Rethinking the Physical, Part 3: Scent

After years of transforming my pedagogy, strengthening my relationships with students, and retuning content, this year I’m placing emphasis on the furniture, walls, lighting, and the many other physical elements that make up my classroom. Each post in the series details a different element and how I’m rethinking it. This is the third post in the series.

When you walk into a room, what do you notice? The furniture? The lighting? The sounds? What’s on the walls? My answer to all of those questions is yes. I’m not aware of all of those things at the same time nor am I always conscious of how I react to them, but I’m affected by them nonetheless. Rooms are complex.

What I find fascinating is how when we feel good in a room, the visual elements of it always get the most credit. The lights, the seating, the walls — these are the stars. They’re soft and shiny. They glimmer. They help us smile. They relax our bodies. They evoke positive memories and help us remember our values. We can feel them and see them. They can physically comfort us.

The scent of a room, on the other hand, plays a less obvious role when it comes to our mood. The smell of fresh spearmint is far more subtle than a comfortable chair or framed photo. The tang of lemon zest doesn’t command attention like dimmed lighting. But these types of scents soothe us and transform spaces in ways that chairs and lighting can’t. Hotels know this. That’s many of them add alluring scents to their lobbies. You can’t touch or feel the aroma of a space, but it still affects our vibe. It works in concert with our other senses to make us feel good. The impact of scent may be softer, but it’s no less important to how we experience a space.

The underrated nature of scent is even more pronounced in schools. There, being scent-neutral is the goal. A school’s sense of smell only peaks when something goes terribly wrong — like a stink bomb going off in the hallway, for example. Other than that, scent is never seriously considered. From a school’s perspective, tending to how a classroom smells is unnecessary for effective teaching and learning. (For the record, I’ve had a few stink bombs go off outside my classroom. No fun.)

For the world of academia, whose chief concern is the intellect, the air must be clean, simple, and vacant of all fragrances. This makes sense for a lot of reasons, including how we minimize allergens for students and staff. But on a deeper, more theoretical level, does this type of concern mean that we must surrender ourselves to ignoring our sense of smell? Does it mean that we mustn’t add nuance and character to our classrooms through delightful scents? Does it mean that we can’t leverage the subtle influence of scent to impact student engagement in positive ways?

Although as educators we aim to engage a students’ intellect, how we get there is through their senses, through their emotions. This is especially true for teens, who are all emotion, all the time. Their sense of smell is a significant part of their emotional makeup.

This is why, back in September, when I started generating a list of things that I wanted my “reimagined” classroom to attend to this year, I couldn’t allow myself to fixate only on the furniture and walls and lighting. Scent matters too. I have played around with air fresheners in years past, but not until now have I truly questioned the institutional assumption that my classroom need be aromatically neutral. This change has been under my nose my entire career. I’m just now acting on it.

When it came to me actually revamping the scent signature of my room, it was a piece of cake. In fact, of all the revisions I’ve made this year, changing my room’s scent has been by far the easiest. I didn’t have to borrow a ladder from the custodian or rearrange the furniture. There was no fussing with my laminator or asking a colleague for help. Maintenance has also been a breeze. All I had to do was to buy a plug-in!

Wall plug in
The plug-in that makes all my scents come true

From eucalyptus and teakwood to mandarin and balsam, a variety of scents have found a home inside my classroom, each one providing its own distinct aura. The scents become less noticeable later in the day, but they still have the desired effect of un-neutralizing the space. I’ve generally stayed away from fruity scents out of personal preference, but that may change. Once the current refill runs out, the students will vote on our next scent.

Despite the simplicity of this change, I appreciate its reach. The fragrance from the plug-in welcomes us the moment we walk in and stays with us no matter where we are in the room. When I think about it, this is perhaps another reason why schools avoid the intentional adoption of scents: once it’s introduced to a room, you can’t escape it.

But I’ve accepted this trade-off. A few students have crinkled their noses at a scent or two. Most of my students, however, appreciate the attention my revised classroom has given to their noses. Considering what they are used to, the fragrances have been a refreshing and inviting change.

I’m no expert on scent dynamics. I only know that when a room smells good, it improves my focus and attitude. It enhances how I interact with the people, things, and ideas around me. It relaxes me. It keeps me interested and present. My hope is that my students feel similar now while learning mathematics in my room.

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The Algey Awards

Today, on the last day of the first semester, I held an award show in my classes. As we reach the halfway point of the year, I designed the show as a way to pause and take stock of what we’ve built together thus far. It was a celebration of us. I teach Algebra 2. Naturally, I called it The Algey Awards.

Normally, before I try something new in my class, I consult my students. If I want to modify an upcoming assignment, I ask them for advice on how to do it. If I’m looking to introduce a new classroom routine, I find out what my students think about it first. The more years I teach, the more I come to rely on my students to guide me. Their counsel has become indispensable.

But with The Algeys, I kept them in the dark. In the week leading up to today, I dropped hints about an “award show” on the last day of the semester to build anticipation, but that’s it. Nothing more. Many of my students — including my cogen — wanted to know what I was up to. I was mum. I wanted The Algeys to be a surprise. It was my gift to them.

To dress up the room and make it feel congratulatory, I picked some cheap decorations from Party City. I also paid a visit to the local dollar store for balloons.

I had a red carpet!

And the awards? They were fun. Every student got one and they were all different. Each was based on some connection I have with the student who received it (or at least something I know about them). For example, one student got an award for “Creating the First Handshake of the Year.” Another student got the award for “Giving Mr. P the best homework assignments” because she always assigns me a playful ‘homework’ in her Friday Letters.

There was no way I was going to give out awards and not have certificates. For this I headed over to Canva and used one of their templates. After some simple edits, hitting them up a logo, and doing a mail merge, the certificates were done.

The certificates were a nice touch, but I also wanted to find a cheap memento that could accompany it. It had to be something that students could hold, like the Oscar statuette. Luckily, a colleague came up big. He’s a pro at 3D printing and, despite being in the middle of midterms, graciously helped me make a neat little infinity sign that could serve as a physical representation of The Algey Award. Over the course of a few days, he printed over sixty of these bad boys! They were small, but perfect.

3D-printed Algey “Trophies”

The first annual Algey Awards were so exciting that they have me thinking about June. What if I did another show? But instead of it being me who creates and presents awards to students, what if my students created and presented awards to each other? My cogen could help with this a lot. Not sure if it will happen, but if it does, it would be a fantastic way to wrap up the year.

Other than the fun and novelty of the event and the appreciation my students felt, I loved The Algeys because they encouraged me to reflect on the relationships that I’ve formed with individual students. Thinking of their awards and formally presenting them in class filled me with so much love and joy. At the same time, the fact that some of the awards were easier to identify than others was striking. For several students, discovering their award was a struggle for me. It’s clear that I need to foster better relations with these kids in the months ahead.

The Algeys also got me to recognize progress. They helped me see that I don’t need to wait until the end of the year to celebrate my students. We have a lot left to accomplish this year, but that shouldn’t distract me from what we’ve already managed to pull off. If anything, it makes me more eager and excited to see how the second semester will play out.

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Math affirmations

In the spirit of the new year, when we came from winter break I had my students write math affirmations. I never did this before, but was inspired to try by a colleague and some recent readings I’ve done. I defined math affirmation for my students as a statement of worth about their mathematical selves. These statements are reflections of the principles, self-beliefs, and/or ideals that people want to manifest when they’re doing or thinking about math.

To start them on the journey of writing a math affirmation, I showed them this video:

After, I told them that it was their turn to write at least one math affirmation for themselves. Figuring that some students might have a hard time coming up with an affirmation on their own, I created a bunch of sample affirmations to help them. If they couldn’t come up with an original affirmation, I invited them to adopt one from my collection.

Sample math affirmations that I offered my students

I wanted their affirmations live publicly in the classroom, so after they determined of their affirmation, I asked them to write it down on a half-sheet of paper. I borrowed markers from another teacher so they could personalize them and make them fun.

I printed off a bunch of these on colorful paper for my students to write their affirmations

Now that I had all these fantastic affirmations, where to put them? A neat suggestion from first period: hang them up on the lockers around the room.

The walls/lockers are adorned with student math affirmations

What a great idea. At the end of the day, after I lamented a few of the affirmations and hung them up, the student who offered the locker suggestion came into the classroom and saw them. She beamed and said pridefully, “I told you they would look good!” She was right. We now have a bright, colorful, and inspirational touch on what was a boring part of our room. It’s comforting to know that while my students are working on our whiteboards, the affirmations will keep them company, waiting to provide encouragement whenever they may need it.

The whole point of an affirmation is that you read and say it often — or at least whenever you need a boost of positivity. To help accomplish this, I had students write their affirmations on a small piece of paper and tape it into or onto their math notebook. Beyond the lockers, I hope this helps them see their affirmation often.

Student notebooks with their math affirmations

It wouldn’t feel right if I had students write math affirmations and I didn’t write one myself. Thus, after my kids wrote their personal affirmations, I revealed our class affirmation:

We will grow through mathematics

Luckily for me, my school has a banner printer. This enabled me to blow up our class affirmation, have all the kids sign it (some even wrote their affirmations on it), and then put it up in the room. It looks wonderful.

Our class affirmation banner

The finishing touch is one I’m really excited about. Each day for the next few months I’m choosing one student’s affirmation to help ignite each lesson. The affirmation will be featured in the slides for the day and we’ll read it aloud via a lively call-and-response at the start of class. This, I hope, will keep the affirmations alive and well in the hearts and minds of my students. It will also help us all start each class on a positive note.

Sample slides with my students’ math affirmations

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A Thousand Words a Day • Jan 2-6 (No. 18)

I am documenting my 2022-23 school year through photography. Each day, I take a photograph and include it in a weekly post here on my blog. The goal is to create a compilation of photos that tells the story of my year and challenges me to go beyond the written word. This is the 18th post in the series.

Monday, January 2
— No Classes • New Year’s Day (Observed) —

Tuesday, January 3

On the first day back from break…jury duty!

Wednesday, January 4

In the spirit of the new year, the students wrote math affirmations that I hung up around the room

Thursday, January 5

After a break in the action yesterday, jury duty day 2!

Friday, January 6

We actually did math today!