Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ambiance, Atmosphere, Aura?

The only rules in my classroom (other than the school mandated ones) are: be safe and be respectful.  With each class I have a discussion of their interpretations of my rules and we establish some norms together.  It amazes me how much my classes vary in their 'personality.'  (What's the word for a group's personality?)

My first class (A Block, Fundamentals of Geometry) may quickly turn into my favorite group.  As we were discussing what to do if you need to leave the room, someone asked what to do if they get mad.  I offered the option to ask for a pass to take a walk, but then someone suggested a "happy corner" and the idea took off.  Students were excited about the concept- deciding where it should be and asking when we could start decorating it.  The next class students were still asking when we could decorate, and I promised if we finished early we could start, but by the end of class we'd forgotten and got caught up in a game instead.  Today they still remembered, and I had the perfect activity- we were learning to use the compass and the book had instructions for making a 6 pointed flower.  We practiced arcs and circles, pulled out the markers, and quickly had a nicely decorated corner.  There's a chair in that corner facing a wall full of brightly colored flowers and it's well isolated from the rest of the room by my desk and a table.  I have no idea if anyone will use it when mad or upset or if I will think to use it as a time out space, but I'm thrilled that we're all having fun.

This class also came up with:
  • instead of making fun of someone, help them to understand
  • if everyone does their homework for a month, candy for all!
  • if someone isn't respectful, call them on it
My next class (B Block, Geometry CP) is a good group, but their personalities aren't as vibrant (yet?).  They came up with some reasonable norms, but nothing particularly insightful and certainly no one is excited about their rules.  This is my biggest group, the numbers are still fluctuating but they hover around 27.  My classroom isn't very big so they just fit, with no extra space, which means I have to be more diligent about keeping the noise level down as well as somewhat restrict movement in the room.  I want them to be comfortable, to talk to each other and to go get their own paper when they need it, but when the room is packed all of those things become just a bit more difficult.  Hopefully we'll find a way to work together in the space and find a good balance without being stifling or distracting.

Their not so inspiring rules:
  • Don't talk when others are talking (if someone is, say "be quiet please")
  • No goofing around
  • Be careful with tools
  • Respect each other (if someone isn't say "be respectful!")
  • Don't shout (wait to the end of class or walk over)
  • Get a pass before leaving
Sadly I don't have the rules from C or G Blocks to compare.  C Block is the Learning Skills class and they discussed rules with my co-teacher (who they spend most of the rest of their time with).  We're still figuring each other out in that class, but today went much better and I'm feeling less overwhelmed and more "I could possibly have a chance of success with this class."  During G Block one of the students offered to type and email me the rules, so I didn't bother to copy them down and I have yet to remember to remind him to send them.  They were pretty much just like B, also a Geometry CP class but not quite so big a group.

The final class (H Block, Fundamentals of Geometry) is already high tension.  There's a group of three girls that were a major issue for the entire year last year, which I learned as soon as I mentioned the name of the loudest one to her Algebra teacher.  Other students were already frustrated by the end of the first class and my co-teacher and I discuss them after class each day.  We're making progress which I hope continues because I really can't spend the entire year like this.  The rules in this class reflect that - none of the other classes discussed consequences, but they brought up consequences almost immediately (we decided on warning, name on board, after school-time dependent on number or severity of rule(s) broken).  However, they did also set up a reward if everyone in the class earned all 3's or 4's on the classwork rubric.  I should remind them of that next week, I'm not at all above bribery!

I wonder how this happens.  When you gather a group of 20-30 kids in a room, how do you end up with such different results?  It's even the same co-teacher in both of my Fundamentals courses, so it's not about the adults.  Time of day has some effect, but not nearly enough to explain these differences.  Is it just those few strong personalities?  In A Block there are a couple sweet, genuine kids that speak up and sit right in the front.  While in H Block there's that group of 3 who are intent on loudly discussing anything other than schoolwork.  Two or three students seems to be all it takes to set the mood for a group 10 times that size.  How do we encourage those leaders to be positive influences?  To carry the class further, to grow closer, to move everyone toward success?  One of the many challenges of teaching mathematics that has little to do with math...


  1. we had a field day in the park earlier this week with all 200 8th graders. we divided them into groups of 50 and they rotated between 4 stations, each with a different group team-building activity. like you, i was so amazed at HOW DIFFERENT the tone and participation level was in each group and how a tiny minority of kids would set the tone for the entire group (whether positive or negative).

  2. It's funny that after writing this last night several other teachers mentioned the same thing today. The influence of those few students really is significant!


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