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Hopes and the Mirage of Rules

September 12, 2010

I  begin to feel uneasy for a few days as we approach day 10 of school. It’s a thirst for something that will sustain us through the joys and challenges of the year and that will be part of the glue that holds our community together.

I’m not uneasy because of anything anybody has done. Or who they are. It’s arises out of that gray area we hover in for a couple of days. It’s the space between having articulated our hopes for the year and the existence of our class guidelines.  These class rules and the logical consequences of forgetting the rules will bubble up, quite deliberately,  like a mirage in the desert.

I can see them. I can taste them. I need them. But we’re not there yet.

My job in the last few days was to guide my children to collaborate to form a draft of our rules.  Now, as a community, we need to focus on:

  1. seeing them (literally and as we begin to internalize)
  2. practicing them
  3. doing them
  4. forgetting them
  5. repeating as necessary (all year-long)

Oh yes, and then there’s the requisite day-to-day activities, introduction of content area, assessments, getting to know parents, making time for colleagues and family and friends. It’s a lot. But keeping eye on that shimmering water ahead reassured me that soon we’ll be refreshing ourselves with guidelines we’ve compiled together.

Getting to the rules is not a neat and tidy process. It requires numerous conversations in whole and small groups and individually.  In years past, conversations about rules included such observations from third graders as:

  • rules are bad
  • you feel bad
  • ya gotta do ’em

This year, they included:

  • you learn them
  • you feel proud when you do them
  • you feel bad when you forget, but you get over it and move on
  • they teach you moderation

Why such a striking change? There are undoubtedly many reasons, but it’s clear that the consistency of an approach to teaching, learning and living has contributed to a shift in thinking among these third graders.  The strong influence in this progressive, proactive view of classroom rules is the consistent approach to community and learning our school has in place, rooted firmly in the Responsive Classroom approach, the school’s mission and the commitment of the teachers to keep the social curriculum on par with the academic.

It’s evident these children themselves as decision makers in their learning, owners and operators of our classroom and human beings who have an obligation to care for others. Will they forget? Move quickly? Speak impulsively?  Of course.

That’s where responsive adults come in.  That’s where we refer back to the process of defining our rules and applying them in ways which further a child’s understanding of abstract concepts such as respect, responsibility, kindness, fairness and honesty.

When we truly value children as constructors of their own learning and listen to what they tell and show us, they begin to feel a connection and trust that lets them show both their strengths and vulnerabilities.  In revealing  hopes, children show their  individual interests and some very typical hallmark behaviors of their age.

Eight-year-olds are learning to master the “tools of their trade,” and love to dig into projects alongside a few peers.  Many of our hopes this year focus on researching topics.  Others reflect eight year olds inherent need to move and be physical often.

When we connect these hopes (and the rest) to how we will live and work, children begin to see their role as an individual impacts the community. We’ve spent time getting to know each other and are learning to care for each other.  There is empathy for, and interest in, helping each other attain these hopes. Everyone contributed an idea for a rule. Many were the same. We worked carefully to pare down the rules to a manageable number and to zoom in on what it was we wanted to say in a positive and proactive way.

We agreed on a set of rules and let them sit for a day or so to see how they feel. Soon we’ll finalize and celebrate this very challenging, but critical work which is the foundation on which the rest of the year will be constructed.

And then we’ll be refreshed to persevere into the real fun and work of the year ahead.

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