Three questions: Who makes the rules for classroom behavior? How much should 5-, 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds get to decide, or should the teacher just lay down the rules? And does it make any difference in the long run?
In my 41 years of reporting, I must have visited thousands of elementary school classrooms, and I would be willing to bet that virtually every one of them displayed–usually near the door–a poster listing the rules for student behavior.
Often the posters were store-bought, glossy and laminated, and perhaps distributed by the school district. No editing possible, and no thought required. Just follow orders! Here’s an example:
I can imagine teachers reading the rules aloud to the children on the first day of class and only referring to them whenever things got loud or rowdy.
“Now, children, remember Rule 4. No calling out unless I call on you.”
There are other variations on canned classroom rules, available for purchase. This one uses a variety of flashy graphics to make the poster visually appealing, but the rules are being imposed from on high, which makes me think there’s little reason for children to adopt them.
I am partial to teachers and classrooms where the children spend some time deciding what the rules should be, figuring out what sort of classroom they want to spend their year in. I watched that process more than a few times. First, the teacher asks her students for help.
Children, let’s make some rules for our classroom. What do you think is important?
Or she might lead the conversation in certain directions:
What if someone knows the answer to a question? Should they just yell it out, or should they raise their hand and wait to be called on?
If one of you has to use the bathroom, should you just get up and walk out of class? Or should we have a signal? And what sort of signal should we use?
It should not surprise you to learn that, in the end, the kids come up with pretty much the same set of reasonable rules: Listen, Be Respectful, Raise Your Hand, and so forth. But there’s a difference, because these are their rules.
This poster is my personal favorite. It’s from a classroom in Hampstead Hill Academy, a public elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland (and shared by Principal Matthew Hornbeck). You’ll have to zoom in to see the details, which include what to do when working in groups: ‘Best Foot Forward,’ ‘Hands on Desk,’ and ‘Sit Big.’ And there are some things not to do, such as ‘Slouch‘ and ‘Touch Others.’
Another homemade one, entitled ‘Rules of the Jungle,’ makes me chuckle. I can picture the teacher and the children poking fun at themselves while creating a structure to insure that their classroom really does not become a jungle.
The words–Kind, Safe, Respectful–can be found in the store-bought posters; however, the children created the art work and made the poster. It’s theirs; they own it.
The flip side, the draconian opposite that gives children no say in the process, can be found in charter schools that subscribe to the ‘no excuses’ approach. The poster child is Eva Moskowitz and her Success Academies, a chain of charter schools in New York City. A few years ago on my blog I published Success Academies’ draconian list of offenses that can lead to suspension, about 65 of them in all. Here are three that can get a child as young as five a suspension that can last as long as five days: “Slouching/failing to be in ‘Ready to Succeed’ position” more than once, “Getting out of one’s seat without permission at any point during the school day,” and “Making noise in the hallways, in the auditorium, or any general building space without permission.” Her code includes a catch-all, vague offense that all of us are guilty of at times, “Being off-task.” You can find the entire list here.
(Side note: the federal penitentiary that I taught in had fewer rules.)
Does being able to help decide, when you are young, the rules that govern you determine what sort of person you become? Schools are famously undemocratic, so could a little bit of democracy make a difference? Too many schools, school districts, and states treat children as objects–usually scores on some state test–and children absorb that lesson.
Fast forward to adulthood: Why do many adults just fall in line and do pretty much what they are told to do? I am convinced that undemocratic schools–that quench curiosity and punish skepticism–are partially responsible for the mess we are in, with millions of American adults accepting without skepticism or questioning the lies and distortions of Donald Trump, Fox News, Alex Jones, Briebart, and some wild-eyed lefties as well.
Because I agree with Aristotle that “We are what we repeatedly do,” I’m convinced that what happens in elementary school makes a huge difference in personality formation and character development.
Students should have more control (‘agency’ is the popular term) over what they are learning, and inviting them to help make their classroom’s rules is both a good idea and a good start.
As always, your comments and reactions are welcome.