From teaching three years in a public primary school and the previous two years in a private middle school, I’ve gotten the chance to spend time in two very different classroom environments. I noticed that the main thing that really affected my students’ ability to connect not only with class content – but with each other and with me – was the culture that was developed in the classroom. I view culture as the the overall vibe and mood of the room: what are the things that are valued (or not valued) in that classroom? I think positive classroom culture leads to more opportunities for students to positively connect with the content, their peers, and their teacher.
Here are five different things that I’ve done in my own classroom that have helped build a positive culture in both my 5th grade classroom and middle school classrooms (which I imagine would be effective in a high school classroom as well):
1. ASKING DIFFERENT QUESTIONS
The words we use say a lot about our expectations and values. In my classroom, I will rarely ask students if they have any questions, but will instead ask them, “What questions do you have?” It creates more of an assumption that there should be questions, and hopefully allow for more freedom for students who may be a bit apprehensive about asking questions.
Another shift I started last year in an effort to create a more discussion- and inquiry-based math classroom was how I asked students to share their answers. I used to just say “Who has the answer?” or “Who can tell us how to do this problem?” I’ve since shifted to asking students “Can you share your thinking?” It’s so much less pressure to just share your thinking than it is to explain the right answer. Additionally, even if a student has the right answer, it’s much more meaningful to delve into the thought processes to getting that answer.
2. DOING MINDFUL BREATHING EXERCISES
This practice was new to me when I came to my current school. We call it centering. I was a bit unsure of how it would go down in the classroom. Seemed a bit ‘woo-woo’ to me. I realized that it doesn’t have to be that at all. When I explain it to my students, I tell them that centering is just a practice of focus. A typical centering goes as follows:
- I ask students to sit up straight and either close their eyes or rest their gaze down at the table, limiting the visual input.
- We will begin to take slow, deep breaths together, in through our noses and out through our mouths.
- I will have students (and myself) bring all their focus to the feeling of the air as it passes through our noses. For me, the part that’s easiest to focus on is the nerves on the tip of my nostrils.
- I remind them (and myself) that if they find their mind wandering to things that they’re worried about or a to-do list, to become aware that their focus has shifted and just bring it right back to paying attention to their breath.
- We will continue this for maybe a minute or two and then I ask them to just return their attention back to the room and we begin class.
What I love about this is that it starts every class in this focused and tranquil state. What I would suggest when beginning this practice is to let students know that if they feel uncomfortable, they can sit quietly but really make it a time where students aren’t making faces at each other or playing with anything in their hands or becoming a distraction in any way. I will often center with my eyes open and observe the students as they center. I also share with students that doctors will often recommend similar breathing techniques for patients who struggle with anxiety or depression, as I know many young students deal with one or both of those.
There’s an excellent article HERE on how mindfulness impacts learning and I recently discovered THIS organization that put out a film where they brought mindfulness practices to a school that was struggling with a high level of chaos and student disengagement.
3. HIGH-FIVE FRIDAY
Pretty basic. I stand at the door with a big smile on my face and say HIGH-FIVE FRIDAY! to students as they come in. Middle schoolers get pretty stoked about it. High schoolers are a bit more hesitant. I’m pretty persistent though and have chased a student down until they have given me a high-five. They laugh. I laugh. It’s fun. Here’s a video I made recently where you see a little bit of high-five Friday action going on.
4. START A CLASS INSTAGRAM
When great stuff is happening in class, I take a video on my phone and later will upload it to my class Instagram account (@khabelemath). I will put the student’s first initial and describe what they were doing (ex. A and R debating if 1 is a prime number).
A few things happen here: you’re showing that you value the work and efforts going on and that you want to share it with folks outside the classroom. Additionally, you’re meeting the students where they’re at…on Instagram. I don’t follow any students with that account, but a lot of my students follow this class account. You can even give the job to a student that you think could do a great job. You’re also modeling digital citizenship in the way you handle yourself online.
Another option is to create a ‘class hashtag’ like #thomsmathclass. You’ll have a little less control over what shows up, though, as anybody can tag any picture with any hashtag.
I know a lot of schools have pretty strict social media and cell phone policies and this may not be feasible for all. All of our students have their parents sign waivers at the beginning of the year on if they can be filmed for any school related online media. I take note of the ones who do not have permission and avoid filming them (even though it’s not an official school Instagram…better safe than sorry). It’s best to fill parents in on it and invite them to follow the account (that way there aren’t any surprises later on).
5. WEEKLY CHECK-IN
There’s lot’s of ways you can do this based on what makes sense for your school and your classes.
When I was a 5th grade teacher, we spend the first 15 minutes of every Monday going around the room and students shared what they did over the weekend. Nobody was obliged to share, just anybody who wanted to. Students always looked forward to it and even though I had several students who typically had behavior problems, I never really had any behavior issues during this weekly check in. They want to hear from one another and I just remind them be respectful and listen to each another.
At my current school, we do a few different types of check-ins in our advisory class (sort of like homeroom- the group of students I meet with for about 25 minutes each day but it’s not an actual class). In my advisory, we do a sharing time each Wednesday where we go around and everyone shares a highlight of the last week, a low light, and something they’re looking forward to. On Friday, we do a weekly update email. I will send an email to all my advisory students (all students are required to have their own laptop at my school) and I will ask them to take a screenshot of their current grades in all their classes, write a little bit about how things are going in each class, and then usually a thought provoking question (what has been a moment that you’ve been extremely happy- where were you and what were you doing). I will usually include another question that may be a bit more fun (share a link of your favorite YouTube video right now). The best part of these emails is that students not only send their responses to me, but they also copy their parents. We are all in on this conversation. Each week I’ll reply to each student thanking them for sharing and making a few comments about what they shared. I include parents in the reply email as well.
I’ve thought about how I’d do this if I were in a school with more limited technology resources and I think I’d try to get access to a computer lab once a week if possible. Or perhaps find a way to do it on paper and figuring out logistics on having parents see it.
Creating a positive classroom culture is hard and I’m constantly trying to pull ideas from other teachers on how to more effectively do it. None of the above ideas are originally my own; they were all things that I either heard, read, or saw other teachers doing and adapted for my own classroom and personality.
How have you helped develop a positive classroom culture in your school?
By Thom Gibson
Thom Gibson is a two-time Teacher of the Year educator in Austin, TX. He is in his 5th year of teaching (three years of 5th grade in a public school and two years of middle school math and robotics in a private school). He is an active filmmaker and posts edu-docs to his YouTube channel weekly.