Monday, August 27, 2018

Keeping Class Agreements Alive

I've started reading Not Light, But Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom, by Matthew Kay, and it is a joy. I'm only on Chapter 3, but it's already got me thinking about starting the year in a classroom by purposefully planning for race conversations from Day 1.

Although Kay's book is written from the perspective of a high school teacher, so far I find it very applicable to my work as an elementary educator. It's gotten me interested in talking, writing, thinking, and tweeting about how one could tweak his ideas in elementary school. This is the first of a few blog posts where I'll write about community-building as I've done in it my classroom over the years.

(Because I'm also thinking a lot about facilitating adult learning, I found as I wrote this that I also kept adding notes about how I'd done similar things in groups of adults learning together. That seems important, too.)

These posts are not overtly about race, but Kay makes the (not surprising but perhaps sometimes overlooked) argument for why you must build community in your classroom in order to have race conversations. He is clear that his ways of building community are not the only, or best, ways. So these posts will detail some ways that have worked well for me in elementary classes that talk about race.

Months ago, Kristin Gray was asking about how teachers keep classroom norms alive in the classroom past the first week or two of school, and I've been wanting to write about that too. So this first post is about Class Agreements and how I make our list of agreements a living document throughout the year.

Class Agreements: What are they? 

First of all, a note about what Class Agreements are NOT. Class Agreements are not a list of rules. As I tell students (and adults when I work with them in groups), rules are things we have to do. Agreements are things we are all going to try our best to do. We are all going to make mistakes, because they are hard things to do. None of us will follow the Agreements all the time. But we will try. (Thanks to Tina Blythe for teaching me this distinction.)

Now: What do you call them? I used to call them "Class Promises," but it feels strange to say we promise to do something that we have just said we won't always do. "Norms" feels a little businesslike to me, but other people like it. One class I worked with last year wanted to call them "Vows," like a wedding, which seemed intense, but that was their decision. In general I like the term "Class Agreements" because we all agree on them, but it doesn't matter too much what you call them.

How do you create them?

I begin in September by having students talk, write, and draw about their Hopes and Dreams for the year. We then talk about how we need to act and treat each other in order to make our Hopes and Dreams come true.

This is a well-known process created by Responsive Classroom, which you can read about here, but it's not easy. In particular, coming up with and finalizing the list of our Class Agreements is an arduous process, and I don't think I'm a particularly skilled facilitator of this part. But, in the end, we come up with a list we can all agree to.

Usually I try to keep the list of Class Agreements to four or maybe five items. One year's list was:
  1. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  2. Be peaceful and respectful and talk out problems.
  3. Try to be positive and think good thoughts.
  4. Try your hardest and stay focused.
These are not my ideas -- they come from the students, and are probably not worded how I would word them if I wrote them. I try to make sure they come up with one about how to resolve conflicts, one about treating each other well, and one about working hard. There's often one about taking care of our learning environment as well.

After we create the Agreements and everyone signs them (agreeing to try to meet them), the Agreements don't just hang on the wall and get forgotten. I've done different things with them over the years, but here are a few.

Refer to the Agreements in Morning or Afternoon Circle

One easy way to keep the Class Agreements alive is to include them in Morning or Afternoon Circle in some way. I've often had students look at the Agreements in the morning and choose one they really wanted to focus on that day. They silently put up their fingers to show which one they've chosen (three fingers for Agreement #3, etc.). This just takes a couple seconds, but it keeps the Agreements in our minds. In Afternoon Circle, students can briefly share a way they or someone else followed the Agreements that day.

(I'd like to note that we did this in a class for adults I took this year with Gene Thompson-Grove: revisited our norms and thought about which ones we needed to focus on ourselves and which ones we would like the group to attend to.)

Times of Crisis: Class Meetings

Once, at a moment of crisis, when something went badly wrong in our class community and we called a class meeting, my co-teacher Annie Shah took the Class Agreements off the wall and put them on the floor in the middle of our circle to ground our discussion. She reminded the students how important they were and why we had written them, and then we talked about which ones we needed to do a better job with. This act of physically centering our community around the Agreements was a powerful reminder of the list as a living document, not an ancient artifact of the first weeks of school.

Use Class Agreements for Written Reflections

Finally, Class Agreements are powerful tools for written reflections. Students can reflect at the end of a unit, term, week, month, or year and write about ways they have embodied one or more of the Agreements. I also use them on reflection sheets that students complete when they've done something they shouldn't (usually involving hurting someone else physically or emotionally). These reflection sheets include a list of the Agreements and ask the student to circle which one they did not follow, then write about what happened and how they can fix the problem they caused.

(Written reflections on the norms are also something I've done as an adult student. In Tina Blythe's semester-long class, we did regular reflections about the norms we had created, sometimes verbally, sometimes in writing. Mid-way through the term, we folded a piece of paper into four squares and wrote about one of the following in each square: a norm we had done well with personally, a norm we needed to do better with personally, a norm the group had done well with, and a norm the group needed to do better with. This was useful feedback for the instructor.)

A Note About Compliance

I loved this post from @Jess5th about shifting the narrative away from compliance on the first day of school. She engaged her students in conversations about when it's important to follow the rules and when it's important to break the rules. I have never had that conversation so early in the year, but I think it's an important idea, so don't miss her post.

In my next post on building community, I'll write about a routine I learned in a mindfulness class called Appreciations.