Words to Guide Actions

Creating and using social contract

For Middle Level


Jennifer Gavrin Klein, a middle school teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy (GHA) in Atlanta, GA, uses engaging, relevant activities to link student behavior to GHA's Social Contract. This fall, I had the opportunity to visit Jennifer's classroom and speak with her about how this process unfolds. What follows summarizes what I learned.

GHA students and teachers first create classroom Social Contracts and then work with the whole school community to refine these contracts into a school-wide contract. Jennifer feels her students need to construct their own understanding of what a Social Contract really is before they can be expected to abide by it fully. To guide them to such an understanding, she leads her students in a free-association word activity in which they write as many words as they can that relate to what "social" and "contract" mean to them.

During one such activity, her students came up with the following list for the word social: "our grade, Ms. Seffrin, not in cliques, friends, talking, socialize, hockey, spending time together, social life, socialize, Adam, CPR, lunchtime and recess, swimming, 6th graders, kids/teenagers, adults." Additionally, Jennifer's students produced these associations for the word contract: "paper you sign, Declaration of Independence, big document, dictionary, mortgage contract, agreement, peace treaty, bill, law, court, music contract, signature, quill pens, important people, tax bills, parcel."

Reflecting on this word-association process, Jennifer says, "Like any word-association lesson, it is hard to not feed words and ideas into the students, and [instead] let them truly come up with their own genuine thoughts. I try to assign myself the job of a scribe and nothing more during the brainstorming part of the process." When she feels students may be getting off track, she steps in and facilitates the discussion more actively, taking care to not enforce her interpretation of the words.

After the class compiles its free association lists, Jennifer facilitates a conversation about what they've gathered, leading them towards a working definition for Social Contract by pulling some of the associations from each column. Finally, she and the class work together to formulate a concluding statement:

We might say, then, using some of our own ideas, that a Social Contract is an agreement, something like a peace treaty, written on paper we all sign, that we'll use like a set of law that will help us to become independent. We—adults and kids alike—will use it to guide the time we spend together, as we socialize and talk: in our class, our grade, at lunchtime and recess, etc. It will help us all be friends, and should help assure that we try not to form cliques.

The final rules within Jennifer's school's Social Contract came to be:

  • Uphold an appropriate classroom environment
  • Be responsible
  • Show Kavod (respect in Hebrew)

Using the Contract
Jennifer seeks ways of allowing students to assess the degree to which the entire community is living according to the rules laid out in their Social Contract. One strategy is to create and distribute to students a simple survey. It asks students the following questions to assess the degree to which teachers, other students, and they themselves are living by each of the Social Contract's rules:

  • To what extent are you being responsible?
  • To what extent are your classmates being responsible?
  • To what extent are your teachers being responsible?

Direct questions like these allow her to unearth potential contract snags, thus granting Jennifer and her class the opportunity to amend any problems.

When they are completed, Jennifer collects the surveys and tabulates the results. The averages she gets for each category provide her and her students with a data-driven starting point for conversations about the status of the Social Contract.

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the highest, Jennifer's students produced the following scores with their averages:

  • students being responsible 7.14
  • classmates being responsible 6.71
  • teachers being responsible 9.64

Using the data, it appears that students saw their teachers being very responsible, while they saw themselves as being fairly responsible and their classmates slightly less responsible. With this data, Jennifer and her students were able to engage in conversations about several topics:

  • noticing responsible behaviors
  • recognizing irresponsible behaviors
  • maintaining responsible behavior
  • changing irresponsible behavior
  • reflecting on why personal behaviors are assessed more positively than classmates behaviors
  • following responsible, contract abiding teacher models!

Words guide actions
Jennifer now has several ideas about how to help students do better when it comes to following the Social Contract's rule about being responsible. If students have mentioned that they have been wasting time by not responding quickly to the signal for quiet, they (and Jennifer) may choose to remodel and practice how that procedure works. They may also develop a plan for what should happen if a student continues to be irresponsible by not responding promptly. On a positive note, if they notice that their teachers always seem to show responsibility by being ready with their lesson when the bell rings, students might brainstorm ways they themselves might improve at arriving on time and being ready to learn.

But Jennifer recognizes her class's growth in using the Social Contract is incremental. She notes: One area that I struggle with now is breaking the kids from the habit of saying "Sorry" each time they break the contract. I try to consistently remind my students that we all agreed to the Social Contract and that it is their job to uphold their end of it, like it is my job to uphold my end of it. One should use "sorry" for an accident, like stepping on someone's toe, not as a knee jerk response when asked to adhere to the contract. Instead, I encourage the students to not say anything and focus their efforts on getting themselves on the right track. I try to institute the belief that actions are stronger than words.

A note from Origins on the Social Contract

Groups of people who work together need to agree about how the members will behave so they do not get in each other's way. The best guidelines for a group are those that the group makes for itself. When individuals come together to form a social unit (advisory, class, committee, team, the whole school), they agree to renounce some individual rights for the rights obtained in the group. Sometimes such an agreement is called a Social Contract. The Social Contract is the statement of beliefs that the community agrees to abide by—beliefs that represent the core values of the group, the social climate they are trying to create as a collective in order for all of them to fulfill their goals for a task or for the year. The Social Contract expresses what the students and their teacher feel is right. Through a consensus process that leaves nobody out, they agree to abide by this Social Contract. In some cases, as a second step the school meets as whole to create one integrated, school-wide Social Contract.

Christopher Hagedorn is a Developmental Designs consultant and staff writer for Origins.

Published January 2009