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.

Promoting Fluency in Math: How to Convince Your Students it’s not Just About the Answer


As I learn more and more about effective math instruction, one thing is clear:  Good math instruction has less to with your students getting the right answer, and a whole lot more to do with flexibility in approach, and strategy.

Try explaining that to your students though.

My students tend to focus on whether or not their answer is right, so when I ask students to explain to me what they did to get an answer students will often ask, “So, is it wrong then?”, or, “Just tell me what I was supposed to do.”

I remind them that them that I am far more interested in how they got the answer than I am in the answer itself, and that it’s their thinking that is important to me.  But their eyes glaze over, and I know I’ve lost them.  They just want to get the answer and move on.  Does this sound familiar?

Taking the Focus Away from Getting the Right Answer

This year, I started off with a math talk that Jo Boaler did with a class of 6th graders using a dot card.  I chose to start off the year with this one in particular because this one does a really good job of highlighting to my students that it’s their thinking that is important.

It manages to do this because the math itself is very easy, and the actual answer to the question is so mundane and uninteresting that their thinking gets to take centre stage.

When you see the question, you will see there there really is nothing to compete with the many ways students solve the problem.  They realize there are a variety of ways to get the answer, and that is what is interesting and important.  Students are engaged, and even fascinated by it.

I did this lesson as my first number talk of the year with my grade 5/6/7 split class.  For many of the students it was their first experience with a number talk.

The Lesson

Credit for this math talk goes to Jo Boaler.  A video of her teaching this lesson can be found here.

I ran my lesson very similarly to the way Boaler did.  I told my students that I was going to show them a collection of dots for just a couple of seconds and I wanted them to tell me how many dots they saw.  I explained that it was going to be shown for only a couple of seconds because I wanted them to do it without counting.

Instead of displaying a graphic with a pattern of dotcardpicdots on an overhead, I presented the dots on a piece of paper drawn by hand.  This ended up working well because some students struggled to explain how they got their answer and needed to point to the array to help them.  Walking over to each student with the dot card proved easier and less disruptive than having students get up and down out of their seats.

Best Practices

After showing the dot card for about 2 seconds I asked students to give me a thumbs up if they had an idea about how many dots they saw.  Once everyone had given a thumbs up, I asked a student to share how many dots they saw (they saw 7), and I checked to see if anyone got a different answer (no one did).

I then asked the student to tell me how they knew there were 7 without counting.  They initially struggled with how to explain, so I re-phrased the question:  I asked her what she saw to know there were 7.  She was able to tell me she saw a line with 2, then a line of 3, and another line of 2, which was 7 altogether.

I represented her thinking on the board, asked her if it accurately reflected how she got her answer, and put her name under it.  I asked if anyone else saw it the same way, and added their names.  Finally, I asked if anyone else saw it differently.  I repeated this until I had exhausted all of their ideas.  This is what the share board looked like by the end of the lesson:


Thoughts, Reflections, and Next Steps

The conversation was rich, and students were engaged for a long period of time.  It laid the foundation for placing an importance on student thinking rather than the answer.

I think the engagement was high enough to refer to this lesson when students just want to get the answer and move on.  I may even create a visual and put the dot card with the question “How many dots do you see?” on a sticky note, put the answer “7” on another sticky note, and all of their answers on a large piece of chart paper and put it in the hallway to share with the rest of the school.

Why You Should #ObserveMe

I first heard about the #ObserveMe movement from Robert Kaplinsky’s twitter feed.  In a recent tweet he called for teachers to invite their colleagues into their classroom to see their teaching in action and offer feedback.

It’s a rather terrifying thing if you ask me; letting other teachers and co-workers in to your classroom.  It’s hard not to feel vulnerable and judged.  But it is important.  Important enough to check our insecurities at the door and see there is a lot at stake if we don’t.

What is #ObserveMe?

Kaplinsky understands that collaboration is key for improving teaching practice, and one of the best ways to do that is for teachers to observe each other and provide feedback.  Afterall, new ideas, best practices, and fresh perspectives will only improve our practice if we know about them.  And what better way to find out about them than to see another teacher in action.

The Idea Behind the #ObserveMe Movement Isn’t New

I first heard about the importance of not teaching in isolation from Elizabeth Green at the NCTM Annual Meeting and Expo in Boston in 2015.  She was the keynote speaker, and she likened teaching in classrooms with closed doors to eggs in a carton.

Like eggs in a carton, teachers in their classrooms are isolated from each other, and unaware of what other teachers are doing, and how they are doing it, and what is working and what isn’t.  During her keynote speech, she challenged teachers to get out of their egg carton, and Kaplinsky’s #ObserveMe movement is a great way to do it.

I  heard a similar message more recently from Steve Leinwand, a Principal Research Analyst at AIR and former Mathematics Consultant with the Connecticut Department of Education, at his session entitled “Insights and Practical Suggestions for Making Coaching More Effective” at the NCTM Annual Conference in San Francisco in April 2016.  A main take-away from his talk was that the best and most efficient professional development comes from seeing other teachers teach effectively, and having other teachers see us.

Why You Should #ObserveMe

So, why should you #ObserveMe?

That question can be read two ways.  First, why should you participate in the #ObserveMe movement, and second, why you should you observe me specifically.  Let me address both.

Firstly, let me address why you should participate:  Observing, and being observed, is probably the most powerful and efficient way to improve your teaching practice.  The insights gained will lead you to be a better teacher, and your students deserve that.

Second, let it be also an invitation to observe me specifically.  I need to get out of the “egg carton” as much as the next teacher, but it’s easier said than done.  I definitely feel like an egg isolated in a carton for most my teaching day.

I haven’t posted an #ObserveMe sign on my classroom door yet, but maybe I will someday soon.  If it’s considered a cop-out not to just go ahead and post a sign, be patient.  I’m working on it.  I know I need to get myself out there.  In the meantime, hopefully this blog is a step in the right direction.  I invite you to visit my About Me page to get some more insight into why I started this blog, and to gain an appreciation sense of where I am on my ‘get out of the egg carton’ journey.

Here, I will draw back the curtain on my teaching by sharing my ideas, lesson plans, and resources.  Hopefully we will both be better for it.  Perhaps you will find a gem of an idea you’d like to try in your classroom and, if you leave me your thoughts and provide feedback, I can learn how to do things even better.

How You Can #ObserveMe

For now, you can find out what I am doing and what I am thinking about every Monday and Wednesday.  Simply follow or subscribe to this blog and get my new posts sent directly to your inbox.  I can also be found on Twitter and Pinterest, and I invite you to follow me there.

In the spirit of the #ObserveMe movement, please know you are welcome to borrow any idea worthy of your students, and if not worthy, I welcome your feedback on how it could be made better.  Many of my ideas, of course, will be borrowed, and I will always do my best to cite where I got the idea and provide links.

Happy Learning.