March is around the time that we revisit our classroom expectations. With spring in the air, the purpose of our learning often fades away while rays of sunshine fill our days. Read on to see how creating a working agreement creates a collaborative classroom filled with trust, understanding, and a common goal.
Our working agreement is a set of norms or expectations that as a class, we agree are qualities and behaviors that we will demonstrate. This working agreement allows us to effectively work collaboratively toward our goals.
With fourth and fifth graders, we start with the discussion of why we are at school. What is our purpose? We branch out from there. If it is our purpose to learn, how do we create an environment within our classroom to do so? After thinking about this question I asked the following:
What does learning look like?
What does it sound like?
What expectations do you believe we should have when working in groups?
I gave students their task:
You will be divided into groups. You must each come up with one working agreement norm that you believe we should have in our classroom. For each norm created, design an image to go with it. (This encourages visual learners to take part.) Each person from the group will get their turn to talk and explain their norm. Members of the group will listen first, agree or disagree, and explain their thinking. At the end of the time, groups will meet back as a whole class and share their ideas.
This was my favorite part. During the sharing out, I lead the class through an active listening strategy. They were asked to listen intently. They could not raise their hands for questions, they could not add to the comment or say, “I wrote that too!” They were only there to listen. The only response they could give was a paraphrase of what was said (“So you’re saying . . . ”). This was so HARD! Students have a hard time just listening. They are used to piping in and sharing, or adding to someone's idea. Asking them to listen to understand, and then share back what a speaker is saying, was a great addition to the lesson.
I invited groups up one at a time. As they shared, I posted their concepts on our wall. After each person shared in the first group, I modeled paraphrasing for my students. It started off to be a very difficult task. By the last group, my students were getting the hang of just listening. It was incredible!
As each person shared, I posted their expectation on our wall. After the first group's expectations went up, it turned out that many of the groups had the same ideas. I asked if anyone wanted to add to a concept. For example, I would say, “Cooperation, is there anyone who would like to add to the idea of cooperation? Maybe there is something you discussed with your group that this group did not mention?” This opened the floor for a new speaker on the same concept.
After all of the groups shared, I asked, “Does anyone want to share what they notice about our agreement expectations?” Students shared how we all put so much importance on communication and cooperation. Students also shared about how important it is to not yell out. We went into a serious discussion about focus and staying on task and if the two are the same or different. (FYI, according to my fourth and fifth graders, you can be on task, but not be focused and you can be focused, but not on task. For these reasons, we kept both in our working agreement.)
The exciting thing about the whole process was having this open discussion to begin with. It allowed for everyone in the room to have a voice. It allowed for students to set the expectations for a fun, purposeful learning environment. It allowed for me, the teacher, to be a part of the classroom and not the ruler of it.
Our next step in the process will be to whittle down, combine, and revise our agreement. We will keep no more than five to seven of our norms in place. Once we vote with a fist-to-five model (fist meaning you just can’t take it, five meaning you absolutely love it, three meaning you can deal), we will rewrite our norms and then keep them posted until the end of the year.
The best part about the whole process is, after the lesson, you start to see the working agreement carrying out its magic. Students take notice of those who are yelling out and remind them that it’s only “one voice at a time.” When asking students why are talking out of turn, I often hear, “I need to get focused.” With the classroom agreement in place and posted on the wall in our room, students are reminded of what we agreed to as a class so we can all successfully learn. It’s a beautiful thing when students take charge of their own learning.
While this lesson was a revisit from the beginning of the school year and the expectations that were already in place, creating a working agreement is a great lesson for reestablishing ways to encourage a positive learning environment. Because the working agreement is forever adapting to the change in the room, it is never a constant and can always be revised for your classroom needs.
What are ways you encourage a shared understanding of classroom expectations in your class? I’d love to hear from you!