Relationships Are Not Accidents: Using the Smiles and Frowns Activity to Build a Positive Classroom Culture

By Stoney M. Beavers, Ph.D.
Assistant Director ABPC

*Are you interested in having our Professional Learning Blogs delivered straight to your inbox each month? Sign up here!*


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking with one of my Twitter heroes, and the conversation definitely did not disappoint. I have followed the work of teacher Monte Syrie for some time, connecting casually through social media on Twitter chats and through other colleagues. I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about how he conducts his classroom and how he spends his time outside of school in Cheney, Washington.

I reached out to Monte to discuss his take on student voice – something that has become a growing interest for me since joining the Alabama Best Practices Center. My daughter is on the A+ Education Partnership’s Student Voices Team, and I have loved watching how Megan Skipper, our Director of Communications, and others on our team work with these students to really listen and learn from them regarding what they need in order to be successful learners.

We have also recently been in some great conversations with Brad Waguespack, the environmental science teacher at Vestavia Hills High School and a real activist on behalf of student voice. Brad is interested in establishing a think tank in Alabama that would expand professional learning opportunities around the use of student voice in school improvement, so we can better infuse the thinking of our “consumers” into our daily practices.

Monte Syrie seemed like the perfect person to push my thinking in this area, and his passion for the topic did just that.

Try the Smiles and Frowns Strategy

One of the strategies that Monte uses to build relationships in his secondary ELA classroom is called Smiles and Frowns. It’s a quick five minutes or so that really highlights the human aspect of the classroom.

Take a minute to read Monte’s description of the protocol below. Try it out, and continue to explore other ways to really open up your classrooms to fully appreciate the human aspect of learning that students bring in every day.

For additional resources in this area, consider looking at Russell J. Quaglia and Michael J. Corso’s Student Voice: The Instrument of Change and Myron Dueck’s Giving Students a Say.

This is one of the first things I tell my young aspiring teacher candidates in my classroom management course at Eastern Washington University. I then go on to tell them, with that in mind, we will spend a lot of time talking about relationships, for they are the foundation for everything.

And then I continue to tell them that when I was in their seats many years ago (literally, for the desks have not changed in the 25 years since I, too, was a young teacher candidate taking the same course at EWU!) no one talked to me about relationships. No, instead I was led to believe that good management was keeping kids in their seats quietly – silently – working from bell-to-bell. I have since learned that management is not about management; it’s about culture. And really, it’s about relationships.

Recently, I had the honor of contributing a post to the Teachers Going Gradeless website, which highlighted the gradeless classroom as an ideal setting for creating  a culture of possibility. The emphasis on culture stems from my belief that great teachers are not managers of classrooms but creators of culture. And from that place, I challenge my college students to capture their dreams of their ideal cultures, so we can then set to work on discovering and implementing the practices that will help make their ideals their realities.

This approach gives them not only the opportunity to develop their talks but also check their walks. In the post, I went on to share how I keep my talk and walk in balance in the culture that I seek to create in my high school ELA classroom. And, of course, my first “talk and walk” addressed that which I sell as the key component in any classroom culture: relationships.

In the post I referenced an activity that I do with my high school students to make relationships an intentional part of my classroom culture. I call it Smiles and Frowns. But I did not discover it in the classroom. Before stepping down so I could focus on Project 180 last year, I was the ELA department chair at Cheney High School for 12 years, and one of my many responsibilities was to lead our weekly collaboration meetings.

Of course there was always an agenda – there’s always an agenda – but there were also eight other people sitting around the table — eight other people with whom I had to engage in the important work that we do in the ELA department at CHS.  There was an agenda. There were people. The agenda could wait. People first.

So, one Friday morning on a whim, we started with a quick go-around, sharing something from our professional and/or personal lives. It took roughly five minutes. The next week, we did the same, but this time I placed it at the top of our agenda, calling it Smiles and Frowns. It remained at the top of our agenda from there on.

Even now, after my stepping down, it’s still at the top of our agenda every time we meet. Last year, it made it into my classroom culture as an occasional but intentional activity to foster relationships. This year it will take center stage as the daily entry task, an intentional effort to make relationships the priority.

Smiles and Frowns Here’s the basic approach

  • I sit among the kids if there is an empty desk. If not, my default perch is a seat at the front of the room. I prefer to sit among the kids. My desks are generally arranged in two half circles. But arrangement varies, so we adapt accordingly. If the arrangement is not conducive to a good sharing-and-listening environment, we will all stand in a big circle around the room.
  • Each person has an opportunity to share a smile and/or frown from his/her school or personal life. This is the heart of the activity. This is such a great opportunity for us all to learn about each other as individuals, learning that transfers into so many other aspects of our culture over the course of the year.
  • Each person has the right to pass. No one is forced to share. Sadly some kids always pass. On occasion I will pass, too, to honor those kids who are exercising their rights.
  • Each person has the responsibility to listen. I don’t want my kids to be good listeners. I want them to be great listeners. And that takes practice. For us, it begins here. My rules for listening are pretty simple. No talking while others are sharing. Make an effort to make eye-contact with the speaker (which means one may have to turn around depending on seating arrangement). Use non-verbal gestures to put the speaker at ease (nod, smile, etc.). Not much makes me grumpy as a teacher, but if kids aren’t working at being great listeners, I get grumpy.
  • We start at random places. Often, I will ask for volunteers to start us off. Sometimes, I will choose. Sometimes, I will begin.
  • It takes five minutes. Sometimes, it takes a little more, but I am the guard at that gate. If I find that there is something that the kids are excited about or have stuck in their craws, we will spend the extra time. My culture. My choice.

How I will introduce it to the kids

We are going to learn a lot this year. A lot. I am going to push you to make the most of our opportunity together. And while the content of the course will occupy the majority of our learning experiences, it is not the most important thing we will learn together. Yes, syntax and rhetoric are important, and, yes, we will treat them as such, but they are secondary to what matters most: the people around us.

 Our worlds will always be full of important stuff, but they will also be full of people. And it is my belief that if we want to learn about the world and to learn about ourselves, we first have to focus on the people around us. So we, my young friends, will spend time each day learning about each other.

Relationships are key. They are not accidents. They require intention. I talk a lot about that. And I have found that if my mouth is moving, my feet need to keep up. I have to walk my talk. And so, to that end, I make relationships a priority, and Smiles and Frowns is just one way that I am intentional about that.

Yes, I have content to cover – there’s always content to cover – but at any given moment in my day, there are also thirty other bodies in the room with whom I engage the important work of learning the world. There is content. There are people. The content can wait. People first. Always first.

Monte Syrie’s Project 180 Blog