I’ve shared in the past how I prefer to decorate my classroom with things that support what we are studying. Most of those decorations are intentionally chosen, but every once in awhile something finds a permanent home in my classroom by pure happenstance. My square root clock is one of those items.
For four years, I had the privilege of working with a very energetic, creative, new math teacher. She came up with some of the craziest ideas, but they often ended up being some of the best. I’ll never forget how she solved the problem of students tipping back in their chairs. After about the third time one fell, once again minorly injuring himself in the process, she told all of the students to stack their chairs along the side wall of the classroom. When I went to pick up my students for intervention time, she explained to me why everyone was either standing or sitting on the floor and asked for my support by denying the students chairs in my room as well. After school I asked her if she wanted help putting the chairs back out around the tables. She informed me she didn’t need help because the chairs were going to stay stacked. When questioned her as to how long they’d stay stacked, her answer was, “Until they prove to me they can use them properly.” A week later, she decided it was time, we put the chairs back out, and not a single student ever tipped back in one again. But it wasn’t just interesting classroom management techniques I observed in her classroom, she had some excellent teaching ideas as well. It was preparing my students for a math lab in her class involving cookies and candy that inspired my Pi Day Circles activity, as well as the Nutrition and Percentages unit I designed. However, the one thing that became a permanent part of my classroom did not join my decorations until nearly a year after I moved to a new district.
As any experienced teacher will tell you, being smarter than the students is a major part of teaching. This is very likely more true for middle school teachers than any others. One year I was working with my eighth grade English language learners on exponents and roots. I told my students they needed to memorize their square roots, at least through the square root of 144 (12). My students just looked at me and, in the way only middle schoolers can, said, “Whatever, you can’t make us.” I, being a veteran of middle school teaching, simply smiled and sent them on to their next class, never saying a word.
That night, remembering the square root clock from my previous colleague’s classroom, I made a few labels for our classroom clock (you can download your own copy for free, the link is below the picture). When the students came in the next morning I still didn’t say a word, I simply waited. It didn’t take long for one, convinced he’d been in class for at least an hour (rather than the two minutes that had actually passed), to glance up at the clock. His immediate reaction was priceless. He literally jumped out of his seat, pointed at the clock, and started yelling in Mandarin. I didn’t need a translator to help me understand what he was upset about! This got all of the other students’ attention and soon my classroom was in a multilingual uproar.
After giving them a few moments to get it out of their system, I retook control and began to restore order (and the use of the English language) to my room. Once everyone was back in their seats and listening to me again, I simply repeated the exact words I’d spoken the day before, “You really need to memorize the first twelve squares and their roots.” I then continued the lesson as if nothing had happened.
The next week we had a quiz over exponents and roots (I covered up the clock). Every single student passed, most received 100% on the first twelve. I decided to leave the labels up as reinforcement for their learning (and because the clock was quite high on the wall and I didn’t feel like climbing on a chair on a table to take them down). The next year when I was putting up decorations, I put the labels back up simply because they were in the box with everything else. Later that year, the new-to-the-building math teacher came to see me. It seemed my students were outperforming all others on exponents and roots and she wanted to know what I’d done. I simply showed her the clock.
Happy teaching, everyone!