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Establishing Norms for a Learning Classroom

Sarah Stecher is a math teacher at East Kentwood High School, the #1 most diverse public high school in Michigan. She is one of the masterminds behind the resources available at Calc Medic and Math Medic. Sarah is also one of the featured teachers in the College Board AP Daily videos for AP Calculus. Sarah is currently participating in the Hollyhock Fellowship Program at Stanford University, a program focused on helping teachers create equitable access and opportunities for all learners in their classrooms.

I was sitting in my undergraduate teaching methods course when I read the quote that would forever impact my view on teaching and learning.

Every student is responsible for developing understanding and contributing to and supporting the understanding of others. - Kastberg & Frye

When I started my first teaching job, I set out to get this quote printed on as many posters as possible. I needed every student to know and believe this! Posters were obviously the way to go. Turns out, there’s more to it than that. This led me down a path of considering how we establish and teach norms in our classrooms. Norms are agreements on how members of the group will treat one another and help contribute to a positive classroom environment. They are not the same as rules; rules are imposed by the teacher for the sake of safety and efficiency and there are clear consequences for breaking the rules. Norms are enforced by everyone in the community, both the teacher and the students, and keep students accountable for their own behavior.

We generally create norms in two categories: learning norms and group work norms. These learning norms reflect our beliefs about learning math and are centered around fostering perseverance, collaboration, and risk-taking.

Learning Norms

  • We value learning over knowing. Math is not about speed, memorizing procedures, or “getting done”; it is about ideas, creativity, and sense-making.

  • Collaboration moves our thinking forward. We listen to and value each other’s ideas, ask questions, push for reasons, and are open to revising our thinking.

  • We are aware of when to step up and step back. We share our ideas and make space for others to share theirs.

While many of these norms apply to group work as well, we like to emphasize the collaboration and perseverance needed in our EFFL lessons with the following three group norms. These are easy for our students to remember and refer back to.

Group Norms

  • No quitting. Challenge is normal. We can get stuck and then get ourselves unstuck.

  • No loners. Everyone participates. No one is done until everyone is done.

  • No spoilers. Find out what others think and don’t rush to the answer. Help others do things for themselves.

How do we teach students the norms?

Instead of just projecting the norms and talking through them one by one, we use group tasks that highlight the need for these norms. These kinds of tasks are called skillbuilders and are based on Elizabeth Cohen and Rachel Lotan’s book Designing Groupwork (Teachers College Press, 2014). Stanford University has compiled the files for these skillbuilders in this collection. If you’re interested in reading more about setting up and facilitating groupwork, we highly recommend Cohen and Lotan’s book!

After having introduced the norms through various tasks on the first few days of school (we usually choose 2 or 3 of them per year), we have students look again at our own list of class norms and explain why those are important for the functioning of our group. We ask students if they think we need to add any norms to our list or make any revisions.

How do we uphold the norms throughout the year?

While norm setting is critical in the first week of school, we can’t forget that we need to revisit them often if we want the behaviors to continue. To facilitate this, we have them posted in the classroom so we can refer back to them when launching an activity. If we know a particular task will be challenging we might start the class by reviewing our norm about focusing on learning and not performing. If we’re planning to have a debate in the debrief, we will discuss beforehand how we listen, ask questions, push for reasons, and are willing to revise our reasoning. Another strategy is for students to pick a norm that they want to work on that day. We don’t recommend doing this everyday because the novelty will wear off, but you can incorporate these short minutes of reflections on lessons that you know will challenge students cognitively or collaboratively.

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Bradbury Franklin
Bradbury Franklin
Sep 23, 2021

This is helpful to me as I work to ensure every student is engaged, contributing, and creating their best work.🎯


Jai Sharma
Jai Sharma
Sep 05, 2021

Great idea to start establishing these norms early in the school year. I've found that students understand the importance of upholding these ideas in the classroom.

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