Social Reality in the Classroom
My journey to whole language was partly
a quest to bring reality into the classroom. I began years ago
by tossing aside the basal in favor of having my third graders
choose their own books to read and choosing literature responses
from a set of categorized task card prompts. Over the years,
step by step and subject by subject, I have tried to make our
school day as much like real life as possible, from letting children
eat snacks while they worked to allowing them unlimited bathroom
One of the areas in which I want my classroom to reflect real
life is in the social behavior of children.
For the last several years I have opened the school year by having
the children create classroom rules, in my attempt to empower
them with ownership of the environment. Year after year, the
children came up with their rules: "Don't run in the classroom."
"Don't yell." "Don't hit or punch other kids."
"Don't hurt people's feelings." And year after year,
in an effort to focus on acceptable behavior, I would help them
rephrase their negative statements into positive ones: "Walk
in the classroom." "Use soft voices." "Be
kind to people." "Talk nicely."
The list of rules were almost exactly the same every year. Children
are smart enough to know what acceptable behavior is and isn't,
and they knew what I wanted to hear. While the children participated
in articulating classroom rules, they weren't engaged in any
critical thinking during the process. This never bothered me
until I read Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community,
by Alfie Kohn. Reflecting on Kohn's ideas, I realized that the
classroom rules had always been my rules, deftly facilitated
from the mouths of my students. Consequently, I decided I would
like to begin approaching the class rules a little differently.
For the last three years I have been team-teaching a multiage
primary class comprised of first, second, and third graders.
Before the school year began this year, I told my partner what
I had read and how I was feeling. We talked about discipline,
community, and behavior, and together we came up with a plan
which incorporated two questions: "Why are we in school?"
and "What do we need?"
The first day of school, about midmorning, we wrote a heading
on chart paper: "Why Are We Here?" We asked the children
to tell us why we come to school. Of course, the first response
was, "to learn," which we immediately charted, and
then we asked, "What else?" As they responded, we asked
questions for clarification. We made some minor changes to the
children's language to make the information more inclusive. For
example, the response "to be smarter in math" generated
the question, "What about being smarter in reading? Or social
studies? Or science?" and thus became, with the child's
permission, "To be smarter." One student said we were
in school to "go farther." After asking him to explain
what he meant, we asked if the word "challenge" would
work, and he agreed.
On the second day we reviewed the responses, then posed the second
question, "What do we need?" We referred repeatedly
back to the first chart as we asked the questions: "What
do we need to do in order to be able to make friends?" "What
do we need to do to be able to read books?" "What do
we need to do to be able to share with each other?" We began
listening to and questioning their responses. When a student
said, "to listen," we asked, "Listen to whom?"
Not surprisingly, the answer was, "The teacher." Our
next question was, "What if a student is reading a story
to the class?" and then, "What if you are working in
a group and there is no teacher nearby?" Thus, "to
listen" was expanded to include everyone in the classroom.
The phrase "to ask questions" grew out of a discussion
generated by a third grader who indicated with specific examples
that we might need to find out things, or get information about
directions. With permission, we used the phrase, "ask questions."
Although we took the liberty, with the children's permission,
of expanding or simplifying ideas, or substituting words, we
felt confident that the children's intentions and meanings were
preserved. The charted responses, below, seem to cover a wide
range of cognitive and affective possibilities:
Why We Are Here
- to learn something different
- to work
- to read books
- to make friends
- to be smarter
- to play with friends
- to challenge ourselves
- to listen
- to work toward a goal
- to have fun!
- to share with each other
What We Need
- to pay attention
- to listen to the person who's talking
- to be friendly to people
- to be helpful
- to ask questions
- to take care of the classroom
The last response, in particular, made my
partner and I smile at each other, as the care of classroom materials
is a high priority for both of us. The student who provided this
idea originally said that we would need to take care of "things"
so we asked, "What things?" As students began naming
items, we asked if there was one word we could use that would
cover everything. We finally ended up voting on whether to use
the word "things" or the word "classroom."
By the end of the first week of school, we had already begun
to see the usefulness of these charts, which hang side-by-side
in the classroom. At each day's closing meeting, we are able
to refer to the charts when someone has a complaint about the
day. For example, when a student said that he had been pushed
in line, we pointed out that being friendly to people was on
the needs chart, and then we had students generate examples of
The creation of a community of learners who collaborate with
and care about each other needs the same kind of flexibility
and dialogue that real life requires. A list of rigid rules and
consquences focuses on compliance, but we are hoping that our
more open-ended list of needs will help us move in the direction
of real community.
Thank you, Alfie Kohn!
© 1998 Renee Goularte - all rights reserved