Classroom culture: Bryan Harms, 8th grade

Day 1 - It’s all about you

Because the approach that I take in my classroom requires half the class to be working independently while the other half the class is working collaboratively and conversationally, it is important to establish certain norms from the first day.  The first is the understanding that everything we do in class is about them.  I tell my students this explicitly and try to reinforce through celebration or correction whenever the opportunity arises.
For instance, one question I get quite often is “what if a student just sits on Khan Academy and doesn’t do any work?”  This is the kind of question that students like to ask at the beginning of the year, and it reflects  a “you are making me do this” mentality.  I love this question because of the absurd logic of it.  I have lots of different responses but the gist is this: “What we are doing here is for you, I cannot truly force you to do anything, but I can tell you that I have put a lot of thought into making this a valuable year for you.  If you waste the time and the opportunities that we are creating for you, then it’s on you, not me.  If you want to sit on a computer and do nothing, feel free not to come in at all - there is no judgement, this is just not the place for you.  If you don’t like what we are doing talk to me, if you don’t like it you are not wrong, but opting out completely is not an option.  There are hundred of kids that want the spot that you are sitting in and please remember that this is both an honor and a responsibility.”  From day one I refuse to be the enemy or the enforcer, I want to be the mirror and the asker of difficult questions.

Operational norms for the 50/50 classroom

The basic operating norms for the 50/50 class room are simple, the inner circle is collaborating, conversing, and sharing responses to problems. The outer circle is working silently on Khan Academy goals.  The group on Khan Academy must keep a written record of their work.  They must be working on agreed upon material to get time on topic points. They cannot make small talk.  The small talk rule is not because I don't understand the need for it, it is because the inside group does not function well with outside noise.  If the outer group needs to collaborate, they may also work in the hallway or in my office.

Establishing the Difference between Practice and Play

There are two very different activities going on in my math class at the same time, and it is important for me to articulate for students between those two activities.  The outside group is practicing and reinforcing skills.  This activity is done in service to the inside circle problem solving and the work we do in projects.  I use sports metaphors - the outside group is practicing dribbling techniques, the inside group and our project group is when we are in the game.  I use a musical instrument analogy - the outside group is practicing their instrument so that we can jam in our inside group and in our project work.  The inside group is always solving and presenting in-depth problems.  See the problem journal appendix for examples of these types of problems and the mathematical habits of mind that we are trying to encourage.