QMST V: Creating an inviting classroom

Today I’m turning over the blog to a fabulous middle school math teacher who comes from an English teaching background. All those smart, smart questions from middle schoolers over the last 6 months? Her kids asked those. Give her a hand in thinking something through, would you please?


I’m Alex Otto and I teach 7th and 8th grade math at Kodiak Middle School in Kodiak, Alaska.

I was looking for some feedback from my peers.  So much of what math teachers talk about is how to teach abstract concepts, yet so much of what is important to middle school kids is what is going on in their immediate surroundings.

Along those lines, I’m thinking about how to best arrange my classroom in terms of seating, bulletin boards, groups, “stations”, etc.  Does anyone have any ideas and especially links to pictures of “inviting” classrooms that facilitate the kind of learning that we want to take place?  (I feel like a lot of the “inviting” classrooms in my school are language arts classrooms with reading nooks, writing stations, etc. )

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6 responses to “QMST V: Creating an inviting classroom

  1. In thinking about the middle school classrooms I have visited in recent years, and about the things that seem lacking in the college classrooms where I teach, I have two things that come to mind.

    (1) Flexibility of space. When we have desks and a layout that allow us to transition easily from individual to partner to small groups, and even to shift perspectives and not always have the front of the room being the focus, that helps the space feel welcoming. It feels as though the space serves the needs of the learners, rather than being fixed and the lessons have to adapt to it.

    (2) More importantly, there needs to be residual evidence of the intellectual work of the students. I’m not talking about cutesy posters; I’m talking about things that represent the hard work that has been going on in class. Whether these are large graphs that were done on poster paper, or whether they are questions that have been posed but not yet resolved, or vocabulary words, etc. Having physical reminders of the real learning that has taken place is extremely valuable. Some teachers involve students in the selection process, Is this something that we should put on the wall to remember?

    I’ll see if I can drum up a few more, non-Christopher thoughts for you.

  2. I think to facilitate math discussions having kids seated in groups is helpful. I have tables in my classroom. I put the two tables together so that they are in groups of four from the beginning. This helps to set up my expectation that they would be speaking to each other. It also leaves it open for me to have them work with just their table partner or the entire group of 4. I keep them with this group for an entire unit. This helps them to build a rapport with one another and learn to rely on that group for a 5-6 week period of time. I also have their table partner become their Partner Quiz partner. That way they work together before then to build notes, conversations, and trust before the quiz. Just a few thoughts. Hope they’re a little helpful.

  3. I know group work is very important in CMP, but in terms of logistics, the tables we currently have are too small for many 8th graders – it’s hard to comfortably sit with your feet under the table. So I swapped mine out for traditional desks. I’m interested in making some kind of arrangement where I can create groups that can be split apart for test taking, and yet somehow arranged to keep everyone focused toward the front of the room for whole group discussions (maybe a u-shape?) I will look online — I am hoping to find some pictures of interesting math classrooms. I like the comments about flexibility and evidence of real learning. Thanks for your time. Maybe someone else out there will comment too. .

    • Hello Alex. I’ve been teaching middle school math for 11 years in Minneapolis. I have been a classroom teacher and a math coach so I’ve seen many different configurations of classrooms during this time. I want kids to feel like they are walking into a “math lab” where the space is inviting and cozy! I love natural sunlight, with a few lamps scattered throughout the classroom. Though this may prove to be difficult in Alaska during certain times of the year!

      This is the first year I had something called “Study Top Desks.” They look like student desks without the metal book box underneath the top. They are lightweight and very easy to move around, which makes it easy to facilitate work in groups of three or four, or partner work (where students are looking at each other and talking about math). Over the years, I’ve also had a stack of carpet squares handy in the corner of the room where students could grab one and get cozy on the floor and spread out if they felt the need (and sometimes tumbled out into the hallway). They are somewhat easy to find at Dollar Stores in the metro area here.

      Students should use resources posted around the classroom. While not a big fan of commercial posters, there are some I find I need:

      • Number line (with negative integers). There is nothing that makes me more happy than a few students grabbing a meter stick and pointing at numbers on a number line to try and justify their argument that -7 ½ is greater than -5 ¾ (or not!).
      • Rational numbers (fraction, decimal and percent equivalencies). These come in a variety of styles (number lines, circle pieces, fraction strips). Better yet, have the students make one!
      • I use the poster machine at school and enlarge the “formula sheet” that students in MN use on our state test. When we work on problems during the year (after we have conceptually learned how to solve them), we use the formula sheet. I tell them, “As mathematicians, we love efficiency!” Though take the time for some students to remind them which parts of the formulas pertain to the specific parts of the problem at hand.
      • Student Work. Keep exemplary work posted around the room! Students are proud when their work is displayed!

      Many of my students are English Language Learners, and we all know how the vocabulary in mathematics can confound many students. I tape 3-D shapes like cylinders, cubes, pyramids, cones, egg cartons (one dozen), milk cartons (pint, half-gallon, etc.), Pepsi bottle (liter), right to the wall and then label them so students can see what these actually look like. Duct tape and the strong two-sided adhesive tape works well. The custodians may not be happy with me at the end of the year, but this is about kids! Speaking of vocabulary – I also have a space where students keep their vocabulary folders in baskets. Again, nothing makes me happier than students grabbing their folders to argue, “If all proportional relationships are linear, does that mean all linear relationships are proportional?” The students make these folders, and vocabulary is added throughout the year. They always seem so surprised this time of year when they realize they have learned so much! I can give you more ideas here about being intentional with vocabulary instruction if you are interested.

      Routines! Routines! Routines! Do students know where to find resources in the classroom? Are the manipulatives stored in one area and easily accessible? Graphing calculators? Rulers, protractors? Do they know how to put these back when finished using? Do they know where to turn in their work at the end of class? Assume nothing here! Take the time at the beginning of the year (with gentle reminders throughout) to model, model, model.

      As you know, most middle school scholars are also vain. I love taking their pictures when they are presenting problems to the class. These are fun to download on your computer, and then enlarge and print (yes, I’m lucky that I have access to a color printer at my current school). Keep them posted around the entrance to your classroom so others can see the important work your students are doing!

      I could ramble on and on, but I think the important thing is that students need to see themselves as young, capable mathematicians. They do need a space where they are welcome, comfortable, and can feel safe to “play” with numbers – I want them to come to math class and ask, “What are we doing today?”

  4. I’ve observed a middle school teacher here in Minneapolis, Leif Carlson, who has single student desks in the classroom. He times them to see how long it takes them to get into groups when it is group time. The kids are always trying to beat their record. So, in terms of time on task, there is almost no wasted time moving desks to get on with the work. Four desks pushed together didn’t make an ideal work space, but perhaps this time-saving strategy and Patty’s work boards to put over the desks might work.

  5. Thank you, everyone – that is exactly the kind of feedback I was hoping to get! I love your ideas, Patty! In fact at the end of the year I a student from my 5th period class (this was the class you worked with, Christopher) came up to the board and asked me to put up a really hard math problem on the board and take his picture while he solved it. My 5th period would have loved seeing pictures of themselves around the room. I would love to communicate with you more and hear more about the vocabulary and the basket system you have. . Also would you be willing to share some pictures of your classroom with me? My school email is aotto02@kodiakschools.org

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