Wondering About Classroom Norms

I cannot count how many times classroom norms has been a topic of my conversations in the past month. From creating and facilitating professional learning to thinking about how a curriculum can offer support in this area, I find myself obsessively thinking about ways in which norms might support both students and adults in their learning.

If you asked me a year ago about the norms in my classroom, I would have felt pretty good about how the list hung proudly on my classroom wall, was collaboratively established by students, and appeared to be in place during their math activities.

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However, like the majority of my teaching life, the more I learn, the more I realize how much there is still left to learn. In this particular case, it is norms in a classroom.

I think most people would agree that establishing norms is important. Norms can encourage students to work collaboratively and productively in a classroom, elicit use of the Mathematical Practices and help students see learning mathematics as more than just doing problems on a piece of paper.  But, how often do we create norms in our classroom only to complain a month or two later that students aren’t thinking about any of them when working together and we struggle with how to refocus students to keep in mind those things they said were important at the beginning of the year? I know I have been there and looking back, wonder how I could have done that better.

While I think good curriculum tasks, lesson structures, and relationships I had with students helped me a lot in encouraging students to be mindful of the norms in the classroom, I don’t think I put an equal amount of effort into maintaining norms as I did establishing them. With that, I wonder what it even looks and sounds like to maintain them?

To me, maintaining norms is about moving from a poster on a wall to a living and breathing culture in the classroom. But, what things can a teacher do to make the norms not only a list, but a part of their classroom math community?

Of course, as the journey begins on writing the IM K-5 Math curriculum, I am also wondering how a curriculum can support teachers in establishing and maintaining classroom norms in a meaningful way. Even more specifically, what could this look like in Kindergarten when we have the opportunity to influence the way students view learning mathematics?

As I think through these questions, I would love to hear how you think about norms in your math classroom. What things can we do as teachers to support students in thinking more about what it means to learn and do mathematics? How could a curriculum, especially in Kindergarten, help teachers in this process?

7 thoughts on “Wondering About Classroom Norms

  1. Simon Gregg (@Simon_Gregg)

    Like you, and I guess, like most of us, I put more effort into talking about them in the first place than maintaining them. And naturally, they fade from consciousness. There are days when we really need to resuscitate or rejuvenate them! But at the best times, and these are often when the mathematics is so absorbing that everyone is working together naturally, the norms seem to come alive on their own.

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    1. mathmindsblog Post author

      I agree Simon and i think the math definitely helped the norms come alive on their own in my room. That makes me wonder if those days offer us the opportunity to bring attention to them? I wonder after doing an activity where they are working together in small groups, they come back together and talk about not only the math, but how they worked together? I can imagine certain activities would lend themselves to some really great norm-setting and building.

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    2. Judith Jenson

      I tag one, two, or three norms on the daily agenda. Serves as a great reminder as to why we have them and which ones require our greatest focus and at what times of our learning.

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  2. Clara Maxcy (Cleargrace)

    Your post struck a chord for me. I teach high school age students. Classroom norms are what a teacher actually practices every day in the class. It has to be intentional and consistent. Lip service on a pretty poster, pointed to each time to enforce behaviors isn’t sufficient. The rubber meets the road in how a child is spoken to, listened to, and heard by the teacher. If you want students to value what other students are saying, you(the teacher) has to listen, giving time and space to hear what is being said. If you want students who are willing to contribute to the conversation, you have to let them talk, give them room to finish their thoughts, and not speak for them. Rephrase what they said. Ask questions to elicit thinking. Classroom norms are built by the community, but just as in any organization, the tone is set by the person in charge… the teacher. That golden rule thing is powerful. Thanks for starting with the youngest among us. They’ll help teach the rest of us!

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    1. mathmindsblog Post author

      I agree Clara and I think this is why I am struggling to wrap my head around how a curriculum could offer support in this area because it is so much about relationships we form with students. But let’s say a teacher can’t imagine how to start with this in their classroom…is there a way to help give people a vision that seems actionable and not too lofty and unattainable?

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      1. Clara Maxcy (Cleargrace)

        We had a PLC activity in which we problem solved, called the Five Whys. The idea is to identify a problem and in five levels, one could reach an actionable solution (you discard any ‘why’ that is beyond your control. For us, the problem was that students were lacking skills which kept them from fully participating in lessons and caused lost instructional time in reteaching. After several series of Why, the determination was to identify those deficits and plan to address them as part of the lesson/learning plans we made for class. (We also planned to address the strengths, with enrichment activities). Great idea, but it didn’t go any further than that. I co-teach multiple classes. I felt this was important. Neither of my coteachers wanted to include in planning, even though one of them had clearly identified this as detrimental. The issue of ‘not enough time to do this in the classroom’ is made clear, even when reasons to take the time abound in research literature. We teachers are so stressed that it’s easier to revert to ‘comfort zone’ teaching. Good ideas mean learning to do something new, it’s messy, it’s uncomfortable. The key is to plan, even to rehearse, the process that is wanted. The effect that you seek can be built around the curriculum if you take time to envision what you want, and walk through an exercise. What do you see yourself doing? How do kids react? What do you do if they respond A? If they respond B? What does success look like? What does failure, or partial success look like? Accept that there will be recidivism to more comfortable habits that do not support the goal. What does that look like, and what steps/actions do you take to get back onboard? When do you take stock of ‘is it working’ and ‘stop or modify? The teachers in my math department are good, hardworking people, but they have a hard time trying anything new. The top kids still pass the tests, the failures still fail. I have observed that the teachers who are the most uncomfortable (body language: sharp looks, crossed arms, refusal to interact with the class until I’m done) have come from a middle school environment. It is interesting to me to watch the ‘tell quickly when they struggle’ and ‘answer questions without think time’ habits. These are the same teachers who don’t make time for student conversations, and complain at length about how poorly the kids remember/test/try new ideas. Kids learn what they focus on. I love your ideas for K-2. They work really well at the high school level, too, because every classroom benefits from us building inclusive norms! Sorry for the long post.

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  3. jsalame3

    Sitting at the airport waiting for my full flight gave me time to ponder airlines advertising. I’m bewildered with the airline’s messages on making planes more comfortable. Compared to what? These ads cause me to think more about uncomfortable planes mostly because their words are inconsistent. The seats are small, the lane is tight, and the plane feels crowded. I would rather they discuss the cost saving they provide. I return to my reading consider Kristin Gray’s blog about the need for a conversation about classroom norms. In the same way as airline’s ads, why do we always discuss classroom norms? Are our messages consist?

    We all agree with the value of listening to others as a classroom norm and consider the mathematical practices it supports. But are we modeling this importance with our classroom practices? We expect students to dig deep into the content and go beyond a surface level understanding. At the same time, I believe we model a surface level understanding of those classroom norms, especially “listening to others.”

    Good teacher posts the collaboratively created norms on an anchor chart and refers to them once in a while.. You can see this when observing a classroom discussion. Students are comfortable sharing their thinking with the teacher, and other students track the speaker (a learned norm). Once a student shares his thought, everyone shifts to focus on the teacher. Why? The all-powerful source of knowledge will proclaim her/his judgment. If the teacher repeats the statement, students know it is valuable or correct. You see, the students know that the teacher is listening but listening 4 an answer not as much listening 2 to the student.

    Great teachers model these norms with laser-focused intentionality. They “listen to understand” what the students are thinking, what misconceptions are revealed, and then consider how to shift the conversation to address them. Great teachers do not repeat what the students are saying but rather provide feedback and orchestrate conversation to move learning forward. Students become resources for each other.

    This shift in modeling “listening deeply” transfers to students. Everyone’s voice is valued, and students feel competent to join the conversation. That’s a mathematical mindset culture. However, until the work of understanding the mathematical practices is done, we will continue to discuss developing classroom norms and anchor charts.

    I challenge those curriculum writers to embed not only the mathematical practices within their lessons but include activities that move teachers’ learning forward (the mathematical teaching practices). By the end of the year, the curriculum should not only covers the content but also elevates the teacher practices.

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