Revisiting classroom culture mid-year

At the beginning of this school year, I was invited by superstar and design thinking wizard Katie Krummeck to imagine what it would look like to ask students to co-author classroom agreements from a design thinkingperspective. It was pedagogically engaging, reinvigorating me and transforming how I approached the first week of school.

It was also four months ago, which is precisely 16.2 years in Teacher Time™. So at the end of another calendar year, I find myself thinking about how I can take that great beginning-of-the-new-school-year effort, add to it, and continue to reap the benefits in January.

What I learned about classroom agreements and design thinking

I got to learn more ways to incorporate design thinking into my classroom when I attended a workshop over the summer.

Here’s what I remember: Katie invited me (and other teachers) to facilitate a co-design process. The goal was to hand off the mic to our students to prioritize and amplify their voices, building equity and addressing real needs (instead of our imagined teacher ones). Using a design thinking framework, we ideated on a lesson plan that asked kids to imagine what they need from us as the teacher, what they thought we need from them as learners, and what they need from each other. Then, together, we brainstormed ways to meet those needs using a “How might we” framework.

In Katie’s words, “How might we” questions should:

  • Create a sense of shared optimism that there is an opportunity to improve the situation (the how)
  • Invite participation from the group and rally everyone around a shared goal (the we)
  • Be open-ended and generative rather than a search for a question with one “right” answer (the might)

Part I: Settling on the agreements

I teach sixth-grade math, and in a sixth-grade classroom we need love, trust, and a high sense of being part of a team. I knew that it would pay massive dividends to dedicate several class periods to making a charter with my learners. But not just any old, sit-around-for-ten-minutes-and-chat charter. Katie needed more from me. I needed more from me!

Following Katie’s distillation of classroom-culture-turned-design-thinking model, I first needed my students to come to consensus on four to six “agreements” that encapsulated our values. I also made my own non-negotiables for our classroom and had them ready in my back pocket to bring up in the event of an idea drought or as a way to massage a student’s nascent idea into fully formed being.

Here’s what I came up with:

  • A safe and joyful classroom has a high tolerance for “failure.” We welcome mistakes.
  • Our class knows that math is a personal journey.
  • Our class believes in working hard. We love more practice!
  • A safe classroom is curious about and kind toward others.
  • Everyone will speak up for their needs, and it will be hard to hurt our feelings.

I firmly believe that sentence-starters are the way to kick off ideation sessions, especially at the year’s beginning when everyone is still a bit timid. I divided the room into groups and asked them, “When you picture a classroom where everyone feels valued and learning can happen joyfully, what do you see?” I gave them time to fill in the following sentences:

  • “A safe classroom feels like ______.”
  • “Everyone will feel/have _________.”
  • “Our class will _________________.”

When I noticed any group slowing down in their ideation, I waved my mysterious sheet of the agreements I’d already brainstormed and challenged them to try to guess what I wrote. That got them going!

As groups eventually slowed down, I asked each to share their sentences as I recorded on a master list (aka, a big sticky note). Ideas were echoed and repeated, which gave students an increased sense of confidence that their teammates were ideating along the same lines.

Part II: Identifying potential barriers to the agreements

Part of design thinking is identifying barriers. It’s impossible to skip over obstacles when going from aspirations to solutions. And, in fact, while adults might be tempted to do so, my students felt the safest, most vocal, and most descriptive in this part of the sharing session.

In our next class meeting, I asked my students to identify barriers the class might face when working to uphold the agreements we created. I asked them to think both in terms of what I am responsible for, as the teacher, and what they are responsible for, as learners. I asked “What might get in the way of our peaceful, joyful classroom?” and read some examples out loud:

  • Sometimes the teacher might feel frustrated with the class’s lack of focus.
  • Some students might feel self-conscious about their knowledge of a subject.
  • Some students might feel alone or lonely in the classroom.
  • Some students might feel ignored by the teacher.
  • Sometimes one student might say something unkind to another student.

Then, we placed our sticky note of agreements next to the whiteboard. I gave each student a marker and asked them to come to the board and write answers to the following:

  • When you look at our agreements, what might get in our way? Be as detailed as you can.
  • Fill in the blank: “Some students might feel ______” and “Sometimes, a student might ______.”

I was worried this wouldn’t be enough structure, but the many minutes my students spent at the board, naturally drawing lines from their ideas to others’ ideas on the whiteboard, made me realize, I need to give these kids the markers! How long have they been languishing in my hand?!

When my students were done, I read the board aloud, drew more “connective tissue” lines, and began writing headings that I felt were emerging: “Impatience,” “Making fun,” “Feeling stupid.” I took a photo of our board in preparation for the next part of the lesson.

This next portion of the lesson was so rich with student anecdotes. I heard from each kid at least twice about a time when a teacher or another student made them feel disenfranchised in some way. I served as a translator to distill an applicable takeaway: when a student stole their pencil case, it “made you feel like you couldn’t trust your classmate. That impacted how you felt respected, and whether or not you could relax in class when it came time to learn.” Their stories built our community and fast tracked their sense of feeling understood, not just by me, but by each other.

Part III: Pondering “How might we” uphold the agreements?

After the joint process of creating agreements and their respective barriers, I came up with my own “How might we” questions so that my next interaction with the students would be to brainstorm solutions. I projected this document onto the whiteboard for my students, ready to type their ideas to the questions. Here’s what it looked like:

  • Agreement for classroom culture: Every student will feel safe to make mistakes.
  • Barrier to agreement: Some students might feel self-conscious about their math skills, and other students might accidentally make them feel small.
  • Student-centered “How might we” question: How might we ensure we create a room where we undo some math stigma and ensure we are not accidentally feeding someone else’s insecurity?
  • Teacher-centered “How might we” question: How can I create a room where math mistakes are celebrated?

First, I reminded students of our shared agreements and the potential barriers. Then, we wondered aloud how we might overcome each barrier. Our conversation was, again, a lot of teacher translation (strangely, there was always a solution with candy at its forefront) but I want to emphasize that it didn’t include a lot of editing. We were going for quantity: “Shout out those answers, and let’s worry about what works later!” Here are some of the answers we came up with:

We could:

  • Withhold “helping” someone when what they really need is time.
  • Apologize quickly and sincerely! (“Sorry, I didn’t see it that way, but I value your opinion.”)
  • Avoid sending impatient signals to people (whispering the answer, raising our hand excitedly).
  • Celebrate math mistakes.
  • Remind each other that rudeness is sometimes small (maybe the other person doesn’t even realize they were rude).
  • Help each other!
  • Find opportunities for group work when possible.
  • Have math-related celebrations (like Pi Day).
  • Pause before we tease and ask ourselves, is this going to impact my classmate in a bad way? How close am I with this person. Do we have the type of relationship that allows us to make fun of each other?
  • Express if our teasing battery is low: “Hey, I know you’re just joking around, but I’m feeling a little sensitive today. Kindly lay off.”
  • Have a safe word!
  • Revisit our teasing and mood boundaries on the regular. Maybe have a daily check-in?

We ended with this beautiful list of agreements and answers to the “How might we” questions. I printed out a copy for each student and had copies ready for families on back-to-school-night.

And that is where I left it. I had math to teach, after all.

Now that it’s mid-year…

I let the siren song of math get the best of me back in September. I had to get started on our math curriculum, after devoting three-ish days of instruction to our classroom culture ideation, so that’s what I did. I do not fault myself for this pivot! But it does mean that January could be rich with possibility.

We have so much more rapport in our class than we would have if we hadn’t invested in this work in September. We have made serious gains in our math skills, and we have forged our identity as a team of learners. Revisiting the classroom agreements will be from a more mature perspective—and have a lot more honesty—now.

My plan is to project our agreements back on the board. I need to ask:

  • What’s working, and what’s not?
  • What were we a little too “rosy” about? Conversely, how have we been pleasantly surprised?
  • Let’s celebrate each other. Have there been any times in this class where you have felt supported? Share them.
  • When we look at our solutions, is there anything we should more formally implement? Do you have any additional ideas?

Joining my students in a conversation around these answers will help us continue to build a strong classroom culture that helps every sixth grader under my charge crush math.

A closing thought

One thing still sticks out to me about my initial conversation with my students back in September: they pointed out that a joyful, safe classroom knows the difference between “laughing at” and “laughing with.” We really saw that this week when one student requested I play Christmas music by Michael “Bubble.” I did, but not after we all had a friendly chuckle over the name error.

I’ll be sure to use this tangible example when we revisit our agreements, and I’ll look forward to even more inside jokes we can lovingly create together in the second half of the year. Laughter and math go very well together.

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