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5 Innovative Ways To Create Positive Classroom Culture

5 Innovative Ways To Create Positive Classroom Culture

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Teaching three years in a public primary school and the previous two years in a private middle school, I’ve gotten the chance to spend time in two very different classroom environments. I noticed that the main thing that really affected the ability for students to connect not only with the class content, but with each other and with me, was the culture that was developed in the classroom. I view culture as the the overall vibe and mood of the room; what are the things that are valued (or not valued) in that classroom. I think positive classroom culture leads to more opportunities for students to positively connect with the content, their peers, and their teacher.

Here are five different things that I’ve done in my own classroom that’s helped build a positive culture in both my 5th grade classroom and middle school classrooms. I imagine they would be effective in a high school classroom as well :)

1.  ASK DIFFERENT QUESTIONS

The words we use say a lot about our expectations and values. In my classroom, I will rarely ask students if they have any questions, but will instead ask them ‘what questions do you have.’ It creates more of an assumption that there should be questions, and hopefully allow for more freedom for students who may be a bit apprehensive about asking questions.

Another shift I started last year in an effort to create a more discussion and inquiry based math classroom was how I asked students to share their answers. I used to just say ‘who has the answer’ or ‘who can tell us how to do this problem.’ I’ve since shifted to asking students ‘can you share your thinking.’ It’s so much less pressure to just share your thinking than it is to explain the right answer. Additionally, even if a student has the right answer, it’s much more meaningful to delve into the thought processes to getting that answer.

2.  DO MINDFUL BREATHING EXERCISES

This practice was new to me when I came to my current school. We call it centering. I was a bit unsure of how it would go down in the classroom. Seemed a bit woo-woo to me. I realized that it doesn’t have to be that at all. When I explain it to my students, I tell them that centering is just a practice of focus. A typical centering goes as follows:

I ask students to sit up straight and either close their eyes or rest their gaze down at the table. Just wanting to limit the visual input. We will begin to take slow, deep breaths together.  In through our nose and out our mouth. I will have students (and myself) bring all their focus to the feeling of the air as it passes through our noses. For me, the part that’s easiest to focus on is the nerves on the tip of my nostrils. I remind them (and myself) that if they find their mind wandering of things that they’re worried about or a to-do list, to become aware that their focus has shifted and just bring it right back to paying attention to their breathe. We will continue this for maybe a minute or two and then I ask them to just return their attention back to the room and we begin class.

What I love about this is that it starts every class in this focused and tranquil state. What I would suggest when beginning this practice is to let students know that if they feel uncomfortable, they can sit quietly but really make it a time where students aren’t making faces at each other or playing with anything in their hands or becoming a distraction in any way. I will often center with my eyes open and just sort of observing the students as they center. I also share with students that doctors will often recommend similar breathing techniques for patients who struggle with anxiety or depression as I know many young students deal with one or both of those.

Here's an excellent article on how mindfulness impacts learning: http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/09/12/why-teaching-mindfulness-benefi.... And I recently an organization that put out a film where they brought mindfulness practices to a school that was struggling with a high level of chaos and student disengagement: http://www.mindfulschools.org/resources/room-to-breathe/.

3.  HIGH-FIVE FRIDAY

Pretty basic. I stand at the door with a big smile on my face and say HIGH-FIVE FRIDAY! to students as they come in. Middle schoolers get pretty stoked about it. High schoolers are a bit more hesitant. I’m pretty persistent though and have chased a student down until they have given me a high-five. They laugh. I laugh. It’s fun. Here's a video I made recently where you see a little bit of high-five Friday action going on.

4.  START A CLASS INSTAGRAM

When great stuff is happening in class, I take a video on my phone and later will upload it to my class Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/khabelemath/). I will put the student’s first initial and describe what they were doing (ex. A and R debating if 1 is a prime number).

A few things happen here: you’re showing that you value the work and efforts going on and that you want to share it with folks outside the classroom. Additionally, you’re meeting the students where they’re at…on Instagram. I don’t follow any students with that account, but a lot of my students follow this class account. You can even give the job to a student that you think could do a great job. You’re also modeling digital citizenship in the way you handle yourself online.

Another option is to create a ‘class hashtag’ like #thomsmathclass but you’ll have a little less control over what shows up as anybody can tag any picture with any hashtag.  

I know a lot of schools have pretty strict social media and cell phone policies and this may not be feasible for all. All of our students have their parents sign waivers at the beginning of the year on if they can be filmed for any school related online media. I take note of the ones who do not have permission and avoid filming them (even though it’s not an official school Instagram…better safe than sorry). It’s best to fill parents in on it and invite them to follow the account (that way there aren’t any surprises later on).

5.  WEEKLY CHECK IN

There’s lot’s of ways you can do this based on what makes sense for your school and your classes.

When I was a 5th grade teacher, we spend the first 15 minutes of every Monday going around the room and students shared what they did over the weekend. Nobody was obliged to share, just anybody who wanted to. Students always looked forward to it and even though I had several students who typically had behavior problems, I never really had any behavior issues during this weekly check in. They want to hear from one another and I just remind them be respectful and listen to each other.

At my current school, we do a few different types of check-ins in our advisory class (sort of like homeroom- the group of students I meet with for about 25 minutes each day but it’s not an actual class). In my advisory, we do a sharing time each Wednesday where we go around and everyone shares a highlight of the last week, a low light, and something they’re looking forward to. On Friday, we do a weekly update email. I will send an email to all my advisory students (all students are required to have their own laptop at my school) and I will ask them to take a screenshot of their current grades in all their classes, write a little bit about how things are going in each class, and then usually a thought provoking question (what has been a moment that you’ve been extremely happy- where were you and what were you doing). I will usually include another question that may be a bit more fun (share a link of your favorite YouTube video right now). The best part of these emails is that students not only send their responses to me, but they also copy their parents. We are all in on this conversation. Each week I’ll reply to each student thanking them for sharing and making a few comments about what they shared. I include parents in the reply email as well.

I’ve thought about how I’d do this if I were in a school with more limited technology resources and I think I’d try to get access to a computer lab once a week if possible. Or perhaps find a way to do it on paper and figuring out logistics on having parents see it.

Creating a positive classroom culture is hard and I’m constantly trying to pull ideas from other teachers on how to more effectively do it. None of the above ideas are originally my own; they were all things that I either heard, read, or saw other teachers doing and adapted for my own classroom and personality.

I’d love to hear ways you’ve helped develop a positive classroom culture in your school :)


This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy)'s picture

I love this post, especially the video! Thanks for sharing these great tips, Thom. My colleague Keyana curated a Five-Minute Film Festival of videos about ways to engage kids positively, you can find it here: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/five-minute-film-festival-classroom-manage... - your tips above would fit in very nicely to the collection on building a more student-centered community in your room.

Thom H Gibson's picture
Thom H Gibson
Middle School Math & Robotics Teacher

Thanks Amy! Would love to be a part of any Five-Minute Film Festival collections you put together :) Have gotten inspired by many Edutopia videos when it comes to creating visually captivating stories in education.

Corina Cimbala's picture

"I'm pretty persistent though and have chased a student down until they have given me a high-five. They laugh. I laugh" -> I laughed out loud :))

Loved the ideas, thank you!

Dr. Joy's picture
Dr. Joy
Professional learning specialist and blogger passionate about bringing joy to schools.

Love this post. I used to do old school Fridays with my fifth graders. Every Friday I had one of my favorite old school songs playing and they loved it.

j_p_r_3's picture

Thanks for the post, love the ideas. Gathering in circle is a great way to do check ins (Monday morning), or check outs (Friday afternoons). Students and teacher /staff can share their "brags" (things they enjoyed) from the weekend or week or if they wish, their drags (things that might be getting them down). It's a great way to take the pulse of the class and share whats going on. We can also share the agenda for the week, who might need support for whats going on, and any goals we might have as a community. After circle becomes a part of the culture, its easy to put students in charge of running the circle. We usually exit our circle with a what if question, circle game, or a would you rather question. I definitely plan to introduce high five Fridays at some of the schools I work at.
Cheers and Thanks

Thom H Gibson's picture
Thom H Gibson
Middle School Math & Robotics Teacher

I like brag and drag :) We use 'rose, bud, and thorn' (rose- something good, bud- something looking forward to, thorn-something bad)

Cecilia Lopez-Anthor's picture

Hi Thom, I do thank you for your input. I'm an Interior Designer who became an English as a Second Language teacher here in Mexico. I'm proudly Mexican and American at heart since I got my BFA in Memphis, Tennessee where I had the time of my life and where I was able to improve my English well enough to have become a teacher. I'm very religious (Catholic) and find teaching one of the greatest blessings in my life. I can truly say that I love teaching highschool and appreciate learning from generous people like you. One thing I can share is that two years ago I decided to play Classical music when my students were solving exercises, but first asked them if they objected to listening to music. It really helps them focus and calms them down, plus they learn that Classical music can be cool. Love this post. Best regards

Thom H Gibson's picture
Thom H Gibson
Middle School Math & Robotics Teacher

Thanks for sharing Cecilia :) I used to play soft music to help students focus when I was a 5th grade teacher but haven't done so since teaching middle school. Perhaps it's time to take it up again. I too find teaching to be a pretty great blessing. Feliz Viernes!

Kathryn Roe's picture
Kathryn Roe
Professor of Education, William Penn University

Anyone who has taught knows that "what did you do over the weekend" can become a lengthy ordeal. Here is an idea that is not mine although I do not recall who I "stole" it from: Have students come up with the newspaper headline version of their weekend. Teach the students how to boil the story down, to get at the most important details. For example: "Roe Scores Home Run!" Go around the circle with students telling their headline. Encourage students to write down the names of three students with headlines they'd like to know more about. Give students five minutes (or more, or less) to go to one of their three choices and hear more. Call time; students switch to one of the other three choices, etc.

It seemed to me this avoided the long, drawn out stories, the stories told to top others' stories, or the flights of fantasy. It also taught an important skill: summarizing.

Thom H Gibson's picture
Thom H Gibson
Middle School Math & Robotics Teacher

That's excellent! I'm going to take the headline idea when I want a super brief weekend update :)

I was surprised at how well it went when I did this with my 5th graders several years back. I worried about the things you talked about but it didn't really ever show up. Most students were fairly succinct and there wasn't much trying to top other stories. I say I was surprised because at the time, there was quite a bit of social tension between different groups in my class and students weren't always the kindest to each other but somehow, this time to share always was a show of mutual respect.

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