Category Archives: Students as Learners

Seeing our students as learners, creating a culture of learning.

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: 4 Practices to Help Students Meet High Expectations



As part of the positive classroom culture that I want to create for my students, I am working on creating a place where meeting high expectations is the norm.

This is part of my over all vision of a positive classroom culture, which has four components:

Culture of Risk-Taking and Mistake-Making:  Students feel safe to take risks and make mistakes.

Culture of Belonging:  Students feel a strong sense of community and identify themselves as an important member of the community.

A Culture of High Expectations:  Students are supported in meeting high expectations, both academic and behavioural.

A Culture of Perseverance:  Students develop a growth mindset.

In this blog post I will focus on the practices and I have been implementing to support the third component, creating a culture of high expectations.

1)   Students Know How and When to Apologize

One of the first things we talk about at the beginning of the year, is that it’s ok to make mistakes.  In fact, mistake-making and risk-taking is part of the class culture I am trying to create for my students.

But how does that apply to behavioural expectations?  I make behavioural expectations clear at the beginning of the year, but I know they are going to make mistakes.  It’s not realistic to think that students will follow them perfectly all the time.  To keep expectations high without expecting perfection, we need a plan in place for when it does.

Essentially, students are expected to ‘make things right’.  This can mean a number of different things, and one of the ways to make things right is to apologize.  We discussed how and when to apologize, and what to do when on the receiving end of one.  We use a four-step apology in our classroom, one where they identify specifically what they are apologizing for, acknowledge why it was wrong, identify what they are going to do differently next time, and asking if the person if they will accept their apology.

Having clear expectations about what is to be done when we make a mistake, break a rule, or hurt a classmate helps to promote a culture of high behavioural expectations in a positive way since students since students aren’t expected to be be perfect, but they expected to take responsibility for their actions.

2)  Post Success Criteria for Assignments

In order to promote a culture of high expectations, students need to know what success looks like.

I have been trying to post a checklist citing the success criteria that will be used to assess their work for every activity, lesson, or assignment.  Sometimes I will post rubric, but for simplicity I often use a checklist since most students find it easier to assess their own work against a checklist than a rubric.

3)  Post the Classroom Expectations Everyday

It probably sounds strange to take down the poster that has our classroom rules written on it at the end of each day.  But because I do, it means that everyday we must post them back up again.  It keeps the classroom expectations front and centre.

If I hang the poster in September and leave it up, after a while, the poster seems to almost disappear.  It’s been there so long we don’t even see it anymore.  Having to re-post it everyday, or every week,  keeps it relevant.

I ask a different student to read the expectations to the class, and find a place to post it.  I thought this might be a little cheesy for my grade 5 and 6 students, but hanging the poster has become a regular part of our morning routine and they don’t think anything of it.  Not only does it serve as a reminder to the students, but it serves as a reminder to me to refer to the classroom expectations when addressing student behaviour.  I find it helpful if I can tie the issue back to the expectations that they had agreed upon at the beginning of the year.

4)  Provide Feedback

Students need to know what they are doing well and what they need to work on if students are going to meet high expectations.    Feedback is essential to make this happen.

We talked about feedback early in the year, and students know that it is an important part of learning and improving.  I helped to prepare students for regular feedback by letting them know that feedback would be kind, specific, and would be in small doses.  Students understand that it is given in small doses because they are expected to improve their work in response to the feedback for next time.

Classroom Culture

Next time I will talk about what I am doing to help create a culture of perseverance.

Happy Learning.

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Four Practices that Promote a Sense of Community


One of my professional goals for this year is to create a positive classroom culture where students have a strong sense of community, belonging, and ownership.  Creating this sense of community is the second of four elements that I am focusing on to cultivate a positive classroom culture.

Four Elements of a Positive Classroom Culture               1) Students feel safe to make mistakes and grow;             2)  Students have a strong sense of community;                  3)  Students know what to expect, and what is      expected;                                                                                               4)  Students have a growth mindset.

What a Strong Sense of Community Looks Like

Ensuring students have a strong sense of community means that students will feel like they belong, they will be taking care of each other, and trust each other.  Students work together effectively and work out differences because of an underlying belief that everyone is important, and they are all in this together.

There are four things that I have doing since the beginning of school that are helping to support this sense of community:

Practice Rituals:  Sharing What We are Grateful For

Engaging in rituals can help to foster a sense of community because they provide students with a shared, or common, experience.

Rituals can be whatever you want them to be; the important part is doing them consistently.  Whenever we have a few minutes before dismissal, we end the day sharing what we are grateful for.

Expressing gratitude is a great habit for anyone to practice.  Becoming aware of things to be grateful for isn’t always easy, but it’s a skill that students can develop and get better at.  It may even become a habit.


I thought my junior students might think this practice is a little cheesy, but it’s become a normal part of the week. Not only can it be uplifting to share our gratitude and focus on the good, it also provides an opportunity for students to hear about each others successes and struggles.  It builds listening skills and empathy, and provides a shared experience, all which help to build a sense of community.  This can also be journaling activity instead of, or in addition to, a group share.


Another ritual is to listen to a song while they tidy up at the end of the day.  I am trying a few different songs out right now, such as the Zootopia theme song Try Everything, by Shakira, Best Day of My Life by American Authors, and I Can Do Anything (make sure it’s the clean version!), by Hedley,  with the hopes that one of them will stand out as a favourite and become our theme song.

Review Often Why This the Place they Belong

cmacmindmapeditOne of the first activities I do with students at the beginning of the year is to draw a mind map of all their ideas about why this is a great classroom to be in and great school to be attending.  I write down all their ideas in a mind map, then hang it up on the wall for the year.  I will mention some of the things as they come up though out the year and point out how lucky we all are to be able to enjoy it together.  I haven’t yet, but we could even add to it as things come up throughout the year.

But the message I want students to receive is that it’s more than just about what makes our classroom community special.  Students must be able to connect with it and have a sense that they are a part of what makes their classroom the place where they belong.  I want students to have a sense that they are a part of something great, but they also need to see themselves in that picture in order to feel like they really belong.

Start the year with a Team Building Activity


For the past few years I have started the school year giving students the challenge of trying to successfully roll a ball through a path and into a bucket.  Students are given a couple of feet of track and they must all work together to roll the ball down their track and into someone else’s and so on until it gets to the bucket.

This usually takes a few tries before they can do it successfully, requiring them to work together and encourage each other.  Never have I done this with students where they didn’t erupt into cheers when they were successful.  I take lots of photos and post them in the classroom as a reminder of what they can accomplish when they work together.

Give Students a Voice and Choice

I often will ask my students for feedback after a lesson.  It’s a simple as asking, “How did that go?”, but sometimes I will ask more specific questions like what they liked about the activity, what worked, what didn’t, what they learned, and what they think should be done differently next time.  Sometimes I will ask the entire class, and sometimes, if they worked in small groups, I will ask one or two of the groups, or even individual students.

givingeffectivefeedbackanchorchart  guidelinesreceivingfeedbackanchorchart

I teach students that feedback is a very important part of how we learn and grow.   We spend a lot of time in September talking about, and practicing, how to give and receive feedback.  When I ask for their input I get to model how to receive feedback in a real-life situation, and they get to practice giving it.  And of course, I often learn something insightful!  When students have a sense of ownership over their learning when their needs are met and they feel heard.

Students are also given some choice.  This year, I have been experimenting with ‘menus’ in some of my lessons.  Here’s how it works:

example-menu-cmac-sept-2016When I give an assignment, I provide a ‘menu’ of choices that students can pick from.  It might be that students can pick any 5 questions from a page in their math book, choose what level of question they want to answer for Depth of Knowledge in mathematics, or choose between a list of 3 topics for a written assignment.     It gives students a sense of ownership over their learning, supporting the classroom as being a community of learning.

Creating a strong sense of community can be implementing some small things consistently to make a big impact on how students view their place in the classroom.

Next time I will talk about how I am building a positive classroom culture with clear expectations so that students know what is expected of them, but also so they come into the classroom knowing what to expect.

Happy Learning.

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: 3 Practices for Creating a Place of Learning and Growth



I envision my classroom being a positive and safe place to grow, learn, and make mistakes.  In order to work toward this, I have been building routines and lesson plans that reflect this ideal right into my daily practice, the design of the classroom, and structure of the day.

Creating for my students a safe place to learn, grow and make mistakes is one of the 4 elements of a positive classroom culture that I am focusing on this year.

Here are some of the daily practices, and routines I have been doing this year to create a place that is safe for students to take risks, make mistakes, learn, and grow:

  • Ask “Did Anyone Get a Different Answer?” 

When a student volunteers an answer during a class lesson or when working with a small group, my go-to follow up question has moved from, “how did you get that?”, or, “how do you know?” to, “did anyone get anything different?”.

There are lots of reasons that make this a good question to ask, but one compelling thing about asking this question is that it invites other students to take a risk and share what they got, building in risk-taking into the lesson.

It also helps to ensure that the mistake or misconception drives the lesson.  Students begin to realize that mistakes are where learning lives, also helping to make taking risks and making mistakes become part of the classroom culture.

  • Establish Routines for Lessons.

Routines can include procedural things like what to do when they enter the class at the start of the day, transitioning for lunch, packing up at the end of the day, and getting ready for gym or recess, but it there can also be a routine for the structure of your lesson.

I used to try to be creative with my lessons, but what really ended up happening was that every day was different.  It was a planning nightmare for me, and the risk students ended up taking was just showing up and figuring out what they were supposed to be doing that day.

So far this year, my students have been working on doing some of the routines I will be using in my lessons, such as think/pair/shares, find the mistake, and math journaling.  These routines are general enough that we will be practicing them throughout the year no matter what the unit of study.

Getting students comfortable and confident with these lesson routines means they can be taking risks in their thinking rather than the risk lying in actually trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing.

  • Reward the Learning.

At the end of class, I have started to make a point of sharing some of the best thinking.  It’s so easy to post work that represents the most complete or correct answer, or praise students for the work that got the highest score.  I try very hard to praise and post work that shows creatively thinking about something, persevering, and that reflects the actual learning that took place.

When I am choosing work to display and I am drawn to the work that best meets a standard, I ask myself if it shows evidence of the learning that took place.   I remind myself that the student, whose work got the highest score, may have experienced very little growth will working on it.

If I display work and praise students based on the learning that took place, I am helping to create a culture where learning and growth is the goal.

Next time I will share some of the practices I have been implementing to help create a culture where students know they are an important part of the classroom community and that they belong.

Until then, happy learning.

Four Elements of a Positive Classroom Culture


For me, September is a month of laying the foundation for creating a positive classroom community and a culture that supports learning.

That sounds all well and good, but what exactly does it mean?  What does it look like?  I need to be able to answer those questions if I want to pay the idea of a classroom culture more than just lip-service.

Looking back, I can say that some years I have been more successful at it than others, so I know that this doesn’t happen on it’s own.

In years where I was more successful, it was because I started with a clear sense of what I wanted my classroom to look like, the culture I wanted to cultivate, the values I wanted the students to share, and the sense of community and belonging I wanted the students to feel.  It starts with a vision.

So this year, I started with clarifying my vision even further.  Here is mine for this year:
  1. Students Feel Safe.    I want students to feel safe, both physically and emotionally.  I want my students to be willing to take risks, make mistakes, and grow.  Without this, learning cannot take place.
  2. Students Know What to Expect. This can actually tie into making students feel safe since knowing what to expect can support students feeling safe.  Walking into a classroom everyday blind, not knowing what they will be doing can make even confident students feel anxious.  I want my students to enter our classroom ready to learn because they know how the classroom functions, what they are supposed to be doing, where they are supposed to be.  Students also know what to expect from me because I am consistent, and consequences are not surprises.  Students feel honoured, and respected, and heard.
  3. Students Know What is Expected.  I want students to walk in to my classroom feeling confident because they know how the classroom functions, how they are supposed to behave, and how they are to treat other students in the class.  Students know what success looks like, and they know their role in getting there.
  4. Students Have a Growth Mindset.  Students meet challenges with perseverance and a positive attitude because they know they are capable.  They don’t give up and they can think and problem-solve creatively because they know it is possible.

I have been intentional in how I have been developing the culture in my classroom.  With the culture as the focal point, I have been designing my lessons and the structure of my day around these elements so that they are more than just ideals that have no practical application to the day-to day running of my classroom.

Next time I will share some specific routines and practices that I have been implementing to help this positive culture become a daily reality. a reality
Happy Learning.

‘Why’ Questions in Math: How to Support Student Thinking

sadfacepicThere is something that students seem to find more loathsome than a word problem, and that is a question that asks students to explain their thinking:  The dreaded ‘why’ question.

Not wanting to waste any time, I jumped right in and tackled student’s fears and reluctance head on.  I told them that they can expect to see questions that ask them to explain why they think what they do, questions that ask them to:

  • Explain why they think what they do
  • Make predictions and explain why their prediction is reasonable
  • Explain why a concept or rule works
  • Explain why an answer is right or wrong

I told them not to worry though, because I was going to show them how these types of questions can be answered, and exactly what will be expected of them.

I warned that this wasn’t going to be saving them from the thinking.  That, they still had to do; but I reassured them that I would show them what sorts of things they can think about to answer these questions with success without suffering (too much).

How to Answer “Why” Questions

I introduced my students to this mnemonic:  All Whales Eat Green Candy Loudly, and explained what each letter stood for.

Answer the question.  The first thing students need to do is actually answer the question.  This seems kind of obvious, but it provides a starting point for students and becomes the topic sentence.  It helps to guard against the student trying to get full marks by rambling and including every piece of information, relevant or not, thinking that is what is needed to write a thorough answer.

Why? Students write a sentence explaining why they think what they do, or why the answer is what it is.  Often, this is included as part of their first sentence.

Evidence/Example. Students provide examples or evidence for their thinking.  This is where they explain what lead them to draw the conclusion that they did.

Generalization.  Students take a look at their answer and see if they can draw a conclusion or make a generalization  about what they are saying.  They are being asked to take what they know and extrapolate to other situations, other types of questions, different types of numbers, and so on.

Clarification. Students are asked to read their answer to see if anything needs to be elaborated on to be made clear.  Providing supporting information, rephrasing, reviewing terminology, providing an analogy and so on, are all tools that could all be used to help clarify their thinking and make their point clear and understandable to the reader.

Limitations.  Students review their generalization if they made one, and they think about whether or not there are any limitations, or counter-examples.

I introduced students to the mnemonic device toward the end of one of the first math classes with the students, and we reviewed what each letter stood for.  I was going model how it is applied using sample questions but I decided to leave that for next time.

This is the second year that I have used this mnemonic device, and found some success in improving the quality of answers the students wrote.

I created it out of necessity.  Students were really struggling with answering math questions that required written work.  I searched online for ways to support students with questions like these but came up empty.

I decided to take a look at several questions that students struggled with, tried to identify the elements that made a thorough and thoughtful answer, summed them up in one-word and then started experimenting with summing the elements in one concise word to create some crazy (and interesting) mnemonics.  I finally settled on this one.

I am open to feedback and any other way you have found to support students in answering these “why” questions with confidence and improved competence.

Happy Learning.