“If We Were Going to Have a Safe, Happy and Fun Classroom…”

As I mentioned over the weekend, I’ve been working with my students to craft a set of classroom promises designed to make sure that our classroom is a safe, happy and fun place this year.  

The experience was inspired by a process described in Pernille Ripp’s newest book, Passionate Learners. Pernille’s argument is that a healthy classroom depends on giving students genuine input in developing the expectations that govern a classroom.  Students will only invest in their learning spaces, she believes, once they realize that they truly have ownership over what happens once they walk through the classroom door.

While I spent WAY more time on this process than I expected to, I think the experience was super productive.  At the least, we had a fantastic conversation about the commitments we need to make in order to ensure that our year is something special.  At the best, we have a set of promises that will guide our work and that will allow my students to thrive without “supervision.”

Here’s what my students decided was important to them:

If we were going to have a safe, happy and fun classroom, Mr. Ferriter would:

Be fair and firm with all students.  This means that Mr. Ferriter will recognize and reward good behavior.  This also means that Mr. Ferriter should recognize and help when a student is struggling.

Be fun, active and creative while working.  This means that Mr. Ferriter will do his best to plan fun lessons and to be humorous.

Recognize that there are activities besides school in our lives.  This means we need Mr. Ferriter to give an appropriate amount of time for assignments and an appropriate amount of homework.

If we were going to have a safe, happy and fun classroom, students would:

Work hard and give our best effort all the time — whether we are working alone or in groups.  This means no matter how hard or easy our task is, we will try our best.

Participate, cooperate and be positive during class.  This means we will include other students in group efforts and we will participate by raising our hands, working well in a group, and recognizing the right time to lead and to follow.

Listen to the teacher and respect other students.  This means we will treat others the way we want to be treated and we will stay quiet when it isn’t our turn to speak.

 

Not bad, huh?  If you’re interested in learning more about the process that we used to develop these statements — or in the handouts that structured the work — keep reading.

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We started by silently brainstorming around four key questions:

  1. What kinds of behaviors are important for making classrooms safe, happy and fun?
  2. What kind of behaviors make classrooms unhappy/unhealthy places to be?
  3. What kind of behaviors drive you completely crazy in a classroom?
  4. What promises would we have to make to one another in order to make this the best year ever?

Students recorded their initial reactions to those questions on butcher paper.

Then, I asked them to craft a written reaction to a comment added by another student.  I explained that a reaction could include agreeing with the original comment, disagreeing with the original comment, adding an example to the original comment, or asking a clarifying question about the original comment.

We were left with papers FULL of thoughts about the kind of teacher and student behaviors that make classrooms safe, happy and fun (see here and here for samples).

The next day, students worked in groups of three to look for trends in the kinds of behaviors that both teachers and students would have to demonstrate in order to make our year the best ever.  They used this handout to structure their observations, to record any trends that they could spot, and to write promise statements detailing the kind of behaviors that we wanted to see in our classroom this year.

While writing promise statements, I explained that it was important to express our expectations in positive language.  We practiced by converting statements like, “If our classroom is going to be safe, happy and fun, students shouldn’t blurt out” into statements like “If our classroom is going to be safe, happy and fun, students should be good listeners when others are speaking.”

Once groups had written three statements describing the trends in both teacher and student behavior that they spotted on our initial brainstorming documents, we came together to generate a master list of every expectation that we had for one another.  Our final list of teacher expectations included 15 different promise statements and our final list of student expectations included 9 different promise statements.

Together, we worked to combine statements that shared the same core ideas.  We also polished language a bit — making sure that we had turned every negative into a positive.  Finally, students voted for the statements that mattered the most to them.  Each student could vote for both three teacher behaviors and three student behaviors.

While voting, I asked students to see if they could spot the will of the class.  “Sometimes when we are voting,” I explained, “I don’t want you to be influenced by your peers.  In this case, though, I DO want you to be influenced by your peers.  If you see that one of our promises is SUPER important to everyone else in our class and you think you can live with it, vote for it.  We are trying to find the ideas that we can ALL get behind.”

When voting was over, I asked four students to stay at lunch time and pull our promises together into one neat list that was wordsmithed, polished and ready for review.  I took their final language and turned it into a handout that students now have in the front of their notebooks.

Here’s that handout:

Handout_PromisesFinal

My plans are to review our classroom promises each day while we are filling out our agendas.  The way I see it, classroom culture — like the culture in any human organization — needs constant nurturing and reinforcement.  I will also reward and recognize students publicly for honoring our classroom promises.  Students need to hear and see examples of our promises in action if those promises are going to become valued expectations for everyone.

I’m also going to ask students to reflect regularly on their own ability to honor our classroom promises.  The second page of the Promises handout linked above is designed to give kids chances to think about how their actions are moving our class forward and/or holding our class back.

I also have plans to develop a handout that allows students to give ME feedback on how MY behaviors are either moving our class forward or holding our class back. I figure that I can be a model for my students, showing how to receive and react to feedback — both positive and negative — publicly.

Finally, I’m going to develop mini-lessons designed to give students the kinds of skills necessary to confront peers who are breaking our classroom promises.  I want my students to recognize that if we are serious about making our classroom safe, happy and fun, we have to be comfortable correcting one another when our behaviors are getting in the way.  I’m not sure what those lessons will look like yet, but my guess is that they will involve a bit of role playing and a set of suggested phrases that are polite but direct.

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Looking forward to hearing what you think.  In fact, I’d LOVE some feedback.  What do you like about the lesson?  What would you change about it?

5 comments

  1. Kristen Goggin

    Bill, I love this! We make a middle school wide social contract and I have had a hard time getting my advisory to think outside the box and take it as seriously. They follow it in the end but not sure they really feel like they have voice because they don’t participate fully in the front load process. I passed this on to my team and will look to using questions like this to get them really thinking. Your work always inspires me. But really, you are already back in school???

    • Bill Ferriter

      Hey Kristen,

      Glad you dug this — and no joke: It SEEMS to be working REALLY well.

      I remind the kids of their promises at the beginning of every period — particularly those periods where they are going to be doing a bunch of collaborative work. Then, I ask a few students at the end of class to recognize one of their peers who did a great job holding to one of our promises. “Who was really positive today?” I’ll ask. Or “who showed leadership that moved your group forward?”

      There’s an easy sense in my room right now. Kids seem invested and committed in a way that they don’t generally show. I might even call it a maturity. I’m not struggling to keep them connected to the space. I THINK that’s because of the way I’m rocking the promises.

      And yes: I’m back at school! Today was the last day of the second week.

      But I’m on a year-round calendar: Which means that I”ll have a nice long three week vacation in October that you will be jealous of!

      In fact, we might be having dinner in October — I’ve got two days of work booked in Marin County just north of the bridge. We’ll make it a point to connect this time.

      Rock on,
      Bill

  2. Kelly Hansen

    Bill, I’m curious. Did you do this process with one class representing all students, with each class (I have 4-6 classes a day and assume you do too), or with all 100+ students. I love the idea and am hoping to implement it in my classes, but struggle with the mechanics of so many kids and classes.
    Thanks
    kelly

    • Bill Ferriter

      Hey Kelly,

      Actually, I took the description of how I handled this with multiple classes out of the post to shorten it!

      What I really did was have each class list the trends that they found in student and teacher behaviors individually. Then, I had each class vote on the most important behaviors individually. I recorded the results of that voting separately.

      Then my student wordsmiths — who I reference in this blog post — looked for trends across all classes. They pulled together one list of three statements for teachers and three statements for students based on what they saw in the master lists from each class.

      The next day, I presented that wordsmithed master list to each class for a final vote. My core question was: Can you live with these promises? Is there anything important missing?

      There were very few changes to the list that my student wordsmithers pulled together. A few instances of rearranging words — for example, the kids wanted “fair” to come before “firm” in the teacher promise and they wanted to include “follow” in the student statement about leadership because they were worried if everyone tried to be a leader, groups would be a disaster — but that was it.

      So long story short, you can do this with multiple classes. Just have your student wordsmith team review the lists generated and voted on by all of your individual classes when pulling together a list of proposed promises.

      Lemme know if you have any other questions,
      Bill

      • Kelly Hansen

        I am definitely going to do this with my class. I’m also going to write it up as a lesson for our school wide “Citizenship and the Constitution” unit that I’m creating now. Perhaps we can improve the culture of classrooms all across our school.
        Don’t you want to move to the beach and teach with me? We have 3 science openings.
        kelly