All-Team Meetings Designed to Build Community and Practice Skills

Proactive & reactive strategies promote social and academic growth

For Middle Level

We started the 06-07 school year at Browns River Middle School with the development of a school-wide social contract. With open-minded input from our administration, teaching staff, and student representatives from each of our eleven teams, we combined rules and guidelines from all the teams into one set. We had never done this before - nor had any school in the district - but with everyone working together, and with lots of pizza and orange soda on hand, we succeeded. We proudly displayed our social contract (group agreement and guidelines for behavior) in the main hallway, where all the members of our community signed it.

Once our rules were in place, it was time to try to live by them. My teaching partner and I knew that we all had a better chance of succeeding if we introduced routines and practices to both classes at the same time. We did this by creating weekly All-Team Meetings (ATMs). We gathered everyone in a double circle, one inside the other. Using a circle rather than rows helped us achieve equity and build community.

Teachers compromise, too
At our very first ATM an interesting dynamic arose, without our having planned it: my partner and I found that we had different opinions - opposing ones, actually - and worked out a compromise publicly, with respectful input from each other and from students. We encountered a difference of opinion when we were establishing our team's signal for quiet. During the previous year, we hung "quiet chimes" from the ceiling and used them as an auditory signal. But when my teaching partner announced at the ATM that she didn't like them, we decided to discontinue their use this year. Her reasons made sense: they might disturb our neighbors; they aren't portable; and they are one more thing for students and teachers to be aware of.

Together we worked out a new plan for the signal: one that included making a peace sign and eye contact, and using "signal buddies." Signal buddies made students responsible for gently reminding others who might not have responded otherwise.

Core adolescent needs
Our students felt empowered and respected as they watched us air our differences and work out a solution in a friendly, respectful way. More than teacher modeling, this was the real thing! Their input was helpful, too: they came up with the signal buddy idea. In these ways, a feeling of mutual competence and interdependence was established right from the start. Our public, collaborative process fed the core needs of young adolescents: the needs to feel competent, autonomous, and have good relationships.

Take a Break
At our next ATM, our goals were to establish consistent guidelines for using Take a Break (TAB) and to embed reinforcing, reminding, and redirecting language in our use of TAB. We first explained why we were using TAB (to help students regain their self control after they'd lost it); when we would be using it (for small things and for everyone); and what we expected them to do during their break (recognize their mistake and return to the classroom activity in a positive mind frame).

Then we shared the cues we would give students to help them recognize the problem. For example, if a student initiated a side conversation, either my team partner or I would begin to address that by establishing eye contact, and, if necessary, using another simple, nonverbal cue - a quick head shake or signal for quiet. If they persisted, we would guide them with the following teacher language: "I notice you are having a side conversation, Derek." If the same behavior happened again, we would direct that student to take a break.

Side conversations
I kept track of each time side conversation was the reason the student used TAB. I discovered that the frequency of TAB use in response to side conversation dropped after the first two or three students went to the TAB space in my classroom. In fact, I found I wasn't even using the teacher language "I notice..." very often. My tally showed a steady decline in the use for this reason. Because we used our ATM structure to make sure we all understood each other and we implemented at the same time and in the same way, right down to the nonverbal language used, side conversation diminished dramatically.

Because we work so closely and introduce many routines together, my teaching partner and I have decided to use each other's classroom as a Buddy TAB space. We have fewer walls than most schools, and we can see each other's students when they're in Buddy TAB. My partner is my TAB buddy and I am hers-our eyes and ears work as one, and everyone knows it.

As we continued to use our All-Team Meeting structure in different ways, addressing the issue of side conversation proved to be a good test for the structure's effectiveness.

A useful survey
At an ATM early in the year, we took a survey to get a feel for the team's attitudes about side conversation. The results of the survey helped us to identify those who saw side talk as detrimental to the class and those who didn't, and those who felt they had a weakness in this area. The survey yielded refreshing results: almost every student I had already identified as struggling with side conversation admitted to having this problem. The survey results also reflected universal understanding of the negative impact side conversations can have on learning. This information was interesting and helpful. Because we knew our side conversationalists owned their behavior and understood its potential impact, we were able to more quickly and effectively establish a healthy, mutually beneficial plan to work on self-control that tapped into their desire for autonomy and fed their sense of competence.

Role Play
In an ATM later in the fall, we used the Role Play method we learned at our Developmental Designs (DD, formerly know as Responsive Designs) summer institute to dramatize an example of brainstorming solutions for problems. Role plays definitely gave our ATMs a fresh, new twist! Stopping the action of the drama as a decision approaches gave our students an opportunity to help others who may have no idea how to resist being drawn into a side conversation. Asking them to think of the solutions and vote on the best one was a great way of bringing participatory democracy into our ATM.

My teaching partner and I wrote down observational data of side-talking in our classes following this ATM. Like the positive effect I reported above after introducing TAB during an earlier ATM, our results indicated that, while there were specific students for whom side conversation continued to be an issue, the class as a whole improved weekly during the fall.

Committees report to ATMs
To further support building a positive school community, we organized our team into committees that met weekly and reported their work to the whole group via our ATM. One committee developed and managed a Students' Concerns Box. During their first report to the group, they indicated they were embracing the use of Role Play as a problem-solving strategy, and would try to use Role Play in the future whenever they received a concern that could be handled through a dramatization. The fact that kids took the strategy and chose to implement it without teacher direction or input was refreshing and exciting to see!

Using All-Team Meetings to work on social skills has helped both students and teachers to implement our Social Contract in a unified, equitable way. Kids know what our strategies are and that everyone is using them in the same way. The meetings help my teaching partner and me to work closely and to stay consistent in our student interactions. We feel we've reaped the benefits of using the "buddy teacher" construct and expanding it to include many other proactive and reactive strategies.

Martha Erickson teaches 5th and 6th graders at Browns River Middle School in Jericho VT.