What Makes My Classroom Distinctly Mine

I used to teach at a highly-selective independent school for girls.  You can image that the students were highly motivated (after all, their families were shelling out close to $40k for their education) and also highly capable (otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten in).  I taught, students learned.

I am now about a month into my second year at an affluent but also pretty diverse, suburban public school, and I have been thinking much harder about how to engage and motivate my students.  To a large extent, this question is one of the “essential questions” of MTBoS.  From Dan Meyer’s How Math Must Assess (it’s hard for me to fathom that he wrote that seven years ago), to blog posts like this one from Cheesemonkey, the MTBoS has been reshaping my values as a teacher and causing a wholesale rethinking of how I want my classroom to feel to the students who pass through it everyday.

Firstly, I want my students to know that it matters to me if they get it or not.  That I wouldn’t be teaching how to find the percent of a number (or teaching period)  if it didn’t matter.  I want them to feel it in their bones that it’s important to me that they learn what I endeavor to teach.  I also want them to know that I know that they can learn it, and that it doesn’t matter to me how long it takes them to learn it.  They should understand that the unit, whether it’s the percents unit or the circles unit or the solving equations unit, is just a random unit of measure.  I want them to know this because I think it’s motivating to students.  Most of my students (and we’re talking about sixth graders) actually want to meet my expectations.

Last year, my struggle was how to communicate this.  I think mostly my students thought I was “nice.”  I was a new teacher at the schoo,l and so parents would tell me, other teachers would tell me that students thought I was “nice.”  But I am really not going for “nice.”  I think the problem was that I came across as caring without clarity on what I cared about.

I set out to change this by taking down almost all the posters on my walls that were related to math content.  Goodbye place value system, number line, circles formula posters. It’s not that these aren’t important math concepts, but after a time they just tend to blend in more like wall paper.  They don’t generate must thinking or curiosity.  They are just facts.  In their place, I created a series of quotes (most of which I found on the MTBoS) that share a Dweckian theme (sorry about paywall on this link, but I think it’s the best place to start if you aren’t familiar with her work).  Here’s one example:


You can see them all on here.

(BTW the one facts poster I kept shows the perfect squares 1 to 625, but that’s another blog post).

I also have prominently displayed Mathematical Practices posters created by Sarah Rubin.   As expressed in this kid-firendly language, they are thought provoking even if students don’t really know what they mean at the outset.  I surprise myself at how frequently I refer to them.

Posters aside, the most significant change in my classroom room is that I have started using standards-based grading.  At TMC13 it seemed that ActiveGrade was the most popular software so I explored it this summer and have been using it to provide feedback to students.  However, what I am most pleased about is that the word “reassess” has entered the classroom lexicon.  I think that most students actually believe me when I say I don’t care how long it takes.  Now when I am here after school, students actually show up.  They know what they have to work on, and that I will give them the time to work on it.

Also, I am fortunate that I have a structure built into our schedule where even students who maybe aren’t yet motivated enough (or under scheduled enough) to come after school can get the help they need.  We have two periods a week and staffing to run small group interventions for students who are struggling.  (Students who are not getting interventions are either doing an ELA activity or playing the stock market). I also had this structure last year, but the difference is that now students know what they are working towards.  They know which skills and concepts they need to learn and that eventually, when ready, they will be re-assessed.

Mostly here, I have talked about motivation, but I think engagement is slightly different.  It comes from a genuine interest the math.   I want my students to see the utility and sheer coolness of math.  I want my students to be able use the math we are learning to solve problems of interest them.  Stay tuned for next time…

6 Responses to What Makes My Classroom Distinctly Mine

  1. katelps says:

    Thanks for the link to the mathematical practices posters. I really liked them and will try to convinced my colleagues that we should use them (bilingually – will need to translate them into Dutch as well)!

    What is a challenge for me in my school is that I don’t have a dedicated classroom. I am in a different room every day (sometimes more than one room a day) and while our school has 6 math classrooms (which come with a grid whiteboard), I even give lessons in a Greek/Latin room and a French room, where the teachers don’t ever use group work, so I always need to arrange and rearrange the desks and teach among posters of Paris, for example.

    One thing that is nice to do though is to create posters with your students as well that are unit-specific. My first unit of the year was on Sets and Venn Diagrams, and in the back of the room I was in, I hung posters (one for each) with the symbols for the sets of Natural Numbers, Integers, Rationals, Irrationals, and Reals, including a very short definition of each and a big circle. Each student was given a number (some quite difficult) and a marker and asked to put their number in every circle that applied. My only instruction was that if you put your number in only one circle, then you’ve made a mistake. I was amazed at how they were able to do it nearly perfectly with no instructions!

    Then they were asked to line up in the correct order — WHEW, that was tougher (which is smaller -pi or – 3.14? etc) but fun. Now we have lovely posters about the Number Sets that hang in the back of a classroom (that I only get to teach in once a week [but it’s interesting for the other classes to see at least, considering the Dutch curriculum doesn’t touch on this particular branch of math]). This is done with the equivalent of US 9th graders (International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme 4).

    I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  2. bstockus says:

    As a former elementary school teacher, the teacher store offers you numerous posters on numerous topics that you can buy and put up on your walls to make your classroom look “smart”. The only problem is that my students hardly ever looked at them. I spent all that money for decorations. One year I opted not to put up posters, with the exception of some motivational quotes, much like you did. Instead, for every topic we learned about, we created a chart or poster together as a class to capture our learning. (They were fairly informal, nothing fancy.) Since we made it together, I found the posters entering our conversations even after they were made and I also saw students referring to them on their own without prompting from me. To help reinforce the growth mindset you might try something similar with your students to help them see how much they have “grown” over the course of a particular unit of study.

  3. bkapala says:

    I have been looking for some math quotes, so thanks for these great resources!

  4. zacksg1 says:

    I love your quote: “I think the problem was that I came across as caring without clarity on what I cared about.” As you have stated, this is hard to do. It is great that you are being more intentional about communicating exactly what it is that you care about (and growth mindset is a great place to focus!).

  5. lisabej says:

    I’ve been looking at all of the crazy colorful math facts covering my walls and questioning their presence lately. You have inspired me to take down some of them and replace them with growth mindset posters. Thanks for the link. Did you complete Jo Boaler’s class? I definitely learned the importance of mindset in student achievement & confidence!

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