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Developing Classroom Norms

We know that establishing a culture of trust in a classroom is a prerequisite for creativity to flourish. Among one of the things my grade 8 team has done to establish a culture of trust at the beginning of the school year is to develop a set of grade 8 norms. We were inspired by a video we saw from Edutopia about a teacher in Maine who did something very similar with his students. We have developed a process that works well in working with our 100+ group of grade 8 students to create a list of ten norms that guide us through the year.

We explain norms to our students as what is "normal" in a given situation. Norms change based on the activity - what's normal in the stands of a major league hockey game is different from what's normal in a library. We explain that we want a set of norms that will serve us in whatever situations we might happen to be in.

We work with our students over the course of the first week to take them through a divergent and convergent process to guide them through the norm creation.

Day 1: Brainstorming

At our school, we teach in teams, with two teachers sharing two classes. We have one Humanities teacher and one Math/Science teacher for each of these two homerooms. We have four homerooms in grade 8, and thus, four teachers. However, we work very closely as a team, and so we like to make time during the first week of school for all the grade 8 students to meet all the grade 8 teachers. We have thus designed the brainstorming round to have students rotate through with each of the grade 8 teachers. This year, amidst COVID, we did this brainstorming outside so students could easily distance from each other and we could have the students move around.

We begin with our own homeroom, and then rotate classes through each teacher. Round 1 begins with this prompt:

Question 1: Think about your best school year. Describe how it:

  • Looked like

  • Sounded like

  • Felt like

We type the words and phrases the students suggest in a shared Google doc. We rotate the students to the next teacher, and then tackle the second question: Question 2: Think of when your learning is at its best. Describe how your learning space:

  • Looks like

  • Sounds like

  • Feels like

The students rotate to the third teacher, and respond to the third question: Question 3: Think of the relationships with the people who impact your learning in a positive way. Describe how they:

  • Look

  • Sound

  • Feel

The last question is the most open. The students rotate to the fourth teacher, answering this question: Question 4: What are your hopes and dreams for this school year? By the end of the brainstorming round, we have four classes' worth of ideas for each of these four questions. Day 2: Summarizing with Adjectives and Adverbs On Day 2, working with our own homeroom, we print a copy of all the brainstorming - enough for one copy for two students. We explain that the students will see a lot of things in common between the four classes. Their first job is to look through the brainstorming and pick out themes. Once they have the themes identified, their next task is to assign an adjective or adverb to the theme. For example, if students found "collaboration" as a common theme, they might choose the adjective "collaborative." If they found a theme of "focus," "focused" would be an appropriate adjective/adverb. One way we teach our students what an appropriate word would be is if we can say "We are ____." Some themes are harder than others to find adjectives and adverbs for, like "growth mindset." The homeroom teacher then asks the groups to share their adjectives and adverbs, compiling them in another Google Doc full of the adjectives and adverb mindsets the students brainstormed. Day 3: Live Draft to Converge One fun thing we often do in grade 8 is a live draft. If we are doing research projects in science, for example, and we want only one group to cover a topic, we do a live draft, so students don't all select the same topic. We've used this concept for our norms, asking each homeroom to narrow their list of adjectives and adverbs to 20 mindset words, with no repeats allowed. By the end of this live draft, we have 80 great words. Our teaching team then sits down, and from here, we select 20 words we'd be happy living with. We do this because we can take the time to contemplate the words, and the situations in which we would use them. Some words are often very similar, and we can discuss the nuance of each word, selecting the most generous one. Then our team created a Google form with these 20 words in checkbox voting style. Day 4: The Vote Our students get this Google form and every student gets to vote for their top 10 words. Our teaching team looks at the results, taking the top 10 words as our final set of grade 8 norms. The result is an incredibly diverse, thoughtful, and purposeful list of norms. We make a poster with the norms and display them in prominent spots in our classrooms. Here are the norms our students chose in 2020:

Here are the norms from 2019:

It's interesting to see which words are the same both years and which ones are different. How We Use Them Before beginning a task, we will ask our students, "What norms would be important for this task?" Students will suggest 2-3 norms we will keep in mind for the activity. One of my colleagues has remarked how much smoother a task runs when she remembers to ask for norms versus when she forgets. These norms replace classroom rules, because, really, who needs that? If something goes awry, we can talk about it using these norms: "Were you being inclusive just now? How might you change things up to be more inclusive?" They do wonders to establish a culture where everyone agrees about what's normal in a given situation and help each other behave in expected ways.

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