There have been so many professional books that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person. Each summer, I try to read two or three professional books because I am always striving to become more knowledgeable and more efficient so I can set up my students to be better learners. These books always make me feel more organized and give me a better handle on what I’m doing. However, this may sound crazy, but I read a professional book this summer that has made my classroom messy, confusing and cluttered.
Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children in School completely changed the way I view my school, my students and my classroom community. As I finished the last page, I just sat there for a good five minutes pondering what I had just read. Upon completing this book three days before students arrived in the classroom, I felt compelled to delete my “First Week Of School” folder that was full of lesson plans and activities that I had used for the past few years. With my plans in the trashcan on my laptop, I envisioned a new first week of school. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew it had to be different.
“Everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.”
As I sat there staring at a blank computer screen, I knew that the most important time spent in my classroom at the beginning of the year is establishing community norms. I have never been one to have classroom “rules” because I believe this sets students up to think about what they are NOT permitted to do. Shalaby states that schools are traditionally places where “everyone is at the ready to catch children doing the wrong thing.” I don’t want my classroom community to be a place where anybody has to anticipate getting caught.
“Classrooms must be places in which we practice freedom. They must be microcosms of the kind of authentic democracy we have yet to enact outside those walls—spaces for young people, by young people—engaging our youth to practice their power and to master the skills required by freedom.”
Instead of classroom rules, I have always employed “essential agreements” so students have a chance to think about what positive behaviors are essential to our classroom community. Within the first few days, I have always presented these five essential agreements to the students as our classroom bill of rights:
- We have the right to be physically and emotionally safe.
- We have the right to be treated with respect.
- We have the right to speak and be listened to.
- We have the right to work and learn in a positive supportive learning environment.
- We have the right to do out best.
“These are the things that your peers may not take away from you,” I always say. We would then have multiple conversations over the first weeks about what these essential agreements do and don’t look and feel like. However, it is now day 6, and I have not introduced these essential agreements because I have decided to start the conversation differently this year.
On the first day of school, I asked the students to think about the following question: Our classroom should be _________ every day. Most students responded with the words like “happy,” “clean,” and “kind.” It seems so simple. Students want a place that makes them feel welcome.
The following day, I continued the conversation by asking a question that left many students perplexed. What do human beings need in order for us to do our best? After a few minutes of partner talk, we came together to record our thinking. I was delighted at their answers for many reasons. First, every answer was student-centered and did not mention the teacher. Second, their responses exhibit a growth mindset. Persevering, learning from mistakes and being patient all demonstrate the importance of the learning process over the final results or products.
The next part of our discussion puts a spotlight on rules. What is a rule? Similar to the previous day, many students had difficulty clearly defining what a rule is. However, students provided some interesting insights into what they understand about rules. At
this point in the conversation, I asked students to ponder if we should have “rules” in our classroom. Most of them agreed that there need to be some boundaries or limits would help them monitor their behavior and make sure the classroom stayed happy and clean.
“He loved the freedom of learning just enough to hate the constraints of schooling.”
This book has forced me to reflect upon the aspects of my classroom culture that are rooted in student compliance. I have always considered our classroom as a place where students have a sense of freedom and choice in their learning. Yet, as I think about daily routines and classroom expectations, I am constantly asking myself, Is this procedure motivated by compliance and teaching students to “do school”? Or does this promote the freedom for students to learn and do their best? Often times, the answer is I don’t know.
I can honestly say that I have no idea where this conversation will lead us. These discussions have left me with more questions than answers. I guess establishing a free and just society is messy with no clear answers. Yet, what I do know is that our classroom culture is going to be much stronger because of this reflection. I know that our conversation will continue. I hope that all of us will have a better vision of freedom and democracy. I hope that my students will work together to create a learning space that is happy, clean and kind.
Shalaby has made my job much harder! I have not gotten as far with organizing materials and setting routines as I usually have done in previous years. We have not labeled our spiral notebooks yet. Our classroom library is not completely organized. We haven’t finished setting up our iPads. Of course, we will eventually get everything organized and begin with our subject area content. But, for right now, my classroom is a mess. And that’s just the way I want it.