Friday, August 26, 2016

In The Eye of the Hurricane There Is Quiet

I was talking to a friend of mine and describing how sometimes my life feels like I'm standing in the eye of a hurricane and I'm this weird sort of spectator to all the things that are flying around me. It's surreal on some days, watching the wind blow by. Sometimes my classes feel that way, too, especially here at the beginning of the year when I barely know my students' names

This week  I started watching, learning, observing my students to get a sense of their personalities as a class. I spent time in each of my math classes just watching them interact with each other. We haven't done much yet in the way of computation. They've taken some notes and done a little practice and I've done a lot of peering over shoulders and pointing out successes and mistakes. Nothing particularly exciting but a lot of learning for them, and me, by observation. What I'm hoping to develop is a little classroom culture. I've been told that I'll establish and create a classroom culture not necessarily by the things I say I'll do but by the environment that I create by just doing the things I do. Humbling. Implicitly creating classroom culture. Scary, but true. Given this recent piece in The Atlantic I've been doing a lot of thinking about the culture I create and I have always struggled with this because I'm just not a cheerleader. I don't rah-rah math (although I do love it and am enthusiastic about it) and I don't fake-rah-rah accomplishments that don't mean anything. It's a tough position sometimes to be who I am and create positive culture, not because I don't want to but because who I am leans towards really hard work and being willing to try anything once, hardly characteristics that come naturally to high school freshmen. It was time for something new.

This year, I did two major things differently: I stepped aside and let the students play a huge role in creating culture and rather than creating rules, I created expectations. The students from each class period got together in groups and decided on the kind of class they wanted to be. For at least 2 classes, I literally stepped aside. I left the room and watched through the window in the door as they talked and got to know each other and created a world in which they wanted to learn. I asked them to make goals for themselves, for me, and for the whole class. Every single class period was different. Every. Single. One.

Their classroom goals impressed me. They used words like, "collaborate," and "explore," and "make good decisions" and "be brave and ask lots of questions." Their goals for themselves I promised I wouldn't share. Their goals for me were to, "Promise to help us," and, "Talk to us about the things that we do wrong so we can do them better." I admit, for 9th graders, I was stunned. I'm working on getting the different goals for the different periods printed up so each student can have a copy. This is so new it barely has a sticking place yet but I think I like it a whole lot.

It's the second week of school so I really and truly don't know yet how this is going to look in 3 weeks or 9 weeks or 12 weeks. Will I have to start over in January and redo the entire structure? I hope not. But I have thought for a long time that before I can teach math, I have to create a place in which math is welcomed and this is the first time I've done that with intention.

I'll conclude with two things:
(1) What are your tactics for creating classroom culture with intention? I know that it has to be something I can maintain and that me being the authority all the time just isn't the way I teach. Beyond that, I am super curious. What works for you?
(2) I'm working up the nerve to post my first actual project of the year. It's an original creating and it's a bit like giving the new neighbors some cookies that might have been the result of a chemistry experiment gone awry, or they might end up turning out really good. Either way, it makes me nervous, but it's coming and coming soon.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad you are blogging. Thanks for sharing! The Atlantic piece is fascinating -- it's about fifth graders, but I love the idea of a "soft start." I have been trying to get my students to write in a "Learning Journal" that counts as 30 percent of their grade (I'm planning on no tests this year). We're still working out what that should look like and what our classroom climate should be. I have juniors and I've taught 80%+ of them last year, so we're building on what we did last year. But I'm doing some different things as well and taking some risks. I'll be blogging about my teaching experience, too. Transparency lets us learn from each other (but it is a bit scary, as you note).