Student Voice and Building Classroom Norms

Last week, I wrote about Pair Drawings, one of my favorite ways to establish classroom norms at the beginning of the school year.

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

  • Learning mathematics is a collaborative effort. It’s something we do together; it’s not something that I do to you.
  • How you respond to frustration when you’re struggling reveals more about your talents and character than your ability to avoid struggling altogether.

But simply telling my students these norms won’t be as effective as having them practice these norms and uncover them for themselves by reflecting on their experiences. That’s why I appreciate Pair Drawings so much.

But the learning students make from this activity won’t endure unless we do two things:

  1. Allow students to see themselves reflected in these norms.
  2. Post a physical, visual reminder of the classroom norms in the right place.

This post is about how I do that. I’d love to hear your feedback and your wisdoms on this too! Send me a comment and let’s get better together.

Student Voice in Norms

A day or two after the Pair Drawing Activity, I ask my students to reflect back on their experience and think of a time when they contributed to their own learning or the learning of others. What did it look like? How did they respond to their own frustration or the frustrations of others? What could they have done better?

During that activity, all of you contributed to the learning culture of the classroom. I want you to look ahead to our upcoming school year together.

How will you contribute to your learning and/or support the learning of others in this classroom?

I give them some silent think time and then have them share in small groups. And then I ask them to write their answer on a sticky-note. While students are writing, I hang a poster of my norms up on the wall.

These are a list of norms that have evolved over the years with the students I’ve worked with. They are their words of wisdom to you. You notice that #6 is blank. In a moment, you will add your commitment to the list.

  1. Strive to be present physically, mentally, emotionally, everyday.
  2. Make learning math a priority in your life.
  3. Seek the help you need.
  4. Be responsible for not just your learning, but the learning of others.
  5. Keep Mr. Orton in line.

How do these norms compare to what you discussed in your groups or wrote on your sticky note?

(A quick note about #5: It’s very important to me that students know they can give me feedback. While I strive to be compassionate and fair and act justly, I don’t always hit the mark. I’m impatient. I get gruff when I’m frustrated by the demands of the job. My ears get smaller. I know this about myself. I think it’s important for students to be able to give me feedback and call me out if they think I’m not embodying my agreements with them.)

As students come up, they read their sticky-note to the class, and stick it on the poster in the empty space for #6. I make sure their name was written on the note as well. With 150+ students, the notes cover a large area above and near the door. (More on that in a moment.)

After all the notes are posted, I conclude by saying something like: If the only norm you embodied this year was the note you wrote, then we will learn a lot of math this year. We will learn a lot about ourselves and each other as we work together and support one another. And we’ll also have a lot more fun. Class will be more alive.

Posting Norms in the Right Place

I post my classroom norms with their sticky-notes above my classroom door. It’s important to me to post these norms in a visible place that is also NOT a place from which I deliver my instruction. I want to keep the “our behavior needs to change” discourse separate from the “we have some math to learn” discourse. They are two very different conversations, and I want them to happen in different spaces.

I can’t stress this enough. Spaces retain energy in our mind’s eye. At the beginning of my career, I had my norms posted above the board in the front of the room where most of my instruction happened. When I decided to stop class because student behavior or focus wasn’t where it needed to be, I would have the “our behavior needs to change” conversation right there. (And, frankly, sometimes that conversation would be more like a “what they hell is wrong with y’all today” rant. Ugh.) At the end of that moment, I was still stuck in the energy of that conversation, and it was extremely difficult to get back into a instructing groove. Furthermore, the energy in the classroom would decline to the point that the lesson would never recover. Something had to change.

So now my norms are above the classroom door. It establishes that corner of the room as a place of culture and community. It is a space every student occupies for a moment as they come in and out of the room. It’s where I greet my students. And it’s positioned to mark the the boundary between the larger school community “out there” and the smaller, more intimate community in the classroom.

Most importantly, when I need to stop a lesson, I can slowly walk to the door, let go of some my frustrations, and collect my thoughts. When that conversation happens at the door, it allows me to shed my role as their math teacher at the front of the room and embrace a different voice and a different role with my students. During these conversations, students feel more inclined to offer feedback for me or share perspectives about their behavior and why it was happening. I usually end the conversation with “Does anyone have anything they would like to say to the community?” Or sometimes, “Is there any feedback I need to hear? Am I out of line in my perspective?” After a looooooong pause of wait time, I say “Let’s all remember our #6, OK?” and walk back to the front of the room. I am able to leave the energy at the door and come back to a space of teaching and learning math.


There are no quick fixes to building culture. It’s a messy process filled with ebbs and flows that are often impossible to predict. But these strategies and this structure help me focus on the conversations I want to have with students and keep my purpose aligned to my practice as a teacher.

So, as your school year begins, I invite you to ponder:

  1. How will you allow your students to have a voice in authoring your classroom norms?
  2. Where will you post these norms in your classroom?

I’d love to hear from you! What wisdoms do you have about creating classroom norms? Let’s get better together!

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