Thursday, 19 November 2015

"Paper, books! Coffee!": Who sets the rules in classrooms?

"Hands on top!"

"That means stop!"

For the past few years of my teaching career, this has been my go-to call and answer for when someone in our classroom community has a message that needs to be heard by others. It's always worked, and the students really latched on to it - often using it independently to announce their own messages (which I love - it's not just up to the teachers to speak and be heard, this is something that we foster in the students as well!). Say "Hands on top" to anyone who's passed through Room 109 in the last few years, and they'll know what it means...

...that is, until this year.

Within the first two weeks of this new school year, my teaching partner and I reflected on how we'd noticed this little trick didn't seem to work in the way it used to. Some students wouldn't respond at all, while some others would mindlessly reply "That means stop!", while not stopping at all, but continuing on with their own independent tasks. I'm a firm believer in reflecting on every element of your practice to ensure everything works and nothing is ever done just because "this is how we've always done it". With that in mind, we set out to see what we could do about this.

As blog readers may know, our major focus is always community building in our classroom - as I believe that it creates a solid and crucial foundation for all other learning to stem from. That being said, I wasn't about to spend any of my own time Googling "ways to get students' attention" - instead, I opened it up to the capable and clever students in our community. At one of our morning meetings I shared my feelings about how this method wasn't working in the same way it used to. Not surprisingly, most students agreed. We decided together that perhaps we needed to try something different - that we had just gotten so used to this chant that it seemed to lose it's actual meaning. Believing what I believe about who's in charge of classrooms (all of us - never just teachers), I asked our class for suggestions, which led us to the following five options:

- keeping "Hands on top...that means stop"
- "Stop, look, and listen! Ok!"
- clapping a pattern and having the others repeat it back
- "Paper, books! Coffee!"
- "Listen, look here! Bubblegum!"

In taking student suggestions, I was adamant to honour all contributions. While I felt that "Hands on top" was no longer effective, some students wanted to keep it so we included that in the list of ideas. As well, it was easy for me as an adult to think that options such as "Paper, books! Coffee!" and "Bubblegum!" probably wouldn't work at all, but I truly wanted to honour these ideas from students and allow them to come to their own conclusions about their effectiveness. With that in mind, we committed to trying these five options over a course of a week, one a day, before voting at the end to decide which one we wanted to use this year. I asked students to be open to trying each idea and to keep the following lens in mind:

- Is it effective? (i.e. does it work at getting our attention?)
- Is it easy to remember? (i.e. short, catchy, and does it remind us what we need to do?)
- Does it make us feel good? (i.e. being mutually respect instead of rules, yelling, and "teachers being in charge")

This became our quasi success criteria for the experiment, which was important as I wanted the students to select the one that they truly felt worked the best for them. As a teacher, I have no interest in coming into a classroom and setting my own arbitrary rules - I think it's significantly richer and meaningful to give students a role in creating our community's expectations and routines. By sharing this responsibility it not only practices what we preach about our classroom belonging to all of us, it also encourages students to follow those routines because they had a hand in creating them.

So, I know what you may be thinking - what happened next?

Well, here we are, mid November, and the call and answer method selected by students after sharing their own ideas and trying each one out is "Stop, look, and listen! Ok!"...and does it ever work! As predicted, students felt was effective, was easy to remember, and made them feel respected. They did agree that while the options about coffee and bubblegum were fun to say, they didn't achieve the intended goal. I could have shot down those ideas as soon as they were given, but I don't feel that's respectful, nor would it have allowed them to construct their own learning and opinions through actual experiences (and that's what it's all about!).

If you don't already, have a look at your own classroom routines and ask yourself - does it all work the way it needs to? - and if not, don't be afraid to turn things over to the students to come up with a solution. Time and time again, I see they are capable, helpful, and insightful. For that reason, and more, I believe in involving them in the process of establishing classroom routines. To me, having the teacher select all of the rules, routines, and expectations sends an unspoken message that I'm defintely not ok with.


  1. Replies
    1. My pleasure! The students taught me a lot about slowing down, following their lead, and not doing anything "just because".