In advance of a new school year, is your classroom environment set, with behavioral expectations and social contracts laminated and proudly displayed so that students know exactly what they need to do in order to meet your pre-set expectations? Has your ‘classroom cathedral’ already been built, ready for new inhabitants? No, mine neither. I don’t want to set up that power dynamic before I’ve even met my students. I want my students to figuratively bring their own brick to the co-construction of our shared ‘classroom cathedral’, an environment that is safe and welcoming for all students so that we’ll get the best from our time together. I know what I think I’d like that creation to look like, but I guarantee my students, based on their needs and their previous experiences, will surprise me with what we create together.
I’m delighted that Michelle Rawcliffe has written this post about her reasons for co-constructing a social contract with her students. I hope you love this as much as I do!
Sometimes, and I mean only sometimes, I roll my eyes so hard during my district’s professional development that my brain hurts. Yet there I was, listening to a new best practice for my classroom which was merely a recycled good idea from the 80’s with applied research. In this case, it was the social contract for the classroom or Full Value Contract (FVC) for those in Experiential or Outdoor Education. Like so many educational initiatives, this was yet another solid technique just called something different that traveled through time and cross pollinated from a different educational entity. Constantly translating educational terms and acronyms is exhausting! However, at the core, establishing group norms, no matter what it’s called, is a worthy practice.
My principal was new to the district and clearly trying to garner support for their leadership from our staff. I was new as well so I welcomed the experience. Five years later, I am not sure anyone in the school does any sort of social contract with their students. Getting to travel to classrooms this past school year allowed me to observe the variety of social behavior guidelines that were put in place. The range was vast from nothing to carefully crafted colorful displays of desired behavior. Many of these were rules handed down by the teacher, not norms which are generated and agreed upon by the students.
Creating an FVC or guidelines for expected classroom behavior with students, is not only a good idea to implement in your classroom, but it is a classic. My inaugural teaching years (the 90’s!) paralleled my experiential education career, complementing each other. I still use adventure games from my corporate team building days with my students. With every new teambuilding group, no matter what the age, I always began with a norm-setting process (Lockwood and Parker). Why would that be different in a school? There are so many engaging ways to implement this procedure that it should not be eliminated or reduced to hanging a poster from a previous school year.
Norm-setting, or an FVC, is relationship building. Creating an FVC, “an agreement made by all the members of a group that they will respect each other; that they will fully value all members of the group” (Project Adventure, Inc., 1995, 6) is a necessary starting point to establish essential connections with students. As educators, we collect data or review data in order to assess the needs of our students before we plan our lessons (Milne). During the norm-setting contract, facilitators give participants a voice while gathering information on what students need in order to better learn. The educator models active listening while students share what behaviors help to create an emotionally safe classroom.
Norm-setting is Social Emotional Learning (SEL). In addition to relationship building, many other CASEL competencies are strengthened including goal-setting, teamwork, problem-solving, and more (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 2020). During the process of creating an FVC, students will generate norms that fully value the individual, each other, the learning community and the experience while the students set and work towards individual and group goals (Princeton University Outdoor Action Program, 2008). This includes agreeing to honesty and willingness to openly analyze behaviors that may be hindering the achievement of the agreed upon goals. The self-awareness this requires will be challenging for younger students but is possible with patience and a growth mindset from all.
Norm-setting is trauma sensitive/informed. I’m sure we’ve all shared the widely misattributed quote, “Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle” (Quote Investigator, 2010) with our students. According to Quote Investigator, it cannot be sufficiently sourced although I’ve seen social media claim it was said by Robin Williams. Regardless, this is a great way to begin the norm-setting process through a trauma sensitive lens. I liken it to the Universal Precaution approach just like the Occupational Health and Safety Administrations (OSHA) tells me about each year during our back to school professional development. Universal Precaution, defined by OSHA Standard 1910.1030(b) in regards to bloodborne pathogens is a procedure, but really an assumption, that a person’s bodily fluids is infected with something contagious (Occupational Health and Safety Administration, 2016). This prevents infection to the person treating the victims and causing further harm. How can our students, as important members of our team, ensure that all students in the group, even those who have survived trauma, feel safe every day in our classroom? This question will guide the process. Reading the non-verbal communication of students is vital as activities to create norms may be triggering.
Norm-setting is anti-racist. Spaces I’ve been a part of that discuss race, equity and justice often reference norms from Courageous Conversations that have been summarized from a variety of sources (Singleton & Linton, 2006). These norms are a great example to share or to use as a guide when working with students. I like to invite students to translate them to language that would best fit our classroom. For example, a middle schooler might interpret “being present” as “staying on task”. In an emotionally and socially safe classroom, I would ask them to dig a bit deeper and explain that more in regards to the conversations we will have. If they find themselves tuning someone or a particular topic out, re-engage themselves and explore why that might happen. Brainstorm strategies to re-engage oneself. Others like staying curious and open-minded, honoring honesty, speaking for self and not for others, embracing discomfort, taking risks, welcoming vulnerability, accepting more questions rather than answers, advocating for oneself and being accountable can all be integrated into adolescent vernacular. My 5th graders have all seen a poster or two that describes THINK before you speak and can recite it on cue. This poster encourages them to think about if what they will share is true or thoughtful, honest, inspiring, necessary and kind. How do the students see these as helpful reminders when talking about diversity, equity, justice and inclusion? The educator can also zoom out and explore with students how some of these norms may be uncomfortable for some and safe for others. The opportunities to build upon this learning experience are endless.
Norm-setting is inclusive. One of my favorite aspects of creating an FVC is that it normalizes marginalized voices and levels power dynamics in the classroom. Allowing a space that encourages everyone to speak their truth in a supportive environment is beneficial to all, educators included.
Norm-setting is empowering. Students create ways that they will show accountability for maintaining the group norms while also allowing for mistakes. They strategize how to acknowledge and be accountable for their mistakes. Time willing, we discuss different ways to apologize and preferences for receiving apologies. Often students will refer to a poster on my wall that describes the African philosophy of Ubuntu, which very loosely translated means “I am because we are”. I pose the question, how is this philosophy empowering? How is it more than “just being kind”? This leads to rich contributions from the students and room to learn from their mistakes. They really like being able to “oops” and “ouch”. Saying “oops” is a simple way to acknowledge that one made a mistake. We can discuss if necessary or we can move on, making sure not to minimize the hurt it may have caused anyone else in the room. Saying “ouch” is a way we can call out something that didn’t sit right for us. Again, we can discuss but we also need to understand that the result we desire may not occur immediately.
Norm-setting is time-less. I prefer to create a class FVC in the beginning of the year using a variety of activities and then revisit occasionally throughout the term or before each unit. However, if an educator has already begun the school year, this can be incorporated at any time. Regardless of when this experience occurs, it is worthwhile and serves as the underlying current of peace and justice throughout your school year.
Center for Restorative Process. (2015). Center for Restorative Process. Center for Restorative Process. Retrieved July 28, 2021, from http://www.centerforrestorativeprocess.com/
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2020, 1 1). SEL: What Are the Core Competence Areas and Where are they Promoted? CASEL. Retrieved August 13, 2021, from https://casel.org/sel-framework/
Lockwood, M., & Parker, K. (2019, July 1). The Power of Team Norms. ASCD. Retrieved July 21, 2021, from https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/the-power-of-team-norms
Milne, A. (2018, August 1). R.O.P.E.S. #slowchathealth A global blog for #healthed teachers. Retrieved July 25, 2021, from https://slowchathealth.com/2018/08/01/ropes/
Milne, A. (2021, July 12). Using Data in the Health Classroom. #slowchathealth A global blog for #healthed teachers. Retrieved July 14, 2021, from https://slowchathealth.com/2021/07/12/using-data/
Occupational Health and Safety Administration. (2016, April 25). 1910.1030 – Bloodborne pathogens. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. Retrieved August 13, 2021, from https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/regulations/standardnumber/1910/1910.1030#1910.1030(b)
Phipps, M. L., & Phipps, C. A. (1993). Group Norm Setting: A Critical Skill for Effective Classroom Groups. Group Norm Setting: A Critical Skill for Effective Classroom Groups. https://www.wcupa.edu/coral/documents/norm.pdf
Princeton University Outdoor Action Program. (2008, June 22). Princeton University Outdoor Action Program Guide to the Full Value Contract. OutdoorEd.com. Retrieved September 5, 2017, from https://www.outdoored.com/documents/guide-full-value-contract
Project Adventure, Inc. (1995). Youth Leadership In Action. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company. 0-7872-0107-3
Quote Investigator. (2010, June 29). Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle. Quote Investigator. Retrieved August 13, 2021, from https://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/06/29/be-kind/#more-778
Singleton, G. E., & Linton, C. (2006). Courageous Conversations About Race: A field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. (First ed.). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.
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