Do students feel safe in your classroom?

I remember one math class in high school that was dreadful. It wasn’t dreadful because the content was boring or the activities were disengaging — though we’ve all been there, too. It was dreadful because the environment was harsh, uncomfortable, and scary.

What could be so scary about a math class, you may ask? Was algebra alarming? Exponents eerie? Integers intimidating? While the purpose of class was to increase my knowledge, I didn’t feel like this was happening, and it had nothing to do with the content.

After becoming an educator myself and reflecting on this class many years later, I now have a better understanding as to why this class left such a negative impression on me. Our teacher — though clearly bright and well intentioned — did not set have clear outlines for lectures and assignments, nor clear and upfront expectations for classroom behaviors.

For example, his questions were unplanned (I suspect) and, therefore, unclear. He would call on us right away after asking an unclear question, and I wouldn’t know how to answer. He would then look disappointed in me and  some of the math whizzes would shake their heads and promptly answer correctly. Not only did I not follow the unstructured lesson and questioning, but I felt unsupported by my peers. I felt disrespected and disengaged.

Here are some ways to ensure that you are creating a safe, respectful classroom culture!

1) Start the year with clear procedures and directions

When everyone knows what’s expected at all times, there is less room for misbehavior, ambiguity, and off-topic questions. Drill these practices and procedures, just like you would a fire drill, your first few weeks of school. Start the class the same way every day. Keep an agenda and cross off items as you complete them. Always end with some sort of check. Consistently practicing these procedures and structures creates a culture where students know exactly what’s expected of them at all times. Less ambiguity = less frustration.

2) Everyone participates!

One of the easiest pitfalls teachers can fall into is calling only on students who raise their hands or, on the flip side, calling on students whose hands are not raised as a “gotcha” moment. Both of these strategies are ineffective. Rather, use a system to call on students randomly, so everyone’s always responsible for the answer.

3) Wrong answers are okay, but everyone always finishes with the right answer

If a student gets an answer wrong, you need to walk that fine line between “You tried, that’s the important part” which communicates low expectations and “No. Wrong!” which makes kids feel like its unsafe to try a wrong answer. Use lines like, “It’s on the tip of your tongue, I can tell — someone help him out,” or “That’s wrong, but I’ve heard you say it before. Mark, help him out?” Then always go back to the original student, have him or her repeat the correct answer after hearing another student say it. This will allow them to leave feeling successful, knowing it is okay to try in class, even if they are unsure of the answer.

4) Wait time

If you’re asking a difficult question, give students the appropriate amount of time to think about it before calling on a random student, or let them write or talk with a partner about it. If you build in this wait time, it becomes a part of your class culture and students will feel more comfortable voicing their answers with confidence.

5) Positive responses — from students!

As teachers, we are responsible for providing positive feedback, but let your students do the work! After debriefing partner work, try asking, “Who would like to call out a glow of something their partner did well?” Also, within the last months of the school year, I recently started incorporating snapping when a student would say something poignant — and the rest of the class was allowed to snap as well. One snap for something great, two for a comment that was downright insightful and awesome. They loved the positive encouragement from not just me but their peers, and many of them wrote in their end-of-the-year surveys that they strived to get a right answer so the class or teacher would snap for them.

Would love to hear how other teachers create a safe, respectful classroom culture? Please share your ideas in the comments below!

Springtime sluggishness? Part Three: 6 Ideas for high school

Note: This post is Part Three of a three part series, each individually sharing ideas for elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Evan Wolkenstein, high school teacher at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, San Francisco, who blogs his inspired lesson plans with creative comic strips at, has the following plans for his classroom to offset the “slide” that happens just before summer vacation:

  • Develop a long-term project that involves: a) problem solving b) an interview c) designing a prototype, and d) sharing the prototype with people off-campus. Evan brought his students to a nursing home to show their projects, and not only did they get the benefits of presenting their work to a loving and enthralled audience, but also it opened their eyes to what elders have to give back to teenagers.
  • Have students write and work on a speech, starting in January, as “anchorwork” whenever they finish their class-work on any particular day. They can deliver the speeches, one per day, in spring. Use the speeches as a springboard for 10 minutes of discussion.
  • Take students outside for discussion. Don’t forget to talk about class norms before you go outside. If you will require books to be open and won’t permit laying down and closing eyes, best to clarify that before everyone runs out the door. Bring your clipboard or tablet / smartphone with ClassDojo to record their conduct. They will see you do this and know that it’s outdoor class day, not recess.
  • Choose a topic and “gamify” it – provide a resource with essential questions and information. Let them design a game to test each other, and then throw a “games festival.” Winners get lollipops…and learn the material for the quiz!
  • Watch a movie (or 45 minutes worth of curated clips, rather than full films), and form discussion groups. The groups generate material than can be used for the final essay or exam (in which an optional prompt might ask for an analysis or comparison/contrast between the class text and the film).
  • Team up with another class or section – offer a chance for the classes to compete, showing what they have learned (or created) to a panel of judges. Watch how fast students who have relational trouble in class become loyal teammates!

Contrary to the myth, the post-spring break segment does not have to be a crucible to slog through. Rather, it’s a time to coalesce the class into a collaborative project that will have the students riding high on successful teamwork.

Springtime sluggishness? Part Two: 3 Ideas for middle school

Note: This post is Part Two of a three part series, each individually sharing ideas for elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Mr. Rodriguez, Math teacher Everett Middle School uses the following projects to lead his classroom, and counter springtime sluggishness:

  • Reciprocal teaching- students are taught how to prepare lesson plans on new skills and they work in groups to teach 5 seventh grade preview skills. This encourages students to not only collaborate, but also begin devising mechanisms to organize, synthesize and present new information on their own.
  • Retaking exams. Students are given the opportunity to boost their grades by retaking previous exams. I make a competition out of it by having blocks compete against blocks based on the amount of retakes completed and mastered. Students not only boost their personal grade but also boost the class average for the given units.
  • This year I will working with students to develop digital narratives of real-world math dilemmas. The idea here is create a cross-curricular project that engages students with technology and integrates literacy and math concepts in one. It allows students to interact with math questions in a different way.

Continue reading Part Three for ideas from a High school teacher, or read Part One for Elementary school ideas

Springtime sluggishness? Part One: 4 Ideas for elementary school

Note: This post is Part One of a three part series, each individually sharing ideas for elementary school, middle school, and high school

Spring fever brings with it a notorious frenzy both in the classroom and at home; It’s the time of year when teachers get exasperated with a room of wiggly students who have trouble focusing. Thankfully, this notorious slump in the academic year can be flipped, and turned into a boon rather than a bugaboo. In fact, the remaining weeks in the semester can be a time for students to set short-term goals, and decide how they want to finish out the year. Parents who broach this subject will send their kids back to school after vacation with a fresh resolve to finish up on a positive note.

From the teacher’s perspective, a go-to for thriving in the last few weeks of the year is to pick a favorite classroom-wide project that can take several weeks to produce, such as a science fair or a theater production.

Below are tips from an elementary school teacher, and over the next two posts, we’ll share ideas from middle school and high school teachers, who all agree that one thing works consistently at this time of year: A change of scenery.

Elementary School

Ms. Kay Kirman veteran teacher of a 4/5 split class at a San Francisco primary school, Miraloma Elementary, catalyzes her class in one collective effort with a Shakespearean play.  Her class studies the source material eight weeks before school ends. She assigns parts four weeks in advance, and pull props and costumes together two weeks ahead. In the last week of school, the class performs for the school and for parents. For source material, Kirman turns to Aaron Shepherd’s comprehensive retelling of folktales, 30 Minute Shakespeare series, Folger’s Library teacher series, or a book titled Teaching Shakespeare in the Classroom.

A few other in-class tips will fill the gaps and help keep students on track hour-to-hour until the very end:

  • Schedule “Brain Breaks” using online resources, including “Go Noodle” to calm everyone down or get everyone moving.
  • Plan a Science Fair the week before school ends where most of the projects are done after school/at home. Students work in groups of up to 4 students to conduct hands-on investigations with pre-approved testable questions, present them to their classmates.  One particular tip for planning a science project is to be very clear on how each student will measure and evaluate test results. While professional scientists often encounter valid experiments with negative results, this type of experiment may not be the most positive outcome for a young student’s science project experience Observing a change is more rewarding and less frustrating.
  • Take the classroom outside. Sketch the school, clean up the schoolyard, plant plants, create a chalk art mural.
  • Perform community service in the school or a nearby park. The school librarian or PE Teacher will always appreciates a little help with spring-cleaning at the end of the year.

Continue reading Part Two for ideas from a Middle School teacher

Image courtesy of Marti McGinnis