Sunday, July 29, 2018

Classroom Norms to Start the Year

Out here in Boston, here at the half-way point in the summer, I'm starting to look forward at my big classroom norms for next year. When I say "classroom norms" I mean the guiding philosophical principles that can be referred to and cited to guide how we work and function as a classroom community. Here, I would like to reflect on where I got them, how I launched them, and how they bore out during the year. I will then talk about how I plan to change them for the coming school year. Throughout this post I have some questions highlighted in green for you readers, and I'd love to hear your feedback on if you're interested in sharing! You can reply to me on Twitter @bearstmichael, or comment here on this blog. I also provide a link later on so you can comment directly on the Google doc where I am drafting my norms for next year.
My norms from last year, which I kept on laminated 8.5"x11" posters at the front of the room:

1) 2)
3)  4)

Where I Got My Norms. I got all but the second one from my mentor teacher Joey Kelly. He had a few others, but these were the biggest three that I took away from his class. The second one I made, because I know that my class is very group-work oriented, and I place a lot of responsibility on groups to stay and work together. 

Clearly these are all pretty broad norms. This contrasts with some of the specific norms that I've seen in other classrooms like Always Show Up on Time or Always Check Your Answer. In general my working philosophy on classroom norms is to have fewer of them, because when norms get really specific I feel like I need more of them to cover my all my bases.

Another norm that I initially considered was Other People are People -- They Deserve Respect. I wasn't ready to deliver and talk about this norm, so I bailed on it the night before I was supposed to introduce it, replacing it with Mistakes Are Useful -- We Learn From Them

How I Launched My Norms. In each of the first four days of my classes, I would focus on a different norm and use a math task that I felt embodied that norm. That way they experience the norm firsthand before I ask them to talk and think about it. Then, during the final closure phase of the class, I would connect the day's task to this norm, and then ask them some follow up questions in an exit ticket. Some tasks felt very connected to their associated norm, and others felt shoe-horned into the norm.

When picking tasks to pair with norms, I was also trying to balance this narrative arc with my goal to maximize engagement and fun those first four days. Here are those four tasks, in the order they rolled out:
  1. Math Is Not a Race -- No Spoilers. I paired this with a version of Nim that I learned as 21-Takeaway. This is one of my favorite games to play with kids. It is described in detail here by Jon Orr (@MrOrr_geek), and another great variant is described here by Sasha Fradkin (@aofradkin). Especially with the one-pile version described by Jon Orr, this game connected well with the norm because eventually some students start to get the strategy but naturally don't want to spoil it (because it's a competition). I also refuse to spoil the strategy for them at the end of the day, further driving home the norm No Spoilers. I ended the day asking them to reflect on the norm with the following questions:
    1. When can it be HELPFUL to race in math class?
    2. When can it be HARMFUL to race in math class?
    3. When has someone “spoiled” something for you? How did you feel?
  2. Take Care of Each Other -- Take Care of Yourself. I paired this with the 100# Task, originally described here by Sara Vanderwerf (@saravdwerf ). The task is always fun, and kinda matched the norm. The connection I communicated was that they were more effective when they got together, communicated, coordinated, and helped each other find numbers--especially if someone noticed the trick and shared it with their group (Take Care of Each Other). Furthermore, when they were all helping each other, they were more likely to win (Take Care of Yourself). This task would be an ideal fit for a norm along the lines of Take Time to Notice--It's Helpful, but I'm not sure I want exactly that as a big norm. Follow up questions:
    1. One way I can take care of MYSELF in this class is...
    2. One way we can take care of EACH OTHER in groups is...
    3. One way we can take care of EACH OTHER anytime is...
  3. Fair is Not Equal -- You Get What You Need. I paired this with Maximaze, which I got from Joey Kelly's website problem #5 at, who originally got it from @MathCurmudgeon at his blog here. This was a stretch to connect to the norm--the problem didn't align well. The closest I got was pointing out the varied calculator use. This is, incidentally, also the class in which I orient students to the open bin of calculators at the front of my room. This would have been a better connection if it were the kind of task where students actually may or may not have used a calculator.  But when I claimed that some students used calculators, and some didn't, based on what they individually needed, this was one of those white teacher-lies we tell to facilitate the discussion, because everyone used calculators. Which totally makes sense! I know I did when I did the problem for the first time. I also gave them the option to work together, or alone, pointing that out as one way that students can advocate for the working conditions they need. Follow up questions:
    1. I (liked / disliked) working (alone / in pairs) because...
    2. I (liked / disliked) working (with / without) a calculator because...
    3. It helps me in class when...
  4. Mistakes Are Useful -- We Learn From Them. I paired this with 31derful, which is described by Sarah here (full name and Twitter handle unknown?). This task had the highest engagement of the week (and maybe top 5 for the year, to be honest), and kinda matched the norm. I described the connection by pointing out that nobody got it on the first try, and kept having to backtrack and start over as they built the array of cards. This definitely matched the Mistakes Are Useful part, but I don't think it quite landed the We Learn From Them part, because it wasn't super clear exactly how students learned from their mistakes. Follow up questions:
    1. What was a time you got “stuck”?
    2. How did you get “unstuck”?
    3. If you got to go back and re-do class today, what would you do different?
I really liked this drawn-out process of grounding each of the big norms in a math task. In this way their first interaction with the norm is experiential, that way it starts as more of a feeling than words. I I also like that they are task-based because I think that we need to do math every day. Incidentally, I love leading the year with this particular  set of tasks because they all advance the Math-as-Play idea, which is something that I try to keep as close to the center of my classroom experience as possible. I also like having less than a handful simple, easy-to-say norms. The easier they are to exercise in many situations, the quicker/deeper/more often they become a part of my students' day-to-day experience.

I should note hear that this process of rolling out classroom norms is pretty different from another process that I have seen and experienced in many classrooms. Other classrooms might work as a class to brainstorm and collaboratively develop a set of norms by which to collectively abide. You might even develop a different set of norms for each class. You might also have more of than than just the 3-4 that you want to get across. I have participated in this process as a student, professional, and teacher.  I understand and appreciate the democratic and egalitarian philosophical foundation of this process. I'd love to hear other teachers talk about their own experience with this process. If so many teachers do it, and regard it as a best practice, then I should do what I can to learn about it and see if I should make it (at least in some way) a part of my practice.

How The Norms Bore Out Over the Course of the Year. Of the four norms, the one I used most was Take Care of Each Other -- Take Care of Yourself. This was my mantra, this was my routine response when students said that they were done with their work, or asked if they "really needed to do this, since it's not graded." This was how I couched my commitment to group work (and visibly-random groups specifically). This was what I said when encouraging students to volunteer, join clubs, sign up for summer programs, and take the harder class. Sometimes I would emphasize the first part, and sometimes the second. This was the highest-utility norm last year.

I also got a lot of great mileage out of Math Is Not a Race -- No Spoilers, because both parts of it come up so often. I also personally connect to this norm so much, because starting in high school I learned math (and did most of school) with a deeply competitive mindset. This competitive mindset pushed me far in my math learning, for sure, but really blew up in my face when I got to the more advanced math major classes my junior and senior year of college. Someday I'll share my math autobiography with you all!

But that was kind of it. Neither of the other two really came up that often, and I didn't take advantage of the times they did. Fair is Not Equal -- You Get What You Need is a norm that connects to a really big idea of "equity," which I would like to eventually make a bigger part of the explicit design and experience of my classroom. For sure, as I start to venture into the world of Special Education Math, it will become a bigger developmental focus for myself. Poor ol' Mistakes are Useful -- We Learn from Them. Another great message, but not one that I kept at the forefront of my classroom.

Changes for Next Year. Unsurprisingly, I intend to remove those last two norms (Fair and Mistakes). Below is my current draft of my norms. I am still developing them, and would love to hear what you folks think. Here is a link to the Google doc in which I am developing these norms. Feel free to make comments right there on the Google doc.

1)  2) 

3)  4)

Some of these norms are parts or combinations of last year's norms. I tried to build on the norms that I ended up using more, and dropped the ones I ended up using less. I realized that I never really asked Joey where he got his class norms, which is where I got most of mine, or why they looked the way they did. (I'll actually get to see him tomorrow and can ask him in person!) I just know I liked the flow of the two parts to each norm--it felt poetic and dramatic. Nevertheless, as I was writing this blog, I wanted to be able to defend my decision to use each of these different norms as they were, so I kept asking myself to identify exactly what it was that I liked about the norms that I liked. Ultimately, I think that I have clarified for myself my own function of the two-part form for each norm. (Yay, helpful reflective blogging!)

I realized I felt more compelled by the norms myself when they offered a kind of justification for why I was asking students to live by them. So upon reflection, I realized that the things I wanted the two parts to separately do was provide a Imperative (what I'm asking the student to do) and a Justification (why I believe they should do it). Clarifying this for myself helped me to reformat my norms so that they all had the same [Imperative] -- [Justification] structure, and (hopefully) fit together a little better.

1. Take the Time You Need -- Math is Not a Competition. This is a combination of two of my old norms. Taking the time you need was probably my biggest enactment of the Fair norm. I also found that I said Math is Not a Competition more often than Race, usually in reference to students bragging about grades. Thus, I think that it is useful to expand it to a broader idea of competition, as opposed to just races. UPDATE (4/18/19): Next year I'm going to change this to "Take What You Need." This is so that I can expand it to be about calculator use. I'm globally pro-calculator, and I've had a few disparaging and misguided student comments, like, "You needed a calculator for that?" And I think this norm can guide of that.

2. No Spoilers -- Math is Discovered. I separated the "Competition" idea from the "No Spoilers" ideas, since they only felt partially connected to me anyways, and I felt I could make the "Competition" point more effectively in the above norm. The language about which I am the least sure is the part highlighted in yellow below, the justification for "No Spoilers." It doesn't feel like it has the same tone as the other three norms. What would you write to help justify exactly the "No Spoilers" norm?

3. Take Care of Yourself -- You Deserve It, and...
4. Take Care of Each Other -- We Are Worth It. These are a expansion of my highest utility norms. I also think that dividing them gives me an opportunity to provide the justification. I am not sure how to word the justification for "Take Care of Each Other." I know I want that norm to embody the idea that we are a community, a collective, and we must help each other succeed. How would you phrase the justification of the norm, "Take Care of Each Other"?

I plan on doing roughly the same roll-out process next year, pairing each norm with a math task. I will make a later blog post with my complete plan for my first few days. UPDATE (8/21): I'm just going to link the document here to my First 5 days plan. In here are links to my slides and materials for all the days.
  1. Take the Time You Need -- Math is Not a Competition. 31derful. This is a dangerous idea, though, because it only really works if at least a couple groups end up solving the problem. Last year I'm not sure I had enough groups solving it. I'm not sure that any groups in either of my 9th grade classes got it (this is what I'm planning on doing with my 9th graders next year). If I'm going to need at least a couple groups in each class completing this problem, then I will need to develop my scaffolding questions.
  2. No Spoilers -- Math is Discovered. Nim.
  3. Take Care of Yourself -- You Deserve It. I'm not sure what math task really gets this norm across? What is the math task where taking care of yourself is an essential feature? What ideas for math tasks do you folks have? UPDATE (8/18): I will be using One Dollar Words, as described by Kent Haines (@KentHaines) at his website Grace Evans (@grace_h_evans) helped me think though this one. In order to make this task about Taking Care of Yourself, I will pair it with our general notebook setup day, where I go over grades and the syllabus. This task will be designed as a checklist task, where they have to do things like figure out who in their family has the most expensive name, or something like that. This fundamentally requires students to complete the task individually, though it is still reasonable to ask peers for help.
  4. Take Care of Each Other -- We Are Worth It. #100 Task.
To improve on my roll-out of the norms, I think I will make a bunch of business-card-sized slips of paper with that day's norm on it. Then, as students are doing the task, I can give individual students the slip of paper when they do something that exemplifies that day's norm. This way students get a little more face-time with the norm during the class. Additionally, the physical presentation of the slip of paper offers more concrete/specific feedback on their representation of that norm. This process would require me to somehow at least introduce students to the norm, so that they know what it means when they get a slip of paper. How could I do that, without making the students think too hard about the norm before feeling it during the math task? Also, I suppose I could then use the little papers as a kind of raffle ticket, and have a little giveaway at the end of the first four days. Or I could make them stickers somehow, because kids love stickers (side note: personally, I can't stand stickers).

Thank you for reading and reflecting with me on this blog post--it really helped me to reflect and prepare for this coming year. Double-thanks if you reply to any of the open questions I have highlighted above in green! I intend to make another blog post going more deeply into my plan for that first week, discussing all of the other things that I do to start the school year.


  1. I love your ideas here, especially for the tasks that coordinate with the norms. In response to the very last question, what if you only posted the first part of the norm at the outset? They are open-ended and thus can inspire thought while working on the task without huge discussion. Is there a way you can post it on the board and leave it up while the task is going on rather than distributing it (students may interpret that they need to 'do' something with it if you give it out). Great post - thanks!

  2. Wonderful! I have used these norms in the past and would love access to the documents you just attached. Thank you for moving us all forward!

    1. If they're not open access already, just click "request access" and I can provide that, no problem!