Sunday, July 23, 2017

"I Want To Remind You . . ."

When I first started teaching my own class of 3-5 year olds, I had this idea that the children should make their own rules. I'm sure I'm not the first to have had this idea, and I had probably heard about other classrooms that had done it, but when I set about turning this important project over to the children I only had a vague idea about how it would work. Indeed, I'd not really even thought about the process, nor the consequences: I just started with the idea that it was the right thing to do.

You see, I didn't want to spend my days bossing other people around, telling them "Don't hit," or "Don't run in the hallway." I didn't want to be forever chirping, "We don't hit our friends," or "We use walking feet indoors," statements that may have the virtue of sounding gentler, but are still commands (coupled with a kind of lie because, quite clearly "we" do hit and run or there would be no need to say anything). 

You can read here for a more step-by-step description of how we do it, but we start our year in an official state of anarchy. Typically within the first few days someone has complained, "She hit me!" or "He took that from me!" That is when I say, "It sounds like you don't like that. Does anyone like to be hit?" The answer is always a universal "no," so I respond, "Well then we all agree, no hitting. I'm going to write that down so we can all remember." Then I ceremoniously tear off a long sheet of butcher paper and hang it on the wall, writing "No hitting" with a Sharpie marker that I've been carrying in my back pocket expressly for this purpose. That usually opens the flood gates and we quickly compile a list of agreements about how we are going to treat one another, one that we will be adding to throughout the year. I'm trying really hard to refer to them as "agreements," but we continue to mostly call them "rules."

The longer I've taught, the more I've come to see these agreements as one of the cornerstones of what we do together. As for me, instead of saying, "Don't hit!" I'm saying, "We all agreed, no hitting." It might sound like a difference without a distinction, but what you can't see without being there is how the children so often turn to look at that piece of butcher paper, this reminder of the sacred agreements they made with their friends. They can't read it, of course, but they know it's there, because they put in there themselves via my hand. Many stand looking at our list in a kind of reverence, which indeed it deserves, because after all, what is more sacred than the agreements free people make with one another?

Many years ago my pal Henry was a two-year-old and he often found the noise and chaos of our full, robust classroom to be a bit overwhelming, so he spent many of his days huddled up with one of his favorite adults in a corner under our loft reading books. As a three-year-old, however, he began to take a strong interest in our agreements, partaking fully in the ongoing process. He had a passion for men in uniforms and frequently pretended to be a fire fighter or soldier. One day I spied him roaming the room with his hands over his head, rapidly flexing his fingers open and closed. I asked him what he was doing and he replied "I'm the police," with his hands representing the lights atop his squad car.

I asked, "Oh, are you giving out tickets?"

He looked at me blankly for a moment, then said, "No, I'm reminding kids when they break the rules." And sure enough, that's what he was doing, sidling up to his classmates to say, "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no pushing," and "I want to remind you, we all agreed, no taking things from other people," echoing the words he had heard me use. The difference was that when I do it, they tend to then look at the butcher paper, but when Henry did it, they looked right back at him, peer-to-peer, some of them even saying, "Thank you," but all of them reacting to his reminder by changing their behavior, reminded of their agreement.

As I watched him "police" the room, moving calmly from place to place I was moved by the thought that this is how he was making order from chaos; that this is how we were making order from chaos, our sacred agreements at the core of who we are.

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