Pair Drawings: An Activity to Build Classroom Norms

Welcome back math nerds!

The beginning of the year is one of my favorite times of year. Clean slate, clean classrooms, fresh ideas, and refreshing optimism. I also love this time of year because I love building classroom norms and setting the tone for the classroom culture that is necessary for productive and rich mathematical thinking and discourse.

Starting on the first day of school, I want my students to know these norms:

  1. Learning mathematics is a collaborative effort. It’s something we do together; it’s not something that I do to you. Sometimes the person sitting near you is a more effective teacher for you than I am. It’s not OK to sit there and not know. Ask a question. Sometimes you’re a more effective teacher for the person sitting near you than I am. It’s not OK to let your neighbor sit there not knowing. Offer to help. I am not the only authority in the room, and I expect you to step up and take ownership of your role in this learning community.
  2. How you respond to frustration when you’re struggling reveals more about your talents and character than your ability to avoid struggling altogether. We will all be frustrated this year as we learn to get better at math. Sometimes we will want to quit, but quitting is where all learning stops. And learning about our talents and our character (and maybe even a little math) is why we are all here.

But I don’t want to tell my students these norms; I want them to practice these norms and uncover them for themselves by reflecting on their experiences.

“Pair Drawings” is one of three activities I use in the classroom to build culture and outline norms at the beginning of the school year. (Here’s the second activity about using student voice to build classroom norms.) I often, but not always, do “Pair Drawings” on the first day of the year.

What follows in this post is an outline of the activity. I also have a nifty teacher guide sheet you can use.

Pair Drawings Activity: Set-Up

Put students in pairs. If there is an odd number of students, I give the student a special task later in the activity.

Each pair needs paper and pencil. Have pairs stand back to back with one student facing the front of the classroom and the other student facing the back of the classroom holding the paper and pencil.

Pair Drawings Activity

Explain the activity. Here’s a script I use:

In a moment, I’m going to display something on the front board. The object of this activity is for the front person to tell the back person what they see and for the back person to draw it as accurately as they can. The back person could obviously turn around and look, but that defeats the purpose of the challenge. So let’s have some fun and see how well we can do this. What questions do you have before we begin? (I remind myself to count to 10 and give a long pause here.)

Then I show an image that looks like this (but feel free to to make an image that works better for you and your students):

I give students about 60 seconds. I monitor around the room and scribble notes of interesting quotes and observations. I’m particularly interested if students ask questions to each other. These become useful data for me later. If there is an odd number of students, I ask them to monitor the room and come back and tell me if they notice any questions being asked.

After the 60 seconds, I pause the room and ask the group if they would like 30 more seconds. Most, but not all, classes do.

I have students turn and look at the results of their efforts. How well did you do? Discussion is usually naturally lively at this point.

When the talk begins to die down, I bring the class to focus, still standing and facing forward. I use a “what, why, what next” structure to guide reflection whole group. This conversation takes about 10-15 minutes. It’s where I want them to make the most of their own learning for the day.

  1. What happened in this activity, from start to finish? How well did you do? What went well and what didn’t? Pair-Share, class discussion.
  2. Why were you successful? Or why were you not successful? Pair-Share, class discussion.
  3. If you were to do this activity again, what would you do differently to be more successful? Pair-Share, class discussion.

The third question is the most fruitful. Students talk about several key ideas including the need to use vocabulary, to be more detailed in their descriptions, to talk quieter so the classroom noise isn’t so loud, etc. I strongly validate those reasons and thank students for taking the risk to share (and usually follow each response with a whole-class power-clap).

Most importantly, I use the last question as a set up for these next few questions to get my student to go deeper and to arc them back to the norms I want to build in the classroom.

Did anyone feel frustrated at times? How so? Students facing forward often share the frustration of helping someone see something they couldn’t see. Students facing backward often share the frustration of not knowing what to draw exactly.

Isn’t that true a lot of times in the math classroom? There’s a lot of frustration when we don’t know how to do something, when we don’t “see it” or “get it.” And when we explain things, we need to be patient and that can be frustrating too.

Let me ask you this: Did any pairs ask questions to each other? Did the front students ask if the back students understood or had questions? Were they getting what they needed? Back students, did you ask questions when you were stuck? Were you getting what you needed?

In most classes, there’s usually at least a few pairs that asked questions. I ask them what questions they asked and how they helped. In some classes, no pairs ask questions. Regardless, I spin the outcome as a way to focus improvement.

Maybe that’s something we can think about as we try this again. Let’s switch roles and see if we can do better.

Then I display this image.

Pair Drawings Activity: Closing Reflection

After students share the results of their efforts with each other and reflect on their successes and challenges, I have students high-five their partners and return to their seats. At this point, I close the lesson by connecting the activity back to the norms.

Learning math is a collaborative thing. I’m here to guide your thinking, but the learning that happens in this classroom is a product of your ability to collaborate and support each other through frustrations. Sometimes you will be facing the back wall and feel lost and blind; sometimes you see the answer and struggle to find ways to help your classmate understand as your own thinking is stretched by their questions.

This activity shows that asking questions (asking for help or checking for understanding) can help us navigate the frustrations we feel as a group of learners. What were some helpful questions you used with each other?

Students pair-share and then I scribe the questions they share in whole group. If I heard good questions asked when I monitored the room, I’ll share that data as well. The questions usually sort themselves into “how can I help” and “how do I ask for the help I need” question categories.

I post these questions visibly in the classroom for long-term use and refer students to them when they get stuck to remind them of the norm over the next few weeks.


This activity often has a memorable impact for students. I can quickly refer back to it with my students when I need to remind them to persevere through frustration and to aspire to collaborate to support each other.

Every time I do it, it’s a little bit different, but I never regret the time spent doing it. Here’s a quick note-taking guide you can print and take with you if you want to try this in your classroom. Please let me know if you do. I’d love to hear how it goes for you. Share your learning with us in the comments section or send me a tweet at @mathgeek76.

Here’s the second activity I use and teacher moves I make to ensure that student voice and identity is reflected in the classroom norms.  Give it read!

2 thoughts on “Pair Drawings: An Activity to Build Classroom Norms”

  1. This is great!!

    I did a similar activity in my geometry classes last year but with somewhat different goals. My first goal was to have them talking to their partner, and I love how it’s both extremely necessary to talk and basically impossible to do “correctly” so there’s very little barrier to starting the conversation. My second goal was to have them start thinking about vocabulary and why it is useful.

    The social-emotional aspect had not exactly occurred to me, but I love it! Totally going to do the same activity as last year but with a completely different discussion. Thanks!!!

    • Yes! I really like how you ask them to think about useful vocabulary they could’ve used after the first example and have them think about using it for the second example. Thanks for your note!


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