Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Community Of Their Own Creation

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 most powerful ways to do it. 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 talking 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 you and your friends. I’m just here to remind you about your agreement. Even after nine 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. And even when they themselves are reminding their friends about rules they tend to point at them and there's a moment when everyone in the conflict takes a moment to commune with the rules they made together.

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. 

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John Blunt said...

I might have to apply this to my woodworking co-op. I am actually the dictator, since I own all the equipment, and there are always a few who do not understand how to be helpful. Trash left behind for the next person, the saw set at an invisible two degrees, etc.

Can I sent Marek, Chris, and Ignacio to your school? They are 10 to 20 times as old as your kis, but they do seem to have missed this basic learning.

Seriously, the idea of fostering a sense of communal common good by inclusion in decisions applies to everyone, even grown up children.

Leslie said...

I love this. What a great idea - and the way you continue it throughout the year. I'm thinking this might be an interesting idea to try at our after school kids center - and in my own with my 4 boys!

ako said...

So many rules Tom!

We have three 'red' rules - no running inside, sit down when eating and no hurting of self, others, or centre objects. These are non-neg rules.

We have a dozen other rules but these are all negotiable depending on circumstances and are excellent instances of learning for the children :)

PS, your implied definition of anarchy is incorrect! You should look into that - you may be surprised :)


Aunt Annie said...

You know, we try to do this in Australia too, but we have one little problem. The Politically Correct Police insist that our room rules have to use positive language. So, rule 1 is No 'no's. And the kids don't get that.

We end up with a far less meaningful list that reads something like 'use your walking feet inside' and 'use your inside voices inside'. Far too convoluted for 4-yr-olds - they actually UNDERSTAND 'no running, no shouting'. It's VERY frustrating!

Genevieve @The Way of the Peaceful Parent said...

Hi Tom,

I have a totally unrelated question, I hope it's ok to pop it in here. Have you written anything about how you deal with children who are new to your centre, who experience distress, upset, tantrums even, when their parent's leave. I realize that yours is a very unique kind of set up and I gather there's a greater involvement with the parents. Have you had this situation and if so, how have you worked with it? Do you ring the parent and they come back? Do you sit with the child and comfort them? Do you encourage parents to stay until child has become comfortable with you? None of the above? Thanks,


Sarah Jobson said...

Aunt Annie, I know we're taught to form rules with a positive action, so we can say, "walking inside" instead of "no running" but whenever I ask children how we can keep each other safe etc, they always say, "No ...". If they're rules developed by the children I think it's good practice to use the children's voices. They just love to see their own words written down, and can get quite cross if I read it back to them and I haven't got it right.

Here's some of ours from the children: no pushing, no kicking, no hitting, no squeezing, no jumping on people, use gentle hands. (I'm sure the child must have heard that last one somewhere before.)
Rules for shooting games: "x" for no shooting games, if you don't want to play shooting games that's alright, you have to ask if someone wants to play before you can start shooting them.

Anonymous said...

We are doing somewhat the same here, how do you remind kids that it was a collective agreement? yes rules posted somewhere visible, other tips? Thanks:)

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . I remind children that this is a collective agreement each time I refer to the list of rules: "You and your friends agreed we can't solve problems by hitting, so we're going to have to find another way to solve this problem."