Secondary Smorgasbord: Creating a Positive Classroom Culture

The first bell rings, signaling the start of a new school year.  For the next nine months, our classroom will be my students' home away from home. Creating a positive classroom culture shows them that this is a safe place to learn and grow.  Here's how I do it...

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture
After their "free-range seats" are chosen, we begin with a lot of exploration - of the classroom, of each other, of ourselves.  Each year, I give each student a journal for their warmups. The first few pages become a reflection of themselves as learners, along with a plan for what they'd like to accomplish this year. To get an idea about how they see themselves, I jump right in with these questions.

Take a moment to respond in your journals:  
  • What do you want me to know about you, as a learner? 
  • What do you consider to be your greatest talent or trait?
  • Who, in this classroom, do you consider to be friend?
  • Who, in this classroom, would you like to get to know better?
Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Change your thought... Change your day!
Students come with preconceived notions about what they can and cannot do.  Negative self-talk frequently gets in the way of their learning, and we need to turn that around quickly. (For example, "I've never been good in math." Ugh!)  

To make the point, we take a stroll down memory lane. I ask them to think back to when they were babies. (OK, I know it would be highly unusual for them to remember their own first few months, but they've heard their parents' stories about when they were babies, and those stories become theirs. Anyway, I digress...) 

Remember when everything was new and you had to learn how to do the simple tasks you now take for granted? You learned to talk, to get food into your mouth successfully, and to walk. No one could do it for you and you never gave up until you were successful.

Well, guess what?  That's what you're still doing!

Every new thing you learn is another first step.  Will it be easy? Maybe, maybe not.  Will you stumble? It's possible. Will you get back up and try again until you get it?  I know you will! I promise you, I will be there to guide you. And more importantly, I will not deny your right to struggle, just like when you took your first steps, because that's how you learn.

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: I will not deny your right to struggle.
And then, it's back to the journals for more reflection:
  • What is something you're trying to learn to do? (It can be in school, or outside of school.)
  • What's something that took you a long time to learn, but now it's easy to do?
  • What is the best way for you to learn something new?
  • What do you do when something seems really hard to figure out?

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Change your thought, change your day!

I'll spend a lot of time those first few days finding ways for them to see that they know more than they thought they did, in a number of different learning situations. There will be lots of different games involved, where I'm assessing different areas and it's safe to make mistakes. Here's an example...

Since math seems to be the most popular I've-never-been-good-at subject, I start with a fun place value game, Hi-Lo, that has students building 5-digit numbers, one digit at a time. It's non-threatening and it gives me some quick information about their understanding of place value, their ability to read large numbers, as well as their problem-solving strategies.  It also lets me see who relies on a lot of teacher support, as well as who does better with verbal or visual directions. I pack a lot into this little game.
Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Using games helps break down learning barriers.

I always play along with them and let them see my moves.  I tell them they're always welcome to copy my answers, but just know, I lose more rounds than I win. They see that I'm willing to take a chance that may or may not work out. This also gives me the opportunity to model losing gracefully, knowing it's not the end of the world and I might try something different next round.

They really enjoy this game because they realize that, YES!, they can do math! ...and the barrier starts to crumble.

At the end of the first couple of days, it's time to set some goals, and rethink their negative self-talk.  We brainstorm possible sentence starters to replace "I can't." We talk about how doing things differently than they did before is how to get different results.

Thinking about last year (what you did well, what you need to improve)... 
  • What do you want to really focus on improving this year?
  • What will you do differently to make that improvement happen?
  • What "I can't" thoughts will you change to "I can" statements?
Creating a positive classroom culture is a yearlong process.  Will there be bickering? Probably. Will they struggle? Undoubtedly. Will we have fun? Absolutely! It's all part of taking those first new steps.   And guess what...

Creating a Positive Classroom Culture: Changing "I can't" into an "I can do it!" positive learning attitude.

How I Use Free-Range Seating to Get a First Glimpse of My Students

The first day of school is the start of something good! Fresh faces ready to learn.  New school supplies just itching to find their new homes in desks and cupboards. A clean start for everyone!

We only get one chance to make a first impression, and it's my best opportunity to get an unguarded glimpse of who they are. That's why, over the years, I've developed a strategy that helps me get to know my next new class quickly.

Let them sit wherever they'd like.

We can learn a lot about our students by letting them chose where they'd like to sit.

Yep, that's it... I like grouping desks in pods of 4 - 6, depending on how many students I have. To give everyone an even shot at choosing their seats, I have them gather around the perimeter of the room, and then tell them they may sit wherever they choose. As they quietly jockey for position, moving toward their friends, they're cautiously optimistic.  When I say go and they lay claim to their new territory, they're convinced 6th grade is going to be alright!

I do this for a couple of reasons. Not only can I tell who their friends are, but I can also get a potential read on their learning personalities.

This is what I've observed over the years...

There's the group that wants to be closest to the teacher's desk or front of the room. (I am rarely at my desk, but they don't know that, yet.) These are often the extroverts. They have all the answers and love to participate in any discussions. They might also be the kids who are vying for the coveted role as Teacher's Pet... (which I let them know right away I don't have. Pets take a lot of care and I'd have to leave them in the room over the weekend, because my dog would get jealous, if I brought them home. Yes, I get looks that say, "Is she serious?" But it seems to take care of any future TP issues.)

If I'm not careful, this group can suck the energy right out of me! However, they seem to be the students that love school, so who am I to quibble over a little (OK, a lot) sucked-out energy?

Next, there are the students that like to be in the middle.  These kiddos are frequently on the learning fence. They may like one subject, but not another. They could be introverted and want to blend in to the crowd so just maybe they won't be called on. This group is hoping that the rumors of my being a hard teacher are grossly exaggerated. (I prefer to think of it as challenging them to give their personal best all. the. time.)

Then there's the group that prefers to sit by the door or the very back of the room. This group is quite a mixed bag.  These are the kids looking for a fast escape when the bell rings, or to be first in line, or closer to the bathroom (which they like visiting frequently). They are the fidgeters who love playing with their mechanical pencil leads (I hate mechanical pencils for that reason!) or anything else in their desks. They're the ones passing the notes to their friends, always hopeful they won't get caught. These are the social, chatty ones, my active learners that sometimes make me feel like I'm herding butterflies!

Usually, the last students to find a seat are the slower processors. While they quietly weigh the pros and cons of each seat in the classroom, everyone else is grabbing prime real estate and they end up having to take whatever seats are left. This group needs a quieter learning environment so they can process what's happening. Introverts are often part of this group, as well.

They might also be the outliers (no friends in the room, or new to the school and haven't met anyone yet). They may or may not really be in to the whole schooling idea, but are always willing to give it a shot. (Who knows, maybe this is the year the lightbulbs come on!)

After everyone is comfortably settled in, I let them know it's totally up to them as to whether this seating arrangement will stick, or if the seat fairy has to come in and rearrange things overnight. (Ahhh, there's the catch!)  I ask them how I'll know they want to remain where they are.  (Funny, they always seem to know what it takes.) With everyone in agreement, we start off feeling really good about a new year.

 I'd like to say this arrangement lasts quite awhile, but we all know that's just not going to happen.  To begin with, I need to mix up the energy in the classroom. (Let us not forget that back-of-the-room group... They just can't seem to help themselves.) And because I can't change the furniture around at home (don't want to mess with my feng shui), that leaves my second home, my classroom, as fair game.

So... that's my not-so-very-scientific way of getting a good first glimpse of my new students on the first day of school.

What  tricks do you have up your sleeve for your first day?  Please share them below. And most importantly, have an awesome new school year!

"If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." Wayne Dyer