(s), paying special attention to the learned and shared nature of culture. As a class, brainstorm the most influential transmitters of culture in students' lives. Answers might include people such as parents, teachers, media, peers, clergy and coaches. Then ask each student, individually, to jot down the messages he or she receives about school and academic success from each of the sources on the list. These notes will remain private; they are intended to raise awareness.

2. To introduce the film clips, tell students they are going to use their list and notes to consider the climate of a middle school in Brooklyn, New York that is featured in a documentary called Brooklyn Castle. Invite them to identify cultural messages and their sources. Pay special attention to messages about academic success.

3. Show Clip 1 and invite students to discuss principal Fred Rubino's comment about members of the chess team at I.S. 318 receiving the kind of treatment that athletes receive at other schools. Ask whether the students were surprised at the popularity of chess at I.S. 318 and why. What kind of reputation do smart students have at their own school? After a brief discussion, segue to the next clip by inviting them to "meet" some of the chess team members and see what it's like for them at a tournament.

4. Show Clips 2 and 3, giving students a prompt in advance to take notice of the ways that students treat one another and the ways that adults treat students. Prior to the clip, you might clarify who some of the players are so students can pick them out (e.g., Pobo is student body president and the child of immigrants; Patrick has ADHD; Justus is a chess prodigy). After viewing, ask students what they noticed about how people treated one another and help them link their observations to school culture. How do language and action choices contribute to a school culture that celebrates intellectual success, as well as winning? How do their actions and language contribute to their school culture?

5. To help students further explore the ways that people treat one another, show Clip 4, giving the students a prompt to take notice of how the school treats the chess team. After students share their observations, ask them to identify who or what is celebrated in their school.

6. Wrap-up by returning to the definition of culture and ask students what they learned from the film and discussion about how culture is transmitted at I.S. 318 and/or how culture is transmitted at their school. End with a short, persuasive writing assignment, responding to the prompt "I wish my school were more like I.S. 318--yes or no."

7. [optional] Clip 5 is designed to prompt students to action. It would work well as a follow up to the writing assignment, especially if students indicate that they would prefer to attend a school like I.S. 318. Show Clip 5. Follow-up with a discussion about the challenges faced by students interested in academics at your school. Brainstorm actions that students might want to take to improve their school. If appropriate, guide them to taking action on one or more of their ideas.


1. In order to encourage students to focus on stereotypes, prior to showing the film clips, present students with a list of school clubs, including a chess club. The list does not have to be restricted to the clubs or activities at your school; it should include a wide range of possibilities (e.g., yearbook, sports teams, gay-straight alliance, service clubs, drama, band).Ask students to imagine that they are entering a school at which these clubs are available. Where would they expect to find the popular kids? Conduct a blind vote and discuss the results. Which activities received the most votes? Where would students expect to find the popular kids and why?

2. Guide students in an examination of your school's budget and the messages it sends about the school's priorities.

3. Start a chess club. If your school already has a club, consider ways that students could support their chess team. What would a chess cheerleading squad look like? Might they consider fundraising for tournament travel? Or suggest methods for the chess club to partner with an athletic team with the members of each pledging to show up at each other's games.

4. Assign students to watch the entire film, but ask them to focus on a particular student's story and issue. For example, a focus on Rochelle would be useful for a discussion about gender stereotypes. Alexis's story or Pobo's story could be used to open a conversation about immigration. Patrick's experience might be good for a discussion of ADHD. And Justus provides an example of dedication and learning to cope with disappointment.



Academic Chess
This quirky site focuses on attracting children to chess.

Chess-in-the-Schools, one of the organizations featured in the film, is a New York City nonprofit that serves inner-city public school students. Its site includes research illustrating the positive link between chess and academic success.

I.S. 318 Eugenio Maria de Hostos
I.S. 318 has an official school website. For more information on the chess team, see www.is318.com.

United States Chess Federation
In addition to player rankings, this organization's site includes official rules, a history of the game and a glossary.


University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA)
See this page for definitions of "culture." Here are some samples:

CARLA's Definition
For the purposes of the Intercultural Studies Project, culture is defined as the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.

Banks, J.A., Banks, & McGee, C. A. (1989). Multicultural education. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
"Most social scientists today view culture as consisting primarily of the symbolic, ideational and intangible aspects of human societies. The essence of a culture is not its artifacts, tools or other tangible cultural elements but how the members of the group interpret, use and perceive them. It is the values, symbols, interpretations and perspectives that distinguish one people from another in modernized societies; it is not material objects and other tangible aspects of human societies. People within a culture usually interpret the meaning of symbols, artifacts and behaviors in the same or in similar ways."

Damen, L. (1987). Culture Learning: The Fifth Dimension on the Language Classroom. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
"Culture: learned and shared human patterns or models for living; day- to-day living patterns."

Hofstede, G. (1984). National cultures and corporate cultures. In L.A. Samovar & R.E. Porter (Eds.), Communication Between Cultures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
"Culture is the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one category of people from another."

Kluckhohn, C., & Kelly, W.H. (1945). The concept of culture. In R. Linton (Ed.). The Science of Man in the World Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press.
"By culture we mean all those historically created designs for living, explicit and implicit, rational, irrational and nonrational, which exist at any given time as potential guides for the behavior of men."

Lederach, J.P. (1995). Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
"Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them."

Parson, T. (1949). Essays in Sociological Theory. Glencoe, IL.
"Culture... consists in those patterns relative to behavior and the products of human action which may be inherited, that is, passed on from generation to generation independently of the biological genes."

Useem, J., & Useem, R. (1963). Human Organizations, 22(3).
"been defined in a number of ways, but most simply, as the learned and shared behavior of a community of interacting human beings."

POV: Media Literacy Questions for Analyzing POV Films
This list of questions provides a useful starting point for leading rich discussions that challenge students to think critically about documentaries.


Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

SL. 9-10.1, 11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade level topics, texts and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

W.9-10.1, 11-12.2 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

W.9-10.2d Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic.

W.11-12.2d Use precise language, domain-specific vocabulary and techniques such as metaphor, simile and analogy to manage the complexity of the topic.

W.9-10.4, 11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.

McREL A compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McREL (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).

Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.

Language Arts, Standard 2: Uses the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing.

Language Arts, Standard 8: Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes.

Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.


Faith Rogow, Ph.D., is the co-author of The Teacher's Guide to Media Literacy: Critical Thinking in a Multimedia World (Corwin, 2012) and past president of the National Association for Media Literacy Education. She has written discussion guides and lesson plans for more than 150 independent films.