How Classroom Culture Sets the Stage for Opening Up Tasks

At the beginning of this virtual school year I was frightful that students wouldn’t get the chance to know each other and as a result they would be reluctant to work together. While it was relatively challenging getting students to collaborate in breakout rooms, I did find some success that I attribute to the class culture that was created since the first day of the semester. I truly believe that when students get the chance to learn about each other that they are more likely to participate in group activities and use their voice.

I delivered an end-of-year survey to my ninth grade Algebra 2 students and one of the questions I asked was, “Do you feel as though this class was a safe and respectful community where you felt you could speak up and share your thinking without being judged? Why or why not?” Every student that took the survey responded “yes”. Not only did they say that I made them feel safe, but they also mentioned that their classmates were part of the reason they felt comfortable talking and sharing their ideas. One particular response was, “Yes, I always felt comfortable speaking up about my questions because I wouldn’t just get help from you, I’d also get help from my classmates.” I am still awed by the fact that this was possible in a virtual setting and I did not think this would be the case at the start of the semester.

Something that many students mentioned in their end-of-year survey was their love for the discussion questions I presented almost every class. I would share a prompt and students would respond either in the chat or with their microphone. Examples of these prompts included questions like, “Would you rather be the best player on the worst team or the worst player on the best team?”, “If you only had an hour before the world ended from an asteroid populated with zombies, what would you do?”, and “What are three things you are thankful for?” These prompts allowed us to take a few minutes away from math and the stresses that come with virtual learning and the pandemic. There were some instances where students would get really emotional about a prompt and we had an honest conversation about things like social issues or relationships. I believe these honest conversations allowed the class to come closer together which created a safe space where all opinions were heard and valued.

Another strategy I used to foster a warm and safe class culture was the “Mystery Student” game. I’ve used this every year since I started teaching CPM and I intend to use it every year for each class I teach. Basically, the students send you information about themselves like their birthday, favorite artist/athlete/actor, strange fact about them, if they’ve been out of the country, hobbies, etc. After I collect this information I pick a random student each day to highlight at some point in class. I had to change the way I did this because usually I have students sit and stand to determine the mystery student, so this year I had them turn on and off their cameras. The students all start with their cameras off and once I say something that applies to them they turn on their cameras. As soon as I say something that does not pertain to them they know they are not the Mystery Student for that day. The last student with their camera on is the Mystery Student and they can share their strange/interesting fact about themselves. I have found this as a more engaging icebreaker activity because students are getting tired of the basic activities that involve going around the virtual room one-by-one and sharing about themselves. I have altered this activity for the following semester and students create their own Google Slide with pictures/gifs that let us know who they are as well as two truths and a lie. Once the Mystery Student is selected I then share the Google Slide they created to the class and we guess their lie. So far this has been such a great way to have students open up and get to know each other.

Our class pet turtle, “Jaws” that one of my students created. We voted on the animal and name in class and we were lucky to have a student with some art skills!

The last strategy I used to make tasks more effective was the use of Number Talks. Number Talks helped my students develop a mindset that there is not just one way to arrive at an answer. The tasks that I implemented did involve some challenging aspects, so I wanted students to be aware that the way they approach a problem doesn’t have to be the same as their classmate’s. The types of Number Talks I used were Dot Talks, Multiplication Talks (For example: How can you multiply 7 times 8 without using a calculator?) and Splat Talks ( The Splat Talks were my favorite because I was able to have students create their own scenarios that their classmates could try. For example, one of my students made the splat below and had classmates find the total number of dots if each splat had the same number underneath. This question was exciting because he created an inequality for the total number of dots instead of requiring students to find a single correct answer. We reviewed this problem as a class after everyone attempted it and it was very valuable to have students see their classmates get different answers but still be correct.

I honestly think that when students feel valued and represented in the classroom, they will be more willing to express themselves, work with others, and dig into an open task. The pandemic has affected all of our students and by taking the time each day to just talk and/or learn more about each other we have created a respectful and safe community that encourages open mindedness and perseverance. I asked student in the survey how they felt about math coming into my class versus leaving my class so that I could determine whether the time we took to establish a positive class culture was worth it. Here are some of the responses I received in the survey:

“I feel like I got smarter.”

“I felt nervous and worried I wouldn’t get anything but now I feel relieved that I survived math class online. There were some tough times but I got through it.”

“I was kind of scared because of the whole virtual thing and I thought teachers were going to make us turn our cameras on. But over the year it was good, she didn’t make us and I participated in the chat. I don’t know I just felt a tiny bit more confident because I didn’t know how people were reacting to me or if they were talking about me. But everyone was nice to each other.”

“Horrible but now I feel great about it.”

“I feel like it changed but in a good way because it was fun.”

A good amount of the responses said that their feelings of math did not change and they feel fine about it. I was excited to hear that I was able to create an environment that fostered a growth mindset in some of my students that originally had a fixed mindset of their math ability.

The last thing I want to mention is that in the survey I asked if there was anything the students wished they had done differently while working in teams. There were several students that wished they had turned their cameras on and unmuted their microphones and there were also students that wished more people would speak up since they felt at times they were the only ones talking. I think it’s crazy to think team tasks are going to work perfectly every time, especially in a virtual setting, but there are ways to increase the possibility that open tasks are effective through experiences that promote a safe and warm class culture.

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