In my classroom, we make “agreements.” I start by asking the students, on the first day of school, what kind of teacher they want. Then on day two or three, I ask them what kind of classmates they want. I follow that by a few days of “noticing things.” I notice, out loud, when things happen that match what kind of classmates we all want. The culmination of all of this is a long, long conversation about what we will do to be classmates like that. We write these agreements on sentence strips and display them in a permanent place for the year.
Then…the real work begins. We need to become community members like this. For the first week or two, I’ve held things together with my bare hands, or that’s how it feels. I’ve kept my patience in check, and directed, and redirected, and reminded, and had them “do that one more time, a better way”…without any sort of list of rules or official, spoken structure to my classroom management. Now, after agreements have been made and displayed, it is time to pass the responsibility of making decisions to the community members who agreed to all of this. It’s time to put my eyes farther ahead, on character and values, instead of peace and compliance.
So, we solve problems.
Brady: Kyle said that I’m weird.
Me: Oh, I’d be upset about that, too. Why did he do that?
Brady: Cuz he’s mean.
Me: Hmm, I wonder why he decided to do something that would make you so upset. I’m going to ask him, okay? Kyle, what happened?
Kyle: Brady said he didn’t want to sit by me.
Me: Oh. I bet that made you feel sad. (Kyle nods.) Do you want some help from your classmates? (Kyle nods again.) Class, someone told Kyle they didn’t want to sit by him, and it made him feel really bad. His feelings wanted to be mean to that person, but he wants some better ideas. He needs our help. Does anyone have any ideas for him?
(There were many ideas like: Tell Brady you don’t like it when he says that. Go sit by someone else. Ignore him and just keep listening to the teacher.)
Me: Class, I think we gave Kyle lots of ideas to try. Kyle, let us know how it goes, okay? But right now, I have a question for everyone. What do we think about wanting to sit by someone, or not wanting to sit by someone? What are we going to do in our class this year when we come to sit on the rug? Do you think we should make an agreement about telling people we don’t want them to sit by us? What do you guys think about this whole thing?
(Pivotal moment. We’ve already come to an agreement that we will be kind. Now I’m prepared to defend individual rights. I’m expecting to discuss our way to the agreement that it’s okay to choose who you sit by, but it’s not okay to say something unkind. I’m wondering how we can talk to someone whom we don’t want to sit by, and still be kind. I’m hoping for some kid wisdom. Big surprise for the teacher…individual rights is not the value that is growing fastest in our classroom community!)
Yasmine: We can’t do that!
Me: We can’t do what?
Yasmine: You can’t tell someone they can’t sit by you. It says on the door, ‘We are a school family!’ That means we are all best friends! You should take care of all of your best friends!
(A chorus of, “Yeah!” “Exactly!” “I like that!” And responsibility to our fellow community members wins the day!)
And suddenly, our agreement to be kind has a new application and deeper understanding.
But sometimes, the problems aren’t what we think they are when we start talking to the people involved.
Kyle: I didn’t mean Brady couldn’t sit by me. I’m just stuck next to this wall, and he was sitting too close. I wanted him to move a little bit, but not sit somewhere else.
Me: Oh! So when you told Brady to move, you just needed a little more space? (Kyle nods.) Kyle, I have felt like that before, like someone is just too close. It makes me feel wiggly, and kind of the same as being too hot. Is that how you felt? Class, have you felt that way before?
(The chorus of understanding is immediate.)
Me: Class, do you have any ideas for Kyle? What can he do if someone is sitting too close and he needs a little space?
Miles: He can say it different, like, ‘Can you move over a little bit? I need a little more space.’ That way Kyle knows Brady isn’t being mean.
Lola: He can come over here and sit where there is a bigger space.
Heather: He could scoot a little bit the other way. Well, I guess if he wasn’t right next to the wall he could try that.
Me: Wow, we have three good solutions for this problem. Kyle, what do you think you’ll try this time?
Brady: Wait! I’ll move over a little bit. Then Kyle has enough room.
Me: Thanks, Brady. That was kind; making sure Kyle has enough room to feel comfortable.
And just like that, we’re back to a very simple problem solving. But it’s worth the whole conversation, because we’ve strengthened the value of kindness in our classroom community. And maybe, just maybe, we’ve changed ourselves and each other, just a little bit, for the better.