Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"I Have A Rule!"

Woodland Park’s 3-5 class begins each year in an official state of anarchy. Naturally, the adults adhere to the basic principles of safety, but otherwise there are no rules other than the internalized ones the children bring from home or from their prior years of preschool.

It doesn’t take long, however, for the need to arise, usually within the first couple weeks. When that day comes we sit down at Circle Time and I say something like, “I saw people taking things from each other today. I saw people hurting each other. I saw people scaring each other. What can we do about that?”

This is a moment to rely on our second year students to exercise Woodland Park’s institutional memory and suggest that we need some rules. And they always come through.

I post a large sheet of butcher paper on the wall, ask, “What rules should we have?” then start calling on hands. After each suggestion we take a moment for discussion (e.g., “Does anyone like to get hit?” “Does anyone want to be pushed?”). Upon reaching “consensus” (i.e., no one insists that they want to get hit) I say, “Then that’s a rule,” and add it to the list.

This first session of rule making usually covers the important ground:

No hitting
No pushing
No kicking
No taking things from other people
No biting . . . etc.

The rules we make on this first day of rule-making tend to be the ones that would sound good to anyone, anywhere, throughout time, much like the original Articles of the US Constitution or The Ten Commandments.

But unlike these more formal founding documents, ours haven’t been handed down to us by the Founding Fathers or The Almighty. Our rules are of our own creation and that’s a very powerful thing. I don’t want our classroom to be mine. We don’t want it to belong to the parents either. We want the children to know that the classroom belongs to them and making their own rules is one of the important ways we do this. And lest you worry about turning over legislative powers to preschoolers, let me assure you that their own rules are far more restrictive and detailed than anything I myself would make. If anything, one of my main functions in the process is to talk them out of some of the more draconian proposals (e.g., “No breathing on someone else’s painting,” or “No pushing air.”)

Ultimately, however, the rules become a tool for learning about being a member of a democratic community. When an adult notices a rule being broken, we no longer have to be the heavy hand of the law. We can simply point to the list of rules and say, “I want to remind you that you and your friends made a rule that says no running inside.” In other words, It’s not me who is telling you what to do, it’s your friends. I’m just here to remind you. Even after seven years of doing this, I’m still delighted by how these pre-reading children will gaze at the scrawl of letters on the wall as if checking to make sure that the rule in question is indeed there.

I know that many of our families have instituted this rule-making procedure in their own homes.

Of course, like both the Constitution and the book of Exodus, we start with a fairly broad “document” detailing principles we hold in common, and then append it with a more detailed and ever-growing set of additional rules that reflect the fact that we continue to learn. That’s why rule-making at Woodland Park remains a regular and popular Circle Time activity throughout the year. In fact, rarely does a Circle Time go by without at least one child declaring, “I have a rule!”

As our list grows over the school year, our founding principles remain sound, while many of our “amendments” wind up striking us as ridiculously situational, no matter how vital they seemed when enacted. Rules like, “No kicking people with bubble gum,” and “No stepping on hangnails,” are destined to be repealed (like prohibition) by future generations. With imagination one might be able to conceive of a time when these rules made sense, in much the way one can with all of those anachronistic rules in Leviticus about sacrificing goats.

But whether universal or silly, each rule represents a step in the process of our children learning to live together in a community of their own creation. And teaching community building skills is one of the most important things we do. That's the road to happiness.


Maya Catching Butterflies said...

We talk about those rules all the time at home. "Remember what Teacher Tom says? No hitting." Very valuable rules to follow in the classroom and at home.

Teacher Tom said...

I'm pretty sure I've never said, "Don't hit," to a child, although I've probably said, "I don't want you to hit my friends," to the 2-year-olds. That said I'm sure the girls have heard their friends say, "Don't hit!" while standing up for themselves.

Anyway, I'm glad to be of service even during the summer break.

Anonymous said...

do you feel it's more important to record the rule in the children's own language, or in positive language?

Teacher Tom said...

Hey Tracy,

Our rules list tends to be a long list of "No . . .", which as you know is the way kids tend to come up with rules. (I did have a small "rebel" group of kids one year who spent a couple weeks making "Yes . . ." rules, but it only lasted a couple weeks.)

I've always just written the rules out the way the kids speak them, although I'll sometimes offer a slightly different phrasing if I feel the rule proposal isn't clear. We sometimes talk about the flip side of our rules (i.e., what we CAN do), but we've never tried re-phrasing them with positive terms. Since one of the goals is to make the children feel ownership of the classroom, I want to record their words as precisely as possible.

That said, have you or anyone your know ever tried putting a positive spin on the kids rules? I'd be curious to know how you did it and if you felt it worked.

Anonymous said...

i agree with you. we are required to state rules in positive terms and have 3-5 rules, and the admin prefers 3 more than 5. It's not easy, and i think it makes my rules less meaningful, and less powerful.

Teacher Tom said...

It's true that most of our rules could be summarized into broad categories like "No violence" or "No stealing" or "No excluding" (or to phrase them in positive terms, "Treat each other gently" or "Respect the property of others" or "Include everyone."), but I think that's not particularly meaningful to young children.

They tend to need things spelled out -- at least in preschool.

Anonymous said...

The children made some rules for sandpit play. Our sandpit has been out of bounds ALL year due to a major problem with cats, waiting for new sand and a new catproof cover etc etc. Thank goodness for our wonderful digging patch.
Obviously the first rule was
No Cats allowed (hope they can read!!)
Rule number 8- No cutting up the sandpit with a chainsaw.
Rule Number 12- No digging holes in the sandpit with your head.

Unknown said...

I went to this training called Capturing Kids Hearts where they basically say the same thing, except its more about how you want to be treated, which turns into a social contract. I don't know if my middle school kids actually grasp the concept of "social contract" but I think the way your school presents it is a great idea. I think I might try this in my classroom. Any suggestions?

Anonymous said...

I have one child, and we are a homeschool family.

How could we tweak this to work for us?

We've been running into some mis-communications here lately that have been causing some issues.

And I think having some firm rules would really help with these issues...because there aren't many rules in the house.

Anon- I laughed so hard at those sandpit rules!

Anonymous said...

Have you ever found it necessary to develop consequences for breaking the class made rules? I have been developing rules with the children in my class and at the moment it seems enough to let them know that they have broken a rule that they agreed upon with everyone. However, a colleague disagrees and believes there should be a consequence for breaking the rule.

Teacher Tom said...

In most cases, we've found that the only "consequence" we need is to remind a child of the rules (e.g., "You and your friends agreed . . ."). Sometimes a child will need to be reminded several times. If the rule breaking persists and is either endangering, frightening, or otherwise disruptive, then I, as a representative of the "executive branch" of our little government will again remind them of the rule, then say something like, "I can't let you keep playing here. You'll have to find somewhere else to play for awhile. I let them then decide when they can return. In 10 years of doing it this way, I've never had to create a consequence beyond this one.

Shimshon Stu Siegel (shimstu) said...

Hi there Tom-- thought you might enjoy this blog post inspired by your blog post


Kerri said...

Hi there! I just found you through... ummm.. somewhere! Sorry, I have 500 pages open. Just wanted to say what a great idea this is, I'll be passing it along :)