Regardless of the time of year, you can establish a positive classroom culture by:
- Defining your classroom vision
- Developing positive relationships
- Establishing clear expectations
- Promoting inclusivity
- Encouraging student-centered learning
- Providing opportunities for reflection
- Celebrating success
Taking the time to build a positive classroom culture that honors high expectations (and keeps students accountable) and makes science accessible to all students will have many benefits for you as the teacher as well as your students.
In this post, we’ll explore the definition of classroom culture, classroom culture-building activities, the importance of classroom culture in science for English learners, and how to create a positive classroom culture in your science class.
What is Classroom Culture?
Generally speaking, culture refers to the shared beliefs, customs, values, behaviors, and artifacts that characterize a group or society. It can include (but is not limited to) traditions, knowledge, art, religion, language, and other aspects passed down from generation to generation.
In everyday life, culture oozes from every part of us as individuals. It shapes our personal identities, how we relate to others, and how we see, interpret, and interact with the world.
It also molds our attitudes and behaviors towards important issues such as education, health, and social justice.
Correspondingly, classroom culture refers to the shared values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that shape the learning environment and social interactions within a classroom.
It encompasses the norms and expectations of how students and teachers should behave towards each other, the level of respect and trust within the classroom, the degree of participation and engagement in learning activities, and the overall atmosphere of the learning environment.
Positive Vs. Negative Classroom Culture
All classrooms have a culture.
As a teacher, I’ve experienced both positive and negative classroom cultures. One of the biggest differences between what made my classroom culture positive vs. negative was how I viewed and planned for positive classroom culture-building activities (more on that later).
Hopefully, the school and the teacher have worked hard to intentionally create a positive classroom culture. However, even if the building of classroom culture isn’t happening intentionally, it still exists.
Whether intentionally crafted or not, classroom culture can be positive or negative. The main difference between a positive and negative classroom culture is the impact they have on student learning, motivation, and well-being.
Positive classroom culture is characterized by a supportive, inclusive, and engaging environment that fosters a sense of belongingness and encourages active participation.
In a positive classroom culture, students feel valued, respected, and supported in their learning journey. Teachers establish clear expectations, foster positive relationships with their students, encourage collaboration and communication, and recognize and value diversity and individual differences.
On the other hand, a negative classroom culture can be characterized by a hostile, unproductive, and demotivating environment that can lead to disengagement, low academic performance, and poor mental health outcomes for both students and teachers.
In a negative classroom culture, students are not engaged. They are passive recipients of their learning.
They may feel unsafe, unsupported, undervalued, unmotivated, and/or indifferent. Teachers may have low, unclear, or inconsistent expectations, have poor relationships with their students, discourage collaboration and communication, and feel consistently burnt out and overwhelmed.
Classroom Culture and Student Learning
Classroom culture has a significant impact on students and the teacher. A positive classroom culture enhances student achievement and overall well-being. It can also promote the morale of the teacher (which is equally important to us here at Lit Science).
Teaching students is at the heart of what we as teachers do. We often tend to focus on the impact our instruction has on student learning. However, classroom culture is equally as impactful.
According to the International Journal of Education, “School culture has effects on the achievement of students in terms of motivation (will to study), sense of competition and their development in all respects.”
A positive classroom culture can benefit student learning outcomes in the following ways:
Student Engagement: A positive classroom culture can foster a sense of motivation and engagement among students, as they feel valued, respected, and supported in their learning journey.
This can enhance their intrinsic motivation, which is linked to better academic performance and higher levels of well-being.
Student well-being: A positive classroom culture can promote a sense of emotional safety and well-being among students.
It can reduce the risk of bullying, anxiety, and depression and support the development of social-emotional skills, such as empathy, self-awareness, and self-regulation.
Teacher well-being: A positive classroom culture can also support the well-being of teachers, as they feel more connected and supported by their students and colleagues. This can reduce teacher burnout and increase job satisfaction and retention.
Examples of Classroom Culture
Classroom culture can manifest in various ways, depending on the school, the teacher, and the students. Here are some examples of classroom culture:
Classroom routines and procedures: The way that a teacher structures their class routines and procedures can shape the culture of the classroom.
For example, a teacher who arranges desks in groups of four and creates lessons embedded with collaborative activities promotes the importance of collaboration.
Classroom rules and expectations: Teachers can establish clear rules and expectations for behavior and academic performance, which can help shape the culture of the classroom.
Rules framed in positive language and co-created by the students, not only help to create a positive and supportive environment, but also highlight a sense of student agency in the classroom.
Student relationships: The relationships that students have with each other and with their teacher can also shape the culture of the classroom. A teacher who emphasizes teamwork and collaboration can create a culture of cooperation and mutual support among students.
Classroom decorations and displays: The way that a teacher decorates their classroom can also impact the culture of the classroom. A teacher who displays student work, inspirational quotes, and positive affirmations can create a culture of positivity, safety and creativity.
Teaching style: The way that a teacher teaches can also shape the culture of the classroom. For example, a teacher who emphasizes critical thinking, problem-solving, and active learning can create a culture of inquiry and intellectual curiosity.
Classroom celebrations: Teachers can celebrate student achievements and milestones, cultural holidays and events, and other special occasions, which can help create a sense of community and belonging among students.
Classroom Culture in Science
While the descriptions above apply to all classrooms, let’s explore classroom culture in the secondary science classroom.
Science is unique in a lot of ways. While critical thinking and problem-solving are important in all academic subjects, science is unique in that it requires hands-on, inquiry-based learning, is empirical in nature, and is constantly evolving.
Therefore, we as science teachers must be mindful of these important attributes as we consider our ideal classroom culture. The following is a list of criteria for establishing a positive classroom culture in science:
Student-centered learning: A middle school science classroom with a positive culture often emphasizes student-centered learning, where students actively construct their learning. In a student-centered classroom, students are encouraged to ask questions, investigate phenomena, and engage in hands-on activities.
Student-Centered learning is NOT a free for all. It actually requires a great deal of thoughtfulness and planning by the teacher. After planning, the teacher fosters a classroom culture of student-centered learning by acting as a facilitator or guide rather than a lecturer or instructor.
Collaboration: When done right, collaboration helps students build social skills, fosters a sense of community, and encourages peer-to-peer learning.
Examples of collaboration in science are students working in pairs or small groups to solve problems, conduct experiments, or discuss ideas.
Collaboration helps students build social skills, fosters a sense of community, and encourages peer-to-peer learning. Collaboration also allows for the use of the home language and opportunities to practice English for English learners.
Inquiry-based learning: In my first year of teaching, inquiry based-learning was a science education buzzword that I had a hard time wrapping my brain around. I knew it had a connection to student-centered learning, but I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant or how to do it.
I like this straightforward definition by SplashLearn:
Inquiry-based learning is a teaching method that encourages students to ask questions and investigate real-world problems.SplashLearn
This type of learning helps students develop critical thinking skills and a deeper understanding of scientific concepts.
Respectful communication: Students are encouraged to express their opinions and ideas in a respectful and constructive manner. Teachers model respectful communication in their interactions with students.
Another tenant of respectful communication is honoring the different native languages in the classroom. Allowing English learners to discuss directions, ideas, and thoughts in their home languages before writing and or/presenting in English is a respectful communication practice that contributes to a positive classroom culture.
Use of technology: The use of technology is increasingly important in middle school science classrooms. Therefore, a positive classroom culture should incorporate technology in meaningful and purposeful ways.
Teachers can use technology to enhance learning experiences, conduct virtual experiments, and provide opportunities for students to work collaboratively on projects.
Classroom Culture Building Activities
Building a positive classroom culture requires intentional effort and planning. Here are some activities that middle school science teachers can use to build a positive classroom culture:
Icebreakers: At the beginning of the school year, teachers can use icebreakers to help students get to know each other and build a sense of community.
Lit Science has created science-specific icebreakers to allow students and teachers to get to know each other, while setting the tone for rigorous science instruction.
Classroom agreements: Teachers can work with students to develop a set of classroom agreements or norms that promote a positive and respectful classroom culture. These agreements can be displayed prominently in the classroom and reviewed periodically throughout the year.
Collaborative projects: Collaborative projects help students develop teamwork skills and promote a sense of community in the classroom.
Teachers can assign group projects that require students to work together to solve a problem or create a product.
I love starting the year with a design challenge. It exposes students to working together from the start of the school year, exposes them to basic engineering principles, and is fun!
Lit Science has created two simple, engaging, and engineering-focused collaborative projects that are great for the beginning of the school year or a new semester.
Positive affirmations: Teachers can use positive affirmations to help build a positive classroom culture and self esteem. I used these simple affirmations with my 6th-grade homeroom class.
- I am smart.
- I am capable.
- I try my best.
- I respect myself and others.
- I am loved and worthy of love.
While that last one may seem a little “mushy,” letting my students know they were loved and worthy of love was very important for my classroom culture.
I posted all of these on chart paper and had a volunteer lead the class in reading them aloud every day. Feel free to steal these, modify and use for your classroom.
Reflection and feedback: Teachers can provide opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and provide feedback to their peers. For example, teachers can ask students to write a reflection on a recent project or to provide feedback on a classmate’s presentation.
Celebrations: Celebrating student achievements and milestones is an important part of building a positive classroom culture. Teachers can acknowledge student achievements with a shout-out or recognition ceremony or celebrate cultural holidays and events with food, music, or decorations.
At the end of the school year, I pulled out the poster paper from the science chalk talk and had students reflect on which of the “best science class ever” tasks we accomplished.
I did my best to make it festive. I provided snacks and music, and the students provided the dance movies as we celebrated the end of a successful school year. I embedded similar celebrates throughout the school year when appropriate.
Creating an Inclusive Classroom Culture
An inclusive classroom culture is a classroom environment where all students feel valued, respected, and supported regardless of their individual backgrounds, experiences, and identities.
In an inclusive classroom culture, students feel seen, heard, and understood. An inclusive classroom culture is characterized by the following elements:
Diversity and Inclusion: An inclusive classroom culture celebrates diversity and recognizes the unique identities, backgrounds, and experiences of each student. It encourages students to share their perspectives and values their contributions to the classroom.
Equitable Learning Opportunities: An inclusive classroom culture ensures that all students have access to equitable learning opportunities. It acknowledges that students come to the classroom with different backgrounds and experiences and may require different types of support to succeed.
Positive Relationships: An inclusive classroom culture is built on positive relationships between students, teachers, and school leaders. It values communication, mutual respect, and empathy.
Acceptance of Differences: An inclusive classroom culture fosters a sense of acceptance and belonging. It acknowledges that differences exist and encourages students to embrace them. It creates a safe space where students feel comfortable being themselves.
Active Learning: In an inclusive classroom, active learning and engagement is evident. It encourages students to participate in class discussions, ask questions, and express their thoughts and ideas.
Flexibility and Adaptability: An inclusive classroom is flexible and adaptable. It recognizes that students have different learning styles and may require different types of support. It also recognizes that the classroom culture may need to adapt to meet the needs of different students or situations.
Classroom Culture and English Learners
Classroom culture is crucial in supporting English learners in their language development, mastery of science skills and content, and overall academic success.
Creating a positive and inclusive classroom culture that recognizes the unique needs of English learners in science is important for promoting their language learning and academic achievement.
Here are some ways to create a positive classroom culture for English learners:
Valuing Diversity: Recognize and value the cultural and linguistic diversity of your English learners. Celebrate their cultures and languages, and provide opportunities for them to share their experiences and perspectives.
Clear Communication: Use clear, concise language, and avoid using slang or idioms that may be unfamiliar to English learners. Repeat and rephrase information as needed, and provide visual aids to support understanding.
Building Relationships: Develop positive relationships with English learners and their families. Communicate regularly and provide opportunities for families to participate in their child’s education. Not knowing a student’s native language is not an excuse to fail to build relationships.
Collaboration: Encourage collaboration and group work among students. This provides opportunities for English learners to practice their language skills in a supportive environment and through low-stakes activities.
Differentiated Instruction: Use differentiated instruction to meet the individual needs of English learners. Provide language support and scaffolded instruction to help them access grade-level content.
Language Modeling: Model clear and correct language use for English learners. Use visual aids and real-life examples to help them make connections between the language they are learning and their experiences.
This responsibility is not exclusive to ELA teachers. Science teachers are also language teachers for our English learners.
Honoring the Home Language: While in most English-speaking classrooms, the goal is for students to practice and develop their English, there is still space to honor the home language.
Allowing students to use their home languages in the classroom is a power scaffold in science (and other subjects as well). This can be done by allowing students to speak to their peers in their native languages when working on collaborative projects, speaking to students in their native languages during small group instruction, and/or communicating with parents with the help of a translator.
Another way I liked to honor home language in the classroom, is by placing native language texts in my classroom library, and connecting with students by having them teach me words in their home languages.
Classroom Culture and Classroom Management
Classroom culture and classroom management are closely connected, as a positive classroom culture can lead to more effective classroom management.
A positive classroom culture that promotes respect, inclusion, and engagement can support effective classroom management by creating a sense of community and ownership among students.
When students feel valued and connected to their classroom community, they are more likely to behave positively and adhere to classroom rules and expectations.
On the other hand, a negative or disruptive classroom culture can make classroom management more challenging. When students do not feel respected or engaged in the classroom, they may be more likely to act out or disengage from classroom activities, making it harder for teachers to manage the classroom effectively.
Therefore I tried to make my lessons engaging AND accessible to foster a positive classroom culture and strong classroom management.
Effective classroom management strategies are also essential for promoting a positive classroom culture. When teachers use strategies such as the ones mentioned throughout this post, they can create a more structured and supportive classroom environment. This can help students feel safe and secure, which can support positive interactions with their peers and teachers.
Building Your Classroom Culture
Building a unique classroom culture involves intentionally creating a classroom environment that reflects your values, goals, and teaching style. Here are some steps to help you build your own unique classroom culture:
Start with Your Vision: What does a positive classroom look, feel, and sound like to you? What are your goals for your students’ learning and growth? Write down your vision and refer back to it often as you work to build your classroom culture.
Develop Positive Relationships: Building positive relationships with your students is critical for creating a positive classroom culture. Take time to get to know your students, show genuine interest in their lives, and find ways to connect with them personally.
Establish Clear Expectations: Your middle school science classroom is not the playground. You can have a student-centered classroom and still have authority.
Set clear expectations for behavior and academic performance in your classroom. Communicate these expectations to your students and consistently enforce them. When students know what is expected of them, they are more likely to meet those expectations.
Low expectations for students are problematic as they hinder academic achievement and growth, and typically disproportionally affect historically marginalized groups such as students of color and English learners.
Promote Inclusivity: Create a classroom culture that promotes inclusivity and celebrates diversity. Incorporate diverse perspectives into your curriculum and classroom discussions. Foster an environment where all students feel valued and respected.
Encourage Active Learning: Encourage active learning by providing opportunities for students to collaborate, engage in discussion, and participate in hands-on activities. Active learning can promote student engagement and a sense of ownership in the learning process.
Provide Opportunities for Reflection: Provide regular opportunities for students to reflect on their learning and their experiences in the classroom. This can help students develop metacognitive skills and take ownership of their learning.
Celebrate Success: Celebrate successes, both big and small, in your classroom. Recognize student achievements and provide positive feedback to promote a growth mindset.
BONUS GIVE YOURSELF GRACE
Being a teachers is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Even with the best intentions and diligence, teachers are tasked with a difficult assignment.
Therefore, as you work to provide the best possible classroom environment for your students, remember there will be challenges and no classroom is perfect.
Allow yourself to make mistakes, have bad days, and be frustrated. Forgive yourself. Take care of yourself. A happy, well-rested, and healthy teacher is one of the best things you can do to create that positive classroom culture you desire.
Building your unique classroom culture is an ongoing process that requires continuous reflection and adjustment.
By defining your vision, building positive relationships, setting clear expectations, promoting inclusivity, encouraging active learning, providing opportunities for reflection, and celebrating success, you can create a positive and engaging classroom culture that supports student learning and growth.
Lit Science looks forward to supporting you in creating a positive science classroom culture for all students. Start your positive classroom culture journey with our FREE Science Candy Game that is differentiated and scaffolded so that ALL students can participate and get the know each other.