Strategies to Create and Maintain Positive Classroom Culture

  • Strategies to Create and Maintain Positive Classroom Culture

    Strategies to Create and Maintain Positive Classroom Culture

    By Martin Joyce, posted November 7, 2016 —

    The first day of school is a big deal for students and teachers. First impressions are important, and it’s a fresh start for everyone. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that I will not judge them by what they did with another teacher in a previous year. Our relationship is based on what happens between us. A lot of students are relieved when they hear this and appreciate the fresh start, especially if they’re not a fan of group work or math in general.

    Using the roster at the door to my classroom, I take attendance on the first day of school because many students have English names that are not on the list, they go by a nickname, and/or I want to avoid mispronouncing their names. Then students sit wherever they want before we work on an activity, for example, one where they match their card or graph to three other students in the class. Such an activity gives me information about who knows who.

    After saying each student’s name, I offer a high five or fist bump. This tradition continues daily at my door as students enter my room. It’s a great way to practice his or her name from day 1, and it also provides a positive start to each class period and day. I also borrowed an idea from Sara Vanderwerf and her name tents. These name tents provide a great opportunity for students to ask me questions and for them to review what they learned. It’s a big commitment within the first few days to collect this information daily but well worth it. A bonus perk is that when I pass the name tents out during the warm-up, I am literally taking attendance in a streamlined fashion.

    The last idea comes from a professional development activity of Mark Cote, a leader at College Preparatory Math’s Academy of Best Practices. Each participating teacher filled out a slip of paper with his or her hometown, grade levels taught, and something personal that no one else in the room knows about (could even have been a two-truths-and-a-lie scenario). Then, as a “brain break” during the session, everyone stands, and Mark says, “Remain standing if you teach middle school. Then remain standing if you teach on the West Coast.” The objective is to move from general qualities to more specific and unique qualities and thus narrow the group.

    For the past two years, I have used the Mathography assignment from CPM’s Core Connections Course 3. I use these Mathographies weekly, usually on Fridays, as a “Mystery Student” activity. I ask all students to stand and then say, “Stay standing if you like working in teams, if you see yourself as a leader, if you have at least one sibling, if you play more than one instrument.” This activity provides a brain break as well as a chance for students to learn about their similarities and differences. Some students who really don’t like math and/or school will ask, “Can we please do mystery student?”

    I also ask students to type or handwrite a short autobiography letter, and I take notes at the bottom after reading each one. I have discovered such issues as students living with a grandparent, with divorced parents, with sick relatives, and with parents who haven’t heard of Jo Boaler’s research about not telling your child that you were bad at math.

    What activities do you incorporate in your classroom to learn about your students and for them to learn about one another? How do you work on improving the culture of your math class?

    Martin Joyce

    Martin Joyce,, is a middle school math teacher at Taylor Middle School in Millbrae, California. He blogs at and Tweets from @martinsean. He has taught every level of middle school from sixth-grade math support to eighth-grade accelerated algebra 1. His passion is developing each student’s math identity with cooperative learning, Desmos lessons, and peer feedback. He regularly reads books and blogs to refine his craft.

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