- Classroom Rules Are Meant to Be Broken
It’s long past time we stop with the incessant rules in the classroom.
The day before my first day of teaching a veteran teacher reminded me to have my rules set and ready to go. “You can always loosen up, but you can never tighten up,” she said, wagging her finger.
While I do, mostly, agree with the idea of being a bit of a hardass at the start of the term, I do not subscribe to the adage that “You shouldn’t smile until October.” This old-school idea of being tough as nails or whatever other clichés, never really worked in my classroom. I do have a reputation for not putting up with the bullshit that teenagers try to pull, most of my students know, I’m really a softy.
Knowing I’m a softy means that having a 50-page syllabus with a million rules doesn’t serve anyone. Not to mention, it’s a waste of paper.
I’m not saying I don’t have very specific expectations, because I absolutely do. What I don’t have is one of those posters with a long list of rules like, “Raise your hand to speak,” or “Keep your hands, feet, and objects to yourself.”
Maybe I’m naïve, but by the time my students reach me in high school, those rules should be internalized. Instead of spending the first day going over a lengthy syllabus, students establish their own set of norms.
Before I go on, let me clarify one thing: rules and norms are different. I don’t have rules, but I do have policies. For instance, I have a no grooming policy and a no tuna fish with onions sub policy in my classroom. There is a clear procedure for using the hall pass and turning in late work. What I’m talking about here is establishing norms to build a nurturing classroom environment and community.
Since I teach English, the focus of those norms are based on how students want to see their classroom run with regard to reading, writing, and discussions. What do they expect of their peers and me when we are having heated conversations about controversial texts?
Having the students establish norms on day one is a great way to show them that they are accountable for their learning.
First, I ask that students write down the answers to some questions their reading and writing history. Students who aren’t reading or writing at grade level often have negative reading and writing histories. Students tap into memories that have been both positive and negative and write them out.
After they’ve reflected on the past, they share with their peers and then eventually out to the class. It’s your classic “Think, Pair, Share” structure.
As a class, we make a list of what supports their reading and writing and what are barriers to their learning. From there, students silently make a list of norms. They share those norms with their groups, then as a class, we whittle these norms down.
The discussion is lively. Students share lovely stories about positive reading and writing experiences, but there are horror show stories, too. The conversation helps guide the students to make norms like, “Don’t dominate the discussion” or “Come to class prepared.”
The last thing we do on the first day is have students set small group norms. I like to create new groups every 2-3 weeks. I don’t know why, but I really love writing seating charts. It helps the students get to know each other and forces them to collaborate with different students throughout the semester. The students choose roles like taking attendance, making sure cell phones are parked, and collecting and passing back graded work. My goal with these roles and norms is to make sure that the classroom can run itself. It takes about two weeks, but with consistency, I’m able to get a smoothly run ship.
I use giant Post-Its to create norm posters for each class and have them up by the next day. When I remember, I ask a student who loves to draw or who has nice penmanship to write it up.
Like activity idea but don’t have time to get the materials ready? No problem. Here’s everything you need to stop making classroom rules and start building classroom community. NOTE: There’s even an option to use it in a virtual classroom.
I’ve been using this strategy for about 7 years, and I love it. I don’t have to worry about putting up lame, elementary school-style posters up with rules like, “Raise your hand” and “Stay seated.” This activity starts the semester with the expectation that students are adults. The result: they mostly act more like adults.
Does this put an end to all classroom management issues?
Of course not. What it does, however, is allow the students to hold each other accountable for their learning. When group members don’t come prepared, they remind each other of the contracts they’ve made. When students dominate during the discussion, I point them to the norms they established.
In the end, those rules about raising hands and staying seated get broken, but the students own their learning because it’s their classroom, and I’m mostly there to facilitate their learning.
Did you know I have a newsletter? It comes into your inbox once a week. Sign up here!
- 5 Things Teachers Can Do in the Last Stretch of Summer
Fall is coming. What can you do to stay refreshed and ready?
I know you don’t want to hear this, teacher friends, but summer is almost over. Have you noticed the fun donut-shaped floaties have been replaced with school supplies at Target?
I’m not saying it’s time to abandon the pool or put down your beach read, but here are some things I like to do as the school year starts to wind up and get going.
1. Create a cursory pacing guide for each prep.
If you’re new to your school or maybe you’re teaching a different course from the past it’s time to reach out to your PLC and get some answers to important questions. What are the anchor texts for each unit? What skills are you going to be teaching in each unit? And in what ways are you given the freedom to do what you want in your classroom? Knowing the answers to these questions, regardless of whether you’ve been teaching a class for twenty years or if this is your first year, will help you create that pacing guide.
Want something more detailed that you can give to your students? Here’s a link to my free daily agenda.
2. Make a list of what you need for your classroom.
I’m not talking about things you’re going to need in December, friends. I’m talking about what you’ll need to survive that first week or two. A few years ago, I started teaching in a school district that required that all English students follow Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle’s Writer’s Notebook strategy from 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents. This meant teachers used part of their supply stipend to purchase over 150 composition notebooks. Having a list of the other materials I would need like notecards for my “ Reflect and Share” Activity was also necessary, not to mention wanting to update my classroom library and so on. Having a list helps me stay on track and not get overwhelmed during that opening week when you’re scrambling to get your classroom together and attending required PD, while also watching all those safety videos and setting up the digital end of your classroom. Are we stressed yet?
3. Read two books: one for pleasure and one for teaching
I love reading for pleasure and summer is the best time of year to knock out reading those books that everyone is talking about during the school year when I’m grading papers and not getting enough sleep. It’s also a great time to read that new novel you’ve been itching to teach or some PD. Because I’m an English teacher, I usually read at least one or two novels I’m going to make a unit for and one book for PD.
4. Order a few new lewks for work
Maybe it’s the forever-student in me but getting school clothes was always a highlight of summer coming to an end when I was a student. That excitement never went away when I became a teacher. When the school year starts, it’s similar to the way January does with new year’s resolutions. I optimistically think about how “this is the year…” I’ll wear cute shoes to work and maybe consistently wear lipstick (the lipstick was definitely a pre-COVID goal). Since you definitely won’t have time to run out and thoughtfully pick out some new outfits to start the school year and set the tone (anyone else wear heels the first week to establish you’re a badass bitch then revert to your ballet flats in week two after the students are scared of you?), get them now as the new fall trends are being put out in stores.
5. Make a list of your professional goals for the year
I write my goals every day. Does it do anything? I don’t know, but I like that it keeps my goals at the forefront of my mind. While you don’t need to do this daily, consider writing your professional goals while you’re still refreshed from those watermelon gin-fizzes. Don’t wait until the end of the day the Friday before school starts, you’re worn down from PD, tired af, and feeling like if Mary doesn’t stop hogging the copier with her 25-page syllabus you’re going to burn the place down. Do it now, while you’re still optimistic and can be objective. Feeling fancy? Make a wallpaper for your work computer on Canva so you can see your goals all the time.
What are some ways you like to start getting ready for the school year?
Did you know I have a newsletter? It comes into your inbox once a week. Sign up here!
- Yet Another Blog
I started a blog. Here’s what you can expect.
July 9, 2021
Here we are. I’ve decided to start a blog.
It’s almost a year to the day that I submitted my resignation from teaching, and while I have no intentions of returning to the traditional in-person high school English classroom, teaching is definitely a passion of mine. I loved teaching high school English, even when I didn’t. While I won’t rehash the reasons why I left, (you can read more about that here) I will say that being able to teach and help teachers be more effective in their classrooms is really important to me.
So, what are you going to find here?
You’ll definitely find some teaching strategies and lesson ideas for the high school and college English classroom. I spent 13 years teaching and continue to stay abreast of what works and doesn’t in the classroom. I am always reading pedagogical texts (yes, I’m that much of a nerd), and I’m also an avid reader and like every English teacher, especially the really passionate ones, I can’t read a book without coming up with projects, essay prompts, and in-class activities to pair with whatever I’m reading. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
So, just teaching? No thanks.
While being an educator is a major component of my identity (maybe too much, but that’s a topic for another day), I also love books, movies, food, and cocktails. I love to play in the kitchen and while this will not become one of those obnoxious food blogs where I detail an adventure on the Italian countryside that inspired a Wednesday night dinner, I might, on occasion, post a food essay. I might also tell you about the books, TV, and film I’m consuming because I love talking about all those things, and well, a blog is a perfect place to just let loose.
I have a few food and cocktail experiments up my sleeve and when the kid goes back to school in the fall, I’ll have fewer distractions and time to go all Julie and Julia.
Finally, I’ll probably write about writing because that’s the most M.F.A. nonsense, and well, grad school traumatized me and now I can’t stop writing craft essays. It is what it is.
I hope you stick around, maybe sign up for my newsletter and try a new recipe or two or ten with me.