It was a rainy morning in March. My 7th grade students were unpacking their backpacks and chatting with one another. After handing in homework assignments, checking their mailboxes, and hanging up their book bags, they settled to the carpeted area of the classroom for 15 minutes of journal writing. The room was silent save for the sounds of pens on paper.
At 8:45 a.m., Madeline, the student moderator for that day, went to the front of the room and wrote "Agenda" on the board. Other students stopped writing and gave her their attention. Madeline called on the students and me as we raised our hands to suggest discussion topics for the agenda. Our list included basketball, homework, lunchtime, and deadlines.
The meeting started with a lively recap of college basketball tournament action. This Durham, North Carolina, classroom is composed of avid Duke and University of North Carolina fans. Given the opportunity, the students could spend 20 minutes debating the merits of each team. However, during a previous meeting, we had negotiated a time limit for nonacademic, non-school-related discussions. Madeline, therefore, moved the meeting along after a few minutes.
Next, I reminded students of the homework that I was expecting them to have already placed in my in-box, and the meeting continued with a discussion of lunchtime. I mentioned that many students were not picking up after eating lunch in the classroom and asked students to discuss the issue. Ultimately, Madeline facilitated a logical solution: the person whose daily job is to collect garbage would be in charge of monitoring lunch trash. She would note who was creating a mess and remind the person to clean up. If a student continued to be messy, that student would not be allowed to eat in our room for a week.
The last item on the agenda—deadlines—provided a good segue into our project work, and I reminded students of the upcoming deadline for completing the final phase of their projects.
This snapshot of the morning meeting in my self-contained classroom at Duke Middle School illustrates the results of my efforts to create a democratic classroom in which students work cooperatively to accomplish common goals. I believe that classroom management is not an isolated piece of the classroom environment but rather, an integral part of every other aspect of teaching. Children are eager to be treated with respect and to have a voice in their education. With a relationship of equality and mutual respect, student behavior is more mature and positive, and conflicts, when they do arise, are easier to resolve.
Developing a Democratic Community
One of the first steps in establishing a relationship of equality and mutual respect is to create, together, a classroom constitution. First, I asked my students to identify the characteristics of good teachers and good students. Then, we brainstormed behavioral expectations, grouped them, and agreed upon a set of four principles that would guide our actions. We agreed
- To behave in an appropriate way, wherever we are
- To respect others and their property
- To work on being inclusive
- To resolve conflicts peacefully
This constitution provided the foundation for classroom management. Because every child agreed to follow these norms and because everyone participated in creating them in the first place, it has been easy to hold individuals accountable for their behavior.
The students and I also structure our time to create a democratic setting. As described in the opening vignette, we begin every day with an open-agenda class meeting. We all depend on this meeting as an opportunity to communicate openly with one another. That students help identify discussion topics, including nonacademic topics such as basketball scores, is important because it helps to foster the classroom community and draw students into the group. Students also use class meetings to stay informed about what their classmates are doing in their research and to learn from one another.
I also give students opportunities to make important, meaningful decisions about the curriculum. In doing so, students feel more ownership of their accomplishments, more in control of their education, and more responsible for their academic successes. The students and I form a partnership as we work together to determine what and how we will learn. Students are quick to recognize this as a unique opportunity, and they know that it relies on their active and mature participation.
During the first week of school, the students and I established that we would base our themes on questions and concerns they had about themselves and their world. This made our work inherently interesting, relevant, and most important, not imposed by the teacher. At the same time, we also discussed the "givens" in our curriculum—the topics we had to study no matter what. For us, the givens included the geographic regions of North Carolina, the Middle East, and Africa. In addition, we have specific math and grammar curriculums.
Because research, lessons, and activities all revolve around one theme, the curriculum is cohesive. I use separate subject areas as tools to help students further their understanding of the main theme. At the start of each unit, the students and I generate a web with the theme in the center. We then brainstorm specific concepts to explore and activities to complete. We also negotiate deadlines and expectations for student work.
My expectations for student productivity are high. When working on projects, students decide how to manage their time, and they know they must manage this time effectively. They spend much of their project time each day researching concepts associated with our current theme, often using the time to visit the school library, explore the Internet, go on field trips, conduct phone interviews, write surveys, and work with data. Sometimes project time involves everyone working on assigned activities, such as science labs.
The work that my students engage in is meaningful and relevant to them. What's more, they are empowered to create and fulfill their own learning goals. They also put ideas of democracy into practice when they share their opinions and participate in making the decisions that affect them.
This is an all-encompassing approach to classroom management. Instead of a separate discipline plan, individual accountability and appropriate behavior are integral components of our entire approach. Our classroom cannot function successfully unless all students actively and maturely participate, and my students recognize this. They often encourage one another to stay on task and remain focused. My role is to maintain high expectations for the entire class as well as for each individual. The positive classroom climate that results from this approach makes this a rewarding place to work. And perhaps more important, it prepares students to participate actively in our democracy.
Melissa Countway Guldbrandsen is a 7th grade teacher at Duke Middle School in Durham, N.C. She can be reached by phone at 919-493-2643 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.