It’s my fourth year teaching math and science at my parent partnership (school for homeshoolers). This year, happily, I have cycled back to teaching biology, after a year of chemistry and one of physics. Out go those files into temp storage, in comes my much bigger stock of biology books, props, and readings. Once again this year I teach Algebra 1 and Geometry and this year’s Algebra 2 is a regular course rather than just supporting home study. Friday classes are fun but much simpler, as I only have one class to prep, repeated twice each for groups of 3rd to fifth graders and 8th to eighth graders. This was another gift from my principal, who wants to reduce unnecessary stress for her team of very hard working teachers.She also spread my high school classes across Monday through Thursday rather than having them all on two days with the others being tutoring only.
Of course I start each year with a conversation about norms and expectations. One must lay the groundwork for a good community learning environment. Arising from the evolution of my teaching practice and seeing what is life-giving for student learning, my advice is: keep it simple and frame most of what you “require” students to do in terms of choices they make internally. Secondly, try to get most of the important stuff stored in their mental cupboards rather than on neat laminated posters on the wall..
Here’s what that looks life for me. Keep in mind that I teach mainly high school, but these things work well down to the level of my third graders.
I have classroom rules, values rather, framed in terms of two short phrases, posted in rainbow colors on the wall, “Be kind” and “Do your best.” Lately I’ve been thinking of rephrasing the second one to “Do quality work.” A previous iteration was “Work hard,” but the word “hard” doesn’t really bring out the ideal of work being a desired and enjoyable challenge.
At the beginning of the year, I briefly point out these rules, explaining that if they are wondering whether something is okay to do or say, they should consider the two values and see what fits, and if not sure, I and the rest of the community will help out.
I’ve heard it advised that teachers democratically work out a list or rules for each class, making a list and posting it. The idea is the students will come up with what the teacher wants anyway because we all gravitate to natural law. This has seemed sensible to me in the past, but now I don’t even bother fleshing it all out at the beginning; I just ask that they work it out as we go, except for the non-negotiable management- and safety- related requirements such as signing out to leave the classroom, which is a school rule we have found necessary. I told them it’s in case of emergencies, but mostly it’s to track possible bathroom vaping patterns.
The advantage of this streamlined approach centered around a few global values is that it eliminates the clear, impersonal boundaries that certain students are naturally inclined to spend precious energy and creativity challenging. Instead they use their intelligence (more in future n believing in your students’ intelligence) to create personal boundaries that flex as needed to maintain values about which there is generally no debate.Then if you need to have further conversation due to students’ naughty or dumb choices (we all know that intelligence doesn’t keep us from being naughty or dumb), it can consist simply of clarifying how best to act more consistently with the two big rules/values.
On the other hand, the disadvantage (some might call it a disadvantage, though personally I call it an adventure) is that interpretations can vary and working things out might require a teacher to let go of a few things. For example, in that initial conversation about what is okay to say to another student might acknowledge that teasing can be okay among friends who build their relationship that way, but not okay with others.
But doesn’t this confuse students if they do not have a clear idea of what is expected of them? Yes. But, I say, give them some practice in that, for heaven’s sake–in life, they’ll need it.