An Idealist's Practical Steps to Achieve Goals

CPR and Social Contract provide foundation and guidelines

For Middle Level

I'm an idealist. At the start of every school year, I dream about the amazing community of learners I'll be teaching. I think about building life lessons into the curriculum to make my students better citizens and more responsible members of society. But by November, my idealism is gone, and I think of my students as a large group of hormonal teenagers who may or may not have any interest in my lessons. Then I reduce the scope of my goals to creating a controlled classroom.

Last year, I wanted a balance between my lofty idealism and classroom realities, so to keep my idealist side alive longer I made a plan.

Making the ideal real
First, I wanted to create an environment where my students felt safe and comfortable taking risks in both their academic and social experiences. I set the following goal: Students will be respectful to each other and work cooperatively to establish a strong sense of community.

Second, I needed daily structures to make my goal attainable. I worked with a three-teacher team and used Developmental Designs structures, phasing them in systematically. Scheduling limitations forced us to think carefully about how and when we would implement each strategy.

Meaningful student goals
We began with a goal-setting process in homerooms that required each student to make one goal for each of her core subject areas and one social goal for the year. Core subject-area goals ranged from getting all homework in on time to getting an A in a class they previously struggled with, to participating more in class. Social goals included sitting with different groups of classmates at lunch, making at least one new friend, and not spreading rumors or gossip. Students then focused on their social goals and one subject-area goal to tackle in the first semester.

To display our goals, we used a tessellating fish template in our teams' homerooms. Each student cut out a brightly colored fish, wrote her academic and social goal on the body of the fish, and put her name on the tail. Then we gathered to read all the goals and tessellate them. In sets of four, the fish made eye contact with one another!

Creating a Social Contract
At the beginning of the year, the most important activity involved creating the social contract. It created a bridge for students between their goals and the behavior needed to reach those goals. We read Marcus Pfister's The Rainbow Fish out loud. This set the stage for a discussion of how everyone should behave toward each other to create an environment for learning. From this exploration emerged one key idea: equality. To apply this principle to school, we said, "Everyone has an equal right to learn and be successful." Students were then asked to create a Social Contract that would make this happen.

In the three homerooms, students formed pairs to think about rules we could use to help us achieve our goals. Each pair wrote three rules. Then the pairs united, shared their rules, and repeated the process, reducing the number of rules again to three. The consolidation continued: groups of combined to make groups of 8, groups of 8 combined to make groups of 16, etc.—each time groups emerged with three rules. Finally, there were two large groups left, and the three rules from each of them were consolidated into one set. The homerooms did this by writing the last six rules on six thin strips of paper, posting them on the board, and consolidating them into a final set of three.

Each homeroom then selected two Social Contract representatives to meet with me to consolidate the rules from each homeroom into one set that everyone could use. We created the following three rules:
1. Be mentally and physically prepared to succeed
2. Advocate for ourselves and others in an honest and responsible manner
3. Respect people and property in all settings

Final endorsement
Gathering the entire team at an assembly, we presented the three rules of our Social Contract on a beautiful poster designed by one of the students. Delegates addressed the audience, explained each rule and the thinking behind it. Finally, the entire audience agreed to the contract. We hung the poster in each homeroom. This process was extremely successful in starting the year positively and with guidelines that bonded the community.

Circle of Power and Respect
After several days of working on the goals and rules, we were ready to begin our Circle of Power and Respect (CPR) meetings in homeroom. We held conversations in each homeroom about students' previous experience with circle meetings, which included what worked and didn't.
The teachers took notes and met after school to discuss the student input we had gathered. Students who had voiced negative opinions about CPR meetings were placed in circle groups with teachers who had the most CPR experience. We did this in the hopes of making CPR more enjoyable and changing the students' negative perceptions.

We created CPR groups of no more than 15 students, balancing gender, behavior dynamics, and personalities as much as possible. We tailored our CPR groups with successful community building in mind.

Assessing student experience with CPR
To assess the social climate, I decided to focus on CPR because it was the one practice my three-teacher team was doing consistently. Eighth graders are tough to read sometimes. I see them smiling, engaged, and enjoying something. But when I ask them how they feel about CPR, they look at me with blank faces or say it was dumb. I needed to explore their perceptions more carefully.

Early in the year, I surveyed a group of 8th graders about how they had personally benefited from CPR in the last year. Ten students said "meeting new people, making new friends," four students said "fun and laughter," five students said "confidence boosting," two students said "break from academics," and seven students said "no benefit." I asked the same question in November, which included an additional class of students. Forty-two of 45 students felt CPR benefited them, which was extremely encouraging. Twenty students said "meeting new people, making new friends" was the greatest benefit of CPR, eight students said "better environment," seven students said "interaction," seven students said "break from academics," and three students said there was no benefit. Two of the latter students added "yet" to their answers, which gave me hope that they would eventually change their minds.

Another encouraging sign came when I asked students about their least favorite part of CPR. Ten students said the greeting, ten said the games, eight said sharing, and 19 said they had no least favorite. The wide spectrum of preferences made sense; different personality types may find one aspect of CPR more enjoyable than another. In September, I noted 12 disruptions during CPR meetings. By November, there were only six.

The climate improvements went beyond CPR; student social skills carried over into class hours. Similarly, I found that my CPR management skills became my classroom management skills.

Progress in the community: goals check in
Our goal setting in the fall helped build community and respect throughout the year. At assessment junctures (record cards, mid-semester, etc.), I asked the students to check in on their goals. They filled out a form with questions about their progress. To help them identify ways to measure their progress, I asked: "How do you know that you are making progress? How do you measure improvement?" They discussed their reflections with a partner, or with me if the goal was too personal. By January, most students had met their social goals, and all were making progress on their academic goals.

Halfway through the year, all students made a new fish and chose whether to focus on new goals in the same or a different subject area, or to continue with their original goals. (Their social goals remained the same throughout the year.) At the end of year, I hosted a party to celebrate our accomplishments.

Connection, not correction
I had taught students the skills of respect and built a community of learners without relying on punitive measures! Whether or not students fully met their goals became less a factor of my success than the relationship that was created as a result of setting and nurturing the goals. The same was true of the Social Contract-it was a pledge between me and the students for the well-being of everyone. When I referred to goals with students to strengthen their learning in the moment, they could see that I remembered what was important to them.

When a student broke the rules, my first response was to give them a written "Social Contract alert." The alert stated the contract rule broken and asked questions to prompt reflection and self-correction. Often, that was the end of the rule-breaking behavior. If it did repeat, the consequence moved beyond self-correction. Detentions and referrals also decreased.

I saw evidence of the strength of our relationship in many places. Students increasingly took social and academic risks as the year progressed. Many sent me e-mails asking for personal advice. When they felt something wasn't fair, such as a bad grade or a behavior consequence, students were able to approach me and express their views instead of complaining to other students.

I could see that my classroom climate was improving, and I happily kept my idealist side alive well beyond November!

Amy Raboin taught 8th graders at Turkey Hill Middle School in Lunenburg MA.


Published September 2010