The Form of Classroom Culture: 3 Essential Strategies (Threshold, Do Now and STAR Sitting)

In my last two posts (found here and here) , I’ve tried to be clear about the essence and form of classroom culture. In this post, I will outline three key strategies (Threshold, Do Now and STAR Sitting) for developing classroom culture, why they matter and how I have led whole school change to embed them across a three-form entry primary school.

These tree strategies are part of a broader section in Teach Like a Champion on Classroom Culture. There are many others but given the place we were at in teacher development at my school, it was important to choose the three I felt would have a rapid impact straight away and would also be relatively straight forward to implement. I’ll start with the what, the how and a commentary of each and then explain how I have led them. I’ll finish by explaining what I’ll do better next time.

Threshold

What is it? Greet your students at the door, setting expectations before they enter the classroom.

How?

1. Expect students to stop and say hello to you before they enter the classroom;

2. Welcome each student by name making eye contact;

3. State expectations of what students do once they enter the classroom.

Commentary on Threshold:

At first glance, this is really simple. Just stand at the door and welcome students. But done well, it sends deep messages to students about what it means to be in lessons with you.

More is revealed in the meaning of the term ‘threshold’. Commonly, it is the word used to refer to the part of the room by which a person enters. And that’s just it: when the teacher stands there, at the door, with a warm and positive demeanour, they say something about the ‘room’. Most importantly, they say this room is mine. I want you to be part of it and the learning that will take place but I am in charge. not as a dictator or a military sergeant but as an adult who cares deeply about you, your learning and what will take place during this hour or day of learning. There’s more things this strategy ‘says’ to students….

When threshold is done well, a teacher ‘says’ to students that:

  • I care about you in every part of the day not just when you are producing work for me.
  • I care about your character, politeness and soft-skills such as simply saying ‘hello’ to me while you look me in the eye.
  • I will not let you come into this space unless you are ready to learn. 
  • This is my classroom and I value your presence here
  • The culture of this room is set by me, as your teacher, and I want you to participate in the right way.

Do Now

What is it? A task that reviews prior learning that can be done independently. To be completed in silence.

How?

  1. Gather data on student understanding from prior learning
  2. Create a task that includes questions and activities from prior learning
  3. Expect students to complete silently and independently
  4. Review with students and get them to self-mark.

Commentary on Do Now Tasks:

This is not a new strategy and there are many who are doing this. For us, this is the first ten minutes of the day as students settle, put their things away, the teacher is doing the register and they are getting ready for the structured lessons. It includes retrieval practice from all subjects to reinforce the interconnectedness of the curriculum and the subjects they are studying.

When Do Nows are done well, a teacher ‘says’ to students that:

Every single moment in our classroom matters. As soon as you are ready to learn, you will be learning because that is what this place is for.

What you learned yesterday, last week and last month matters to your learning today. Be ready to think hard about all the other things you have learned.

I care about what you do during a Do Now and expect your best effort. When we review content, you have the chance to check what you have learned and how well you have learned it. 

S.T.A.R Sitting

What is it? Teach students to sit up straight, track the speaker, ask and answer questions, respect those around them (S.T.A.R for short).

How?

1. Teach S.T.A.R Sitting

2. Model S.T.A.R Sitting

3. Expect

4. Re-teach where needed

Sit up straight

Track the speaker

Ask and answer questions

Respect those around you

Commentary on STAR sitting:

This is a variation of ‘SLANT’. For me, I have often sat through CPD sessions on ‘active listening’ or ‘active speaking’. I have walked past lots of posters with nice pictures of these things. Quite often though, the initiative fades away within weeks. I even remember asking one of my students in my last school where we did this: “what does active listening mean?”. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

This is not to say that these sorts of things are not important. They are. The difference between things like STAR/SLANT and other strateiges that try to address this is four fold. First, STAR is memorable and easy to refer back to with students again and again and again. Next, it is directly linked to non-verbal cues to give quick reminders without even mentioning ‘STAR’ sitting. Thirdly, although STAR does not encompass every element of learning behaviours, it is actionable enough to be a consistent element of all classrooms to instil strong cultures in meaningful ways. And finally, STAR provides a clear way to talk to teachers about learning behaviours and support them to develop it further in their own practice. It is punchy and quick to understand and therefore is conducive to great instructional coaching.

Leading Classroom Culture

I began my development of classroom culture in my school in September and we will be re-embedding this as students return next week. Here are the key things that I did to make sure staff felt prepared to be able to do this in their own classrooms and ensure that it was monitored well (for a more detailed discussion of some of the things I discuss here, check my last post on developing teaching during a pandemic).

  1. Explain why these strategies matter

This sounds basic but I think it’s important. I didn’t want these three strategies to be gimmicky. Instead, they needed to be deeply embedded in our shared understanding of classroom culture. I hope they made more sense due to the way I explained that these were three actionable ways that we could go beyond simple behaviour management techniques.

  • Explain the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ really clearly

In our first sessions on classroom culture, I explained with the definitions I have included in this post what these strategies were and the steps they needed to take to do them well.

After this I modelled them as clearly and purposefully as I could, showing how I would do it in my classroom. This felt awkward and strange at first but I realised that if I don’t show them what I mean, my colleagues will never really be able to ‘see’ the strategy before they try it.

  • Show videos of others doing each of the strategies

To further embed these strategies, and help them see that I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a good idea, I showed them videos of others doing the strategies in a range of contexts. This was helpful for colleagues teaching a diverse age range to see how it might manifest itself with their classes.

  • Script the ‘roll out’

Next we scripted the roll out of the strategies, writing down exactly what we were going to say and do at each moment. I added a couple of elements to this to help my colleagues things deeper. For example, for Threshold, I got my colleagues to think about what they would do if a student ‘wasn’t ready to enter the room’ and how they would reset expectations with them.

  • Balance practice with monitoring

I was keen to give staff space to just do these three strategies, get it wrong, try again, refine it further and so on. After a few weeks, myself and other colleagues monitored the impact through developmental drop ins. It was great to see the work being done across the school.

  • Use instructional coaching to improve this further

After a developmental drop in, we followed it up with some instructional coaching. We tried to help colleagues see reality, take notes on how they were doing (time for students to settle and be ready, what teachers ‘said’ at the door and so on) and support them to reflect deeply on how they can improve what they were doing. Many colleagues benefitted from this space to see their classroom from a different angle. 

What I would do better next time as a leader

This cycle was good and balanced staff development with monitoring in a sensitive way. However, next time I think I would include more space for deliberate practice in staff meetings. Yes, we did script, reflect and consider various aspects of how we would implement these strategies but I don’t think I went far enough in giving colleagues the space to practice get feedback and then move forward with structure support. The next time we do this, which will be September, I’ll incorporate this more fully into our sessions.

What’s next?

I am hoping, as students return and as we approach September, that we will be able to think deeper and act more fluently on the things that we set out at the beginning of this academic year. There has been great leaps forward in this area but there is still much to learn, myself included.

More Like this:

The Essence of Classroom Culture

The Essence of Classroom Culture: Five Elements

Developing Teaching During a Pandemic

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