Tag Archives: students

Classroom Culture

The thing I worry about most is the nature of my students’ interactions with me, with my subject, and with our shared environment. Lately, I’ve come to think of all these things as (my part of) the culture they encounter in, and around, school.

I want to be clear, in my use of the term “culture”, that I am not referring to climate of the school. The attitudes, behaviours, and discourse of the people in the school are like the motion of iron filings, and the pattern they form locally is the climate. Culture is the magnetic field.

Culture is, as Geertz puts it, “an ordered system of meaning and symbols, in terms of which social interaction takes place” (p 144). The meaning includes things like our values and our core beliefs, the symbols include the things we put on our walls and the vocabulary we adopt; the social interaction is education.

Creating a positive culture in a school or classroom has become a popular discussion-point for the education advice sector (example, example). Teachers should collaborate, listen, enact classroom rules that promote respect and sharing, and directly instruct children about community values. That’s a good start, and it is probably enough for the beginning teacher. But for those of us who really, genuinely care about our students, we are often compelled to do more.

Jose Vilson, in typically concise honesty, described what he learned teaching a difficult class during his first year in the classroom: “When I took off my mask and invested myself in a group of kids, the homeroom became a home. For all of us” (p 87). For him, the next step to creating a positive classroom culture was appreciating the students as individuals, with hopes and needs and fears. How else can we reach out to students, and establish the sort of culture the beginning teachers cannot?

Love Your Students

Love your students. Take them for who they are, flaws and all, and love them anyway. Love them when they are causing trouble, and you will see their misbehaviour as symptomatic of some deeper need. Love them when they do poorly on assessments, and they will learn that some things are more important than test scores. Love them for their humanity when fellow teachers blame them for their failures. Don’t be afraid to tell them so, at the right time.

I once had a troublesome high school math class that missed the deadline for an important project. They assumed I would treat them as their other teachers did: admonishment, an extended deadline, and complaints home. I told them that my love for them wasn’t contingent on their work.. They should finish it at their own pace, but that it was necessary for the course. That changed the dynamic of our classroom: mutual trust and affection meant that we could navigate problems, rather than butting heads against them.

Accept Friend and Follow Requests

We all know that our social media need to be sanitized. So what’s the problem with connecting with our students online? I tried to answer that question last year.

On Facebook, I can wish happy birthday and celebrate achievements outside of school. I can keep an eye out for dangers, too, and help students learn about privacy and the internet.

Develop Respect Beyond “Mister”

My students have called me a lot of things, but they rarely call me my name. Even after years of developing and displaying their deep respect for me as their teacher, my students use an awkward and unnecessary formality: “Mr Doucette”. I would rather that my students show their respect for me and my classes through their actions, and by accepting me as a human being — which is something quite difficult when you’re not even allowed to use my name.

Dress Appropriately

Several years ago, I developed a teacher costume. At the time, as a young male teacher, I needed to send the appropriate cue to female students whose crushes distracted them from their work. I typically wear a white or blue shirt with a bow tie, a v-neck sweater or cardigan, a tweed jacket, corduroy trousers, and brown dress shoes. It is almost comically professorial, and it makes me a well-known character in my school.

Recently, however, I’ve found that my style of dress makes it difficult for students to conceptualize me as a human beyond the teacher character they’ve framed in their minds. I wonder how I could dress in such a way as to promote positive classroom culture? I’ve got a great hoodie that says “Niceness is Priceless”, and I’ve worn it a few times.

Eliminate Implicit Bias and Stereotype Threat

Implicit bias is probably affecting how most teachers act in the classroom. During the past two years, I’ve kept a careful eye out, and caught myself a few times: calling more frequently on boys than girls, presuming girls are more interested in the social sciences and boys in the physical sciences, and “mansplaining” to my peers more than once. I think I’m getting better at treating everyone as an individual worthy of their own types, rather than relying on stereotypes.

Stereotype threat, on the other hand, is something I cannot eliminate, because it is brought into the class by my students. I can try to ensure that all students know their particulars are not relevant to academic success in my class. For some students, who struggle, I have had mini-interventions that seemed to be successful.

Surround Ourselves with Cultural Artifacts

The walls of my classroom are covered in student work and colourful, engaging, and useful posters. I’m happy with that. But these cultural artifacts are of my designs. Even the student work was created according to tasks and rubrics I designed. If the classroom is truly to become a shared cultural space, then I think the walls need to reflect our shared culture, even if that means posters of Rey and Biebs.

Hans and Fatima

I wanted to quickly write about two example student interactions. The first is Hans (more details), a student who doesn’t know anything, but is very good at picking up on the teacher’s cues. Hans is the archetype of question-wiseness.

The second is Fatima, a student who outlined “Fatima’s Rules“. These rules outline how a student who cares only about grades goes about studying, achieving a very shallow knowledge and little conceptual understanding.

#modphys: Students or Friction?

We spent this week on the a=F/m paradigm lab. Once the students got their data whiteboarded, I began to see some problems — serious problems. The close relationships I had seen during my practice runs were nowhere to be seen: instead, the students had graphs dominated by systematic errors and an assortment of unorthodox, confusing ways to represent their data.


The picture above looks alright, except that the reciprocal of the slope (about 0.4 kg) is rather different from the 0.2 kg one would expect. Other groups clearly had trouble getting consistent data.


And others clearly haven’t bought in to the idea of the course.


In the evening, I replicated their experiments, and got results akin to the first graph. Today, I re-did the experiment with my hover disc, with only moderate improvement. It seems that the modified Atwood machine really needs a dynamics track to work. Drats. Maybe next year I will try to build an air track with a shop vac.


Idea: Students create charities

In my view, empathy is the most important skill we should be teaching students (see Jackie Gerstein’s excellent post).

  • In the IB program, doesn’t “internationalism” just boil down to empathy + geography class?
  • The increasingly-networked world will require increasingly-sophisticated emotional competences (ie: the opposite of YouTube comments)
  • The gap between rich and poor seems to be growing in nearly all countries

Here’s the idea: give each student some seed money to start and run a charity. This can be connected to class content by requiring a business plan, promotional materials, a mission statement, a cash-flow model, etc. It might be best to hold on to the cash until the students have laid all the groundwork.

I started this project with my senior math class, but it looks like we won’t have the time to carry it through to completion with looming exams and conflicts from other demands (university applications, etc). Nonetheless, I was very excited with the progress we made. Here are just a few of the students’ ideas for how they would leverage €100) to create a lasting change in a community they cared about:

  1. Set up an after-school art program for local kids, and sell their work to tourists during the summer.
  2. Use the start-up to print t-shirts saying “I love dogs”, then sell the t-shirts at school and use the profits to buy vaccines for a local animal shelter
  3. Create an activity day to bring together kids from different schools in the local community
  4. Use kiva.org to make microloans

I think that a bit more time would have streamlined and fleshed out these ideas. Maybe next time.

Idea: Pythagoras Cult

As a math teacher, I’m all too familiar with the phenomenon of students learning, and then promptly forgetting, concepts and skills in maths. In fact, our system of teaching maths — revisiting the same concepts year after year after year — seems to be predicated on this very principle. It seems like such a waste of time, of energy, and of instructional headwind.

Thus, I’ve been wondering lately how math teachers can make the key concepts more “sticky”. I’m referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book The Tipping Point, in which he analyses attempts to make key ideas “stick” in the minds of an audience (summary). The memorable example involves Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, two American television shows that were designed to be “sticky”.

Sesame Street simplified and highlighted key concepts, used colourful muppets, and produced carefully-timed segments. Blue’s Clues, the successor, appears in shorter episodes, with simpler characters and purposefully abrupt dialogue that is designed to draw in the viewer.

Here’s my idea for making Pythagoras’s theorem sticky: Once a class has been introduced to the concept, and learned how to use the basic formula to solve simple problems, the teacher will host an initiation in which students are inducted into a secret society of Pythagoreans.

Pythagoras did, in fact, establish a sort of cult that was part school, part brotherhood (but inclusive of both genders*), and part religion. They were secretive, yet venerated mathematics. A famous tale about a student discovering the irrationality of the square root of 2 may help to illuminate the Pythagoreans, even if the story is invented.

The initiation ceremony should be secretive and it should require that students demonstrate a knowledge of Pythagoras’s theorem. I think it would also be great to make a web site for students to share Pythagorean artwork, proofs, and so forth.

This will be memorable, surely. If we ensure the maths takes center stage, it might also help students to form lastings understandings of this key concept.

* There is very little written record about the activities of Pythagoras and his followers. One clue comes from this description of Plotinus, a sort of academic leader who identified with both the Platonic and Pythagorean traditions, as recorded by Porphyry (source (line 9)):

Several women were greatly attached to him, amongst them Gemina, in whose house he lived, and her daughter, called Gemina, too, after the mother, and Amphiclea, the wife Ariston, son Iamblichus; all three devoted themselves assiduously to philosophy… Not a few men and women of position, on the approach of death, had left their boys and girls, with all their property, in his care, feeling that with Plotinus for guardian the children would be in holy hands. His house therefore was filled with lads [and] lasses…

If this is true, it’s a stunning reminder that the patriarchal inclinations of Western history were not absolute. Here’s some background about our developing understanding of gender role in ancient Greece.