Cultivating and Celebrating the Rules

Barton Open School Garden

In the "garden" of a middle school classroom, rules are the compost!

For Middle Level

When I was a classroom teacher, the way I approached rules was very similar to the way I garden. Let me explain!

In late winter, as the weather begins to warm, my thoughts turn to planting. I think about what I want to grow this year, and I buy the seeds. When the threat of frost wanes, I carefully till the soil and plant my seeds. I stand over my freshly planted garden and water it with as I contemplate the harvest that lies ahead. "So far, so good!" I say to myself.

Then my garden sits. Plants grow slowly. I get busy with other things. I see my garden out of the corner of my eye each day as I rush by. Sometimes, I forget to water it, causing the plants to droop and falter. I don't weed as often as I should; when I get around to it, the weeds are sometimes far more plentiful than the vegetables. Pulling them out becomes a real chore.

Although I sometimes forget daily maintenance, like weeding, I still get lots of veggies come harvest time, but they are not as beautiful as they might have been, nor as tasty.

Opportunities for cultivation
At first, my approach to classroom rules was similar. On the first day, my students and I thought about the year ahead. We shared our goals and created rules we felt would help us reach those goals. We looked at our social contract and thought to ourselves, "So far, so good!" before signing our contract and posting it on the wall. And there the rules remained, drooping and sagging off the wall, neglected, except when things went so wrong that we were forced to turn to the rules to resolve big issues. If I forgot the daily maintenance, weeds grew quickly. Sometimes I missed opportunities to cultivate and celebrate the rules—to make them truly proactive, as they are meant to be.

Growing the students
Why do many students dislike rules? One reason is because we call attention to them only when things go wrong, so they see them as negative—a big drag—and to be discussed only when the teacher is disappointed or mad. This prompted me to think about what I could do to make them a positive part of our classroom, and to lead students to live by them more proactively. I needed to cultivate and celebrate our rules on a daily—even hourly—basis, so they could begin to see them in a positive light. I needed to help my students think about what we were doing well, and how living by the rules helped us succeed. I also wanted to use our Social Contract to set goals for what we needed to do better.

Ideas for cultivating and celebrating classroom rules
DOTS "I Rock, We rock"
At the end of the class period give each student two sticky dots of different colors. Have them place one colored dot on the rule they followed well that day and the other on what they felt the class as a whole did well that day. Have a few students share specific examples.

DOTS "I need to grow; we need to grow"
At the beginning of the class period (or before a work time), give each student two sticky dots. Have them place one dot on the rule they will concentrate on that day and one dot on what they feel the class needs to concentrate on that day. At the end of the period check in and have a few students share about what they noticed.

Create a box, into which students can anonymously slip written examples of others' behavior whenever they see someone "living the rules." Naming students observed is optional. Place the box near the social contract. From time to time, pull out a slip and share it with the class and celebrate!

Use the acknowledgment activity Touch Someone Who, but tailor the categories to your class rules/Social Contract. For example, "Touch someone who showed respect during CPR," "Touch someone who showed responsibility by having their homework done," or "Touch someone who treated others fairly," etc.

At the beginning of the week or class period, students randomly draw a partner. Tell them to watch their "secret friend" that day or week, noting examples of how they see their friend living the rules. At the end of the day or week students acknowledge their secret friends by sharing what they noticed and how it connects to the class Social Contract.

Students pair up and share one rule they are going to work on during class. Partners brainstorm things they need to do to live out that rule. Tell them to watch one another and plan to quickly check in with each other at the end of the period. What did they notice? What were some examples of their partner living the rule?

At the end of the class period, do quick self-assessments of how well the rules are being honored. Read each rule and have your students think about it before they give themselves a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. You could do this privately (behind a notebook) or for all to see.

Each student receives a Post-it note and writes a quick note to him/herself, naming a rule they are going to live by that period. At the end of the period, they assess themselves and note an example (or evidence), writing both on their Post-it. This note becomes their "ticket out the door." Collect all tickets.

Create a target symbol on paper. Choose a rule for the class to work on (or one gleaned from one of the above activities). Talk about what the rule means and what it looks like to live it. At the end of the period give each student a dot and have them place the dot on the target showing where they felt they were that day. Were they on target or did they miss the mark?

At the start of a class period, invite students to read the rules. Have them select the rule they believe will be the most difficult to follow during that period. Then invite them to predict how much effort it will take to successfully live by it. On a scale of 1 to 5 (5 representing the most effort), students may write their predictions in their academic planner. At the end of the period, students look at their predictions and assess how much effort was actually required to follow the rule selected.

Name it! If your students are doing something well, don't forget to say so. Be specific: let them know what you are seeing, how it reinforces the rules, and the impact the positive behavior is having on your classroom and learning. This can be done spontaneously in the flow of learning, or at specific times such as at the start or close of class. I'm seeing a lot of peer-to-peer support during our work today. People are helping each other with ideas and encouraging each other.

Have a party! If your students have been living the rules, why not have a party to celebrate? However, don't dangle the carrot ("If you behave according to the rules for the next two weeks, we'll have a pizza party."); this is a recipe for resentment. Students don't want to be manipulated, but they love surprises and celebrations.

Reap what you sow
I wish I'd known about all these strategies (and the importance of making positive connections to the rules on a daily basis) earlier in my teaching career. After years of teaching students and adults, and observing classrooms in which students feel the rules are only brought up when they're broken, I have become convinced that you'll have a more bountiful harvest—a more successful school year—if you do daily rules maintenance. The key is getting into the habit of making proactive, positive connections to your social contract. Teach students to see the rules positively, as desirable, as guideposts; to "live the rules" and reap the benefits of knowing that good rules help everyone learn and grow. Happy cultivating!

Tracy Lysne taught math to middle schoolers in Hudson WI and Minneapolis MN. She is a Developmental Designs facilitator.

Published September 2008