The Importance of Classroom Culture: Or, How Dog Shaming Created a Safe Classroom Community During Remote Learning

From the title, you might think that this is going to be an engaging lesson on how to improve or establish a strong culture in your middle school classroom. In reality, I want to write a post about classroom culture as a tribute to my past students. Being a remote teacher is the actual worst, even if it is the right thing to do right now. 

The #1 contributor to virtual classroom culture in all four of my middle school science classes right now is my dog. While he’s 45 pounds of killer instinct (never leave a tennis ball alive!), his  claim to fame is sleeping in the cat’s bed. The cat bed is designed for a cat no more than about 20 pounds. So you can imagine the intense dog shaming that occurs twice a day in my remote learning environment. Actually, I’m the only one doing the shaming; the kids mostly sing a chorus of, “Oh he’s soooooo cute!”

Here are some of my favorite examples of how students and I have created classroom culture:

  • One year, a student “R” would bring cheese crackers and various dips to class every day. We would have a smorgasbord. Seriously, his poor parents must have bought two Costco-sized boxed of cheesy crackers a week to sustain R’s efforts to create a daily buffet in science class. I highly recommend the bleu cheese dressing mixed with buffalo sauce as a tasty dip. 
  • In math class, I had an absolutely brilliant student. He would always have the best wrong answers. As a result, this student actually contributed to two aspects of our classroom culture. First, I picked up a paper crown from a fast food restaurant and taped over the restaurant name, “Best Wrong Answer.” Good wrong answers lead us to better right answers. He also would consistently try to add the denominators of two fractions. So the whole class would yell, “Timmy, leave that number alone!” 
  • My student “N” who created the hand signal that I still use for the reading skill, “Making Connections.” He would make a hang loose signal with his hand and hold his thumb to his forehead to indicate that he had a connection to a passage in the text. 
  • “K”, a first grader in my first ever classroom, made the entire class burst into laughter when he said, “Ms. C can’t be married! She’s the same age as us!” He truly thought I was six. 
  • I broke my talking piece and as an avid holder of circle time, even with middle schoolers, this just wasn’t going to do. So “C”, one of my sixth graders brought me the almost identical glass shell that I had previously used as my talking piece. He just happened to have one at home. 

Why do these stories matter? If teachers are successful in creating a safe, warm, classroom culture, students are more willing to take academic risk. They have shared experiences with with their classrooms and with their teacher, and now they’re willing to grapple with challenging academic tasks.

I miss my students so much it hurts. I’ve never even met them in person. I can’t wait to make up for lost time with in-person kids soon!

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