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 visits.

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 friendly behavior.

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