Category Archives: Systems and Structures

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.


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?

RTI for Adults

I want to preface this post with a few things I believe to be true about RTI (Response to Intervention):

  • Some students need small group instructional time for intervention.
  • Some students enjoy their RTI classes because they like their RTI teacher and feel successful on the work they do during that time.
  • The RTI structure was originally designed for Kindergarten and 1st Grade students.

Understanding these things, sadly this is what I also believe to be true about RTI:

  • Pulling students out of class for Tier 2 and 3 instruction negatively impacts how they view themselves as learners.
  • The current system negatively impacts the way we talk about students, pushing educators to refer to students as a number.
  • After 2nd grade, the majority of students become “stuck” in a tier forever.

Questions I continuously ask myself about RTI are:

  • Why RTI?
  • If we focused our attention on differentiation during core instruction (Tier 1) would this be as necessary?
  • Does the current RTI structure lay blame on the student’s ability to learn as if their learning was not impacted by prior learning experiences?
  • Can we pretend that students aren’t impacted by pulling them out of their regular classroom for intervention classes?
  • How does a student who is labeled as “working on grade level” and not being pulled for “enrichment”during RTI time feel? Do they feel as if they aren’t capable of that work? How does that impact their future educational decisions?
  • How do we fix this?

And the questions that intrigue me most right now:

What if we treated teachers like we treat students?  

Would thinking in those terms give us a clearer lens in which to look at RTI?

I love that our school is currently looking at ways in which to improve this structure. I truly believe that every single teacher has the best interest of students at heart when designing this intervention structure however, I don’t know if we consider all of its implications in terms of a student’s confidence and perception of themselves as learners. I think we all want them to be successful but at what expense?

My colleague, Brandi, and I had a long conversation around all of these questions and ultimately ended thinking about the question, “What would happen if we treated adults in this way? Should we expect children’s view of themselves as learners differ from a teacher’s view of themselves at teachers?”

Our conversation inspired her to write a mock lesson plan for how a principal could run a faculty meeting that would offer teachers insight as to what being pulled for RTI would feel like. I loved it so much, I had to ask her to share. While this is a lesson plan for teachers, I believe all people involved in education policy and decision-making such as principals, district office personnel, board members, state and national legislators would benefit from this activity.

Lesson Plan for the Principal: Treating Teachers as Students

Start the staff meeting announcing that he or she has decided to make the meetings more productive by splitting the staff into three groups.

  • Exemplary teachers: the teachers who are at the top of their game and need to be challenged
  • Average teachers: the teachers who are doing a good job but who still have room for improvement
  • Teachers in need of extra support: the teachers who need more support than others.

It is important to remember to be positive when telling the extra support teachers which group they are in, because if this is done positively and said nicely, they will understand that there are always people who do well and always people who struggle and the strugglers should be willing to accept help.

Announce who falls in each group in front of the entire staff. The extra support teachers (~15%) report to the principal’s office for intensive instructional strategies for behavior management and/or content professional development to improve their classroom instruction. The average teachers (~75) will remain in the cafeteria with either the reading or math specialist for an extension of the work they are currently doing in class, nothing too exciting, but is on their current working level of teaching. The exemplary teachers report to the assistant principal’s office for new, exciting technology initiatives or content extensions that are above and beyond what they are currently doing in class. 

Wait. (Prediction: people should be murmuring and making little grimacing faces).

Ask if anyone has any thoughts on this process. Hopefully everyone will have figured out by now this isn’t really happening — BUT that it is exactly what we do to kids each day.

That KNOT in your stomach as you worried you would be pulled into the “needs help” room – the fear that your name would be called and you would have to get up and leave.

The ANXIETY over which of the three groups you fell into. The greater ANXIETY over knowing where everyone else fell.

The ANGER over the potential to be Average when you had a really great lesson last week and nobody saw it!

The ANNOYANCE that someone has judged you and you don’t know what they based their information on.

Discussion. Before even knowing which group they had been placed in, I imagine most teachers would have gone through this range of emotions. Most teachers would prefer not to have anyone know if they were being placed in the extra support group, just as they would not want anyone to know if they were on an Improvement Plan or Expectations. But are we taking equal care of 6,7, 8, 9 and 10 year olds feelings the same way?

Ask anyone if they would feel PROUD to be pulled into the extra support room – whether they can admit to needing it or not. Ask them how frustrating it would be to work hard and collaborate in that room, put together an exemplary lesson, and then pull it off in class only to be pulled back into the principal’s office at the next staff meeting with nobody having seen it or realizing you had improved.

End lesson plan.

I wonder if people would take a different stance on RTI (or tracking in general) after engaging in this activity? Like I stated previously, I know some students need extra support, but I just wonder if we can find a way for that support to happen in the classroom with the student?

Could working with teachers on ways to support students who may struggle while at the same time challenging those who are finished quickly be more effective and less damaging to students?

Could this work with teachers lessen the number of students who need extra support year after year and truly help us identify those with learning disabilities so we can appropriately address those needs?

I never like complaining about a problem if I haven’t thought about a solution and although I do not have a complete answer here, I do believe we can do better. I believe we can take responsibility as teachers to try and best meet all students where they are, as impossible as that may seem. Through collaborative content professional development and managing small group work in the classroom we can improve the current structure.

I know we are all trying to do our best by the students, but I think we can take better care of our students’ views of themselves as learners and would love to hear ways in which others are doing just this.