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.

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