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Book Review of “Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes” by Jimmy Casas

Tuesday, November 13, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Reviewed by Ben Murphy, Upper School Director, University School of Jackson, Jackson, TN

If one were to construct a periodic table of elements for an independent school, one might argue that culture is the equivalent of hydrogen as it is the basis of any independent school universe. It weaves its way throughout daily interactions and affects how stakeholders view the past as well as how they feel about the future. A strong, reflective culture can provide a school with the strength to carry on through the tough times and the confidence to take the risks needed to be great while an unexamined culture can create a reluctance to grow and an acceptance of average. 


In his work Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes, Jimmy Casas contends that school culture is the ultimate responsibility of every adult member of a school community and urges schools to take a wider view of leadership. To Casas, culture is intentionally created by the adults within a school and (for good or bad) modeled in every interaction. Building a positive school culture requires shared responsibility and leadership as all staff members must hold themselves accountable while working to build a student-centered community focused on compassion, empathy, and responsibility. Anyone who works at a school can and (in Casas’ view) must be a leader when it comes creating a healthy school culture. As the most important element in any school, culture cannot be left up to chance.   


Casas centers his book around four core principles: being a champion for all students; expecting excellence; carrying the banner; and being a merchant of hope. The key to all of these principles is building connections with students and families, and Casas urges educators to focus on the “‘three Rs’: relationships … relationships … relationships” (27). Absent strong relationships with teachers, staff, and administration, students will not be able to develop the confidence in their capability to succeed. When working with students, Casas feels that schools must balance educator empathy and support with student accountability as they seek to understand the “why” of students’ failures and work to increase opportunities for student success. He cites Rick Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal in this section, and one can see echoes of Angela Duckworth’s writings on promoting grit and resilience throughout the work.


To Casas, culture is a shared choice, and as a school works toward these four principles, he believes faculty should not wait to be led, and administrators must choose to support the growth of faculty, staff, and student initiative. Casas challenges both faculty and administration to examine their roles in the development of school culture, telling faculty “what we model is what we get” (103) and administrators “if students or staff members are constantly asking for permission, you have not done a very good job of building capacity” (63).    


Culturize is a quick and practical read, and while I would have liked to have seen more discussion of student impact on school culture, Casas clearly identifies his audience as school leaders, so this is a minor quibble. I recommend Culturizeto any school looking to examine its own culture, especially a school that has sometimes struggled to align multiple divisions. My current school has more than 1,000 students across three divisions (lower, middle, and upper), each strong in its own right, and we realized we needed more cross-division communication in order to help with alignment and community building. 


In April, we chose Culturize as our summer reading, and even before the school year was over, I had faculty and staff sharing with me how much they had enjoyed even just the first few chapters of the book. During our school-wide professional development days in August, each respective division had productive discussions and discussed how to implement the book’s core principles. Throughout the year, we will continually refer back to the book, both in all-school staff development meetings and divisional conversations. 


Culturize has provided our faculty with confirmation that we were on the right path in many areas and also has helped us reflect on our possible areas for growth. We have had faculty take on more leadership in school issues without being asked, and our focus on struggling students has moved from what students are not doing to what we as educators can do. This is not all due to Culturize; however, I do feel having a common vocabulary and focus has helped accelerate our progress towards becoming the school we know we want to be. 


If used as an all-school read, Culturize is not a “read and leave in the drawer” type of book. Care must be taken to develop a process for reflective and candid discussions about one’s school culture. As Casas states early in the work, this is not a step-by-step book on how to build a school’s culture. To borrow terminology from Jamie Notter’s article, “Practical Magic,” in the fall 2018 issue of Independent SchoolCulturize focuses on “what should be” rather than “what is” or “what will be” when discussing organizational culture. In retrospect, it would have been more helpful for my school to have started with defining our school culture (“what is”) as part of our initial discussions on the book, as this would have helped us better focus on where and how we can improve our culture.  


With Culturize, Casas provides school communities with a solid argument on the need to collaborate to build student-centered cultures. He contends that school cultures are stories of which we are the authors, and our students and families are reading these stories every day. If we truly care about our students, we must make the sometimes tough choices necessary to improve our cultures and to improve our stories. A school’s story is rarely a fairy tale; however, Culturize urges us to do whatever we can to write a story for our students that gives them a greater chance at a happy ending. 









Ben Murphy is upper school director at University School of Jackson in Jackson, TN. 

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