For teachers, the first weeks of school can feel like a blur, between setting the tone of your classroom and trying to remember a whole set of new names. And when it comes to setting expectations and rules, teachers are usually the ones who determine those before students set foot in the door. While such rules are hard to enforce during the best of times, they’re proving to be especially difficult this year.
Caregivers and educators alike are seeing social regression in children who have missed out on formative time with their peers – not to mention disruptions created by the pandemic – which has given way to an increase in tantrums and outbursts, including the TikTok trend of vandalizing school property.
In recent years, fifth grade teacher Jess Lifshitz has used the co-creation of vision statements with her students to set expectations and get ahead of behavior, while creating the kind of school community they want. This has meant letting go of some of her power by including students in the process of setting expectations.
“The statement itself is a statement of the type of classroom that we want to work towards every day,” says Lifshitz, who teaches at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Illinois. “We might not all contribute to that vision in the same way, but we’re heading in the same direction.”
Co-creating a class vision with her students also gave Lifshitz the opportunity to build relationships and get to know her learners in a way that’s easy to overlook at the start of the school year. ”So much of what we do is giving the kids procedures that they’ll follow and dealing with supplies,” she says. “We spend a lot of those first days talking at kids, unless we very deliberately carve out time and space to invite them into the conversation.”
Critical Thinking About Rules
Lifshitz started the process by discussing the ways behavior impacts one’s community. By focusing on the community, the onus is on the classroom as a collective, instead of individual compliance with the teacher’s demands. “One is really asking a child to fall in line, to follow my rules [and] to give up who you are because I said this is the way you should be, versus ‘I need you to make a shift or your community needs you to make a shift so we can all figure out how to coexist together so we can be successful.’”
There is a fear that given the agency to set classroom guidelines, students won’t take them seriously, like demanding everyday to be ice cream day or asking to install a classroom water slide. However, according to Lifshitz, students come up with thoughtful ways to coexist in the classroom alongside their classmates with the right scaffolding.
It took a while for her class vision activity to evolve into what it is today. When she first started doing the activity, she didn’t do a lot leading up to it. “On the first day, I just asked the kids what did they want from their classmates and what did they want from their teacher?” says Lifshitz. She was surprised to see that her students’ voices still seemed missing from the final product. “I often still ended up with that same list of rules that I would have written on my own,” she says. “It wasn’t doing what I needed it to do, what I wanted it to do or what kids deserved for it to do.” Her attempt at encouraging student agency felt “hokey,” like she was just going through the motions of collaboration without actually getting to the core of what they needed from her or what they needed from each other.
To make more room for authentic collaboration, Lifshitz began to start the school year with a conversation about rules. She wanted learners to think critically about how rules work in the world outside of their school, where rules come from and why we might choose to follow them or not follow them.
She gives students prompts to think through as a class while she takes notes of the questions and comments that come up during the discussion. First, students are asked to define a rule. Next, she’ll ask students if they should follow rules. Then, she’ll ask why students need to follow rules. She says at this point, most students feel as if they can predict where the line of questioning is going, which is why some collaborative rule setting activities, like the ones she initially tried out, didn’t work.
When they deliberate on the next question, she says there’s a shift in the room: Are there other rules that treat people unfairly? In response, students bring up the Civil Rights Movement and specific moments in history where rules were used to treat groups of people unfairly. Together they talk through the distinction between injustice from unequal access and things that just seem unfair like an older sibling having a later bedtime.
Sometimes she’ll read “The Wedding Portrait” by Innosanto Nagara or “The Library Lion” by Michelle Knudsen with her class to provide more examples of when and why one should break rules. The class eventually arrives at a collective decision that rules are not the best way to express what kind of classroom they are hoping to build together.
“From there, we then shift to this idea that maybe what we need is a vision that allows us all to thrive. That shifts us to this conversation around creating a class vision statement.”
Core Questions For Visioning
Lifshitz and her students use four core questions to help them think about how their class environment enables everyone to be their full self and learn in the best way possible. The core questions are:
- What do you need from this physical space?
- What do you need from yourself?
- What do you need from the people learning around you?
- What do you need from the people teaching you?
“I didn’t want to use words like ‘classmates’ and ‘teachers,’” says Lifshiftz. “I really wanted to reinforce that idea that depending on what moment it is we are all learners and we are all teachers in different ways.”
Lifshitz uses a multimodal approach to invite kids to think through the questions and make sure she has engagement from all of her students. She starts with Jamboard so kids can individually consider and record their answers to each question.
“I have found that when we do these activities and solely rely on verbal conversation, that tends to privilege certain students.” she says, referring to students that are more extroverted. “I wanted to make sure that there was space for my more quiet students, more introverted students, [and] students who maybe verbal processing isn’t a strength of theirs.”
For students who benefit from thinking things over with peers, Lifshitz also makes room for them to work together in small groups to discuss each question. She’ll circle the classroom while taking notes and then engage the whole class in a discussion.
Using a big piece of chart paper divided into four sections and labeled with the four core questions, she writes down their themes and ideas, leaving space for students to verbally add anything they didn’t surface in their groups.
Each section forms the basis of the class vision statement, which Lifshitz types up and shares with students to review. “I show them our draft of the vision statement and allow them to leave notes on paper copies of what they think we’re missing.” When students are done with their revisions, she uploads the finalized vision to Google classroom so her entire class has access to it.
In a time where many students are transitioning back to learning in school buildings, having authentic input from her students to co-create a class vision has helped Lifshitz understand students’ needs.
“It’s really important to me that I adjust my teaching in those first few days to meet my kids where they are,” she says. “Making sure this process is collaborative and hearing from my kids what they need in this moment really allows me to do that in a way that I couldn’t if it wasn’t collaborative.”
For example, this year, Lifshitz’s learners talked about needing a calm environment more than they had in past years. Kids also expressed desires regarding the classroom that she couldn’t meet such as wanting more flexibility in the physical space.
“A lot of that had to be taken away last year as social distancing became so very important in keeping our kids healthy and alive and well” says Lifshitz. “They missed having the flexibility of working in a spot that felt comfortable to them or moving around the room when they needed to.”
Co-creating a classroom vision has also given her students the opportunity to grow in a way that a strict set of rules might not have. She says students in one of her classes used to push and shove each other as they raced into the room to pick out the seats they wanted. Lifshitz was worried they were going to hurt each other and was also concerned that certain kids were feeling left out if other students did not want to sit next to them. Her first thought was to take away the ability for students to choose their own seats. Instead, she took time with her class to revisit their vision.
“The issue [was that] our actions weren’t making everyone feel included,” says Lifshitz. As they looked through their class vision, they assessed whether they were living into their expectations. They were able to have conversations about their intention and impact: even though students were just wanting to sit next to their friends, the impact was that other students were feeling excluded. When they recognized that they were straying from their class vision, several students noticeably changed their behavior.
“It doesn’t work that way every time. There are still times where I can see that kids are being harmed and I need to step in in a more structured way. But at that moment, the kids showed me, ‘Look, we’ve got this. We can do this.’”