We started the 06-07 school year at Browns River Middle School with the
development of a school-wide social contract. With open-minded input from our
administration, teaching staff, and student representatives from each of our
eleven teams, we combined rules and guidelines from all the teams into one set.
We had never done this before – nor had any school in the district – but with
everyone working together, and with lots of pizza and orange soda on hand, we
succeeded. We proudly displayed our social contract (group agreement and
guidelines for behavior) in the main hallway, where all the members of our
community signed it.
Once our rules were in place, it was time to try to
live by them. My teaching partner and I knew that we all had a better chance of
succeeding if we introduced routines and practices to both classes at the same
time. We did this by creating weekly All-Team Meetings (ATMs). We gathered
everyone in a double circle, one inside the other. Using a circle rather than
rows helped us achieve equity and build community.
At our very first ATM an interesting dynamic arose,
without our having planned it: my partner and I found that we had different
opinions – opposing ones, actually – and worked out a compromise publicly, with
respectful input from each other and from students. We encountered a difference
of opinion when we were establishing our team’s signal for quiet. During the
previous year, we hung “quiet chimes” from the ceiling and used them as an
auditory signal. But when my teaching partner announced at the ATM that she
didn’t like them, we decided to discontinue their use this year. Her reasons
made sense: they might disturb our neighbors; they aren’t portable; and they are
one more thing for students and teachers to be aware of.
worked out a new plan for the signal: one that included making a peace sign and
eye contact, and using “signal buddies.” Signal buddies made students
responsible for gently reminding others who might not have responded otherwise.
Core adolescent needs
Our students felt empowered and
respected as they watched us air our differences and work out a solution in a
friendly, respectful way. More than teacher modeling, this was the real thing!
Their input was helpful, too: they came up with the signal buddy idea. In these
ways, a feeling of mutual competence and interdependence was established right
from the start. Our public, collaborative process fed the core needs of young
adolescents: the needs to feel competent, autonomous, and have good
Take a Break
At our next ATM, our goals were to
establish consistent guidelines for using Take a Break (TAB) and to embed
reinforcing, reminding, and redirecting language in our use of TAB. We first
explained why we were using TAB (to help students regain their self
control after they’d lost it); when we would be using it (for small
things and for everyone); and what we expected them to do during their
break (recognize their mistake and return to the classroom activity in a
positive mind frame).
Then we shared the cues we would give students to
help them recognize the problem. For example, if a student initiated a side
conversation, either my team partner or I would begin to address that by
establishing eye contact, and, if necessary, using another simple, nonverbal
cue – a quick head shake or signal for quiet. If they persisted, we would guide
them with the following teacher language: “I notice you are having a side
conversation, Derek.” If the same behavior happened again, we would direct that
student to take a break.
I kept track of
each time side conversation was the reason the student used TAB. I discovered
that the frequency of TAB use in response to side conversation dropped after the
first two or three students went to the TAB space in my classroom. In fact, I
found I wasn’t even using the teacher language “I notice…” very often. My tally
showed a steady decline in the use for this reason. Because we used our ATM
structure to make sure we all understood each other and we implemented at the
same time and in the same way, right down to the nonverbal language used, side
conversation diminished dramatically.
Because we work so closely and
introduce many routines together, my teaching partner and I have decided to use
each other’s classroom as a Buddy TAB space. We have fewer walls than most
schools, and we can see each other’s students when they’re in Buddy TAB. My
partner is my TAB buddy and I am hers-our eyes and ears work as one, and
everyone knows it.
As we continued to use our All-Team Meeting structure
in different ways, addressing the issue of side conversation proved to be a good
test for the structure’s effectiveness.
A useful survey
ATM early in the year, we took a survey to get a feel for the team’s attitudes
about side conversation. The results of the survey helped us to identify those
who saw side talk as detrimental to the class and those who didn’t, and those
who felt they had a weakness in this area. The survey yielded refreshing
results: almost every student I had already identified as struggling with side
conversation admitted to having this problem. The survey results also reflected
universal understanding of the negative impact side conversations can have on
learning. This information was interesting and helpful. Because we knew our side
conversationalists owned their behavior and understood its potential impact, we
were able to more quickly and effectively establish a healthy, mutually
beneficial plan to work on self-control that tapped into their desire for
autonomy and fed their sense of competence.
In an ATM
later in the fall, we used the Role Play method we learned at our
Developmental Designs (DD, formerly know as Responsive Designs) summer
institute to dramatize an example of brainstorming solutions for problems. Role
plays definitely gave our ATMs a fresh, new twist! Stopping the action of the
drama as a decision approaches gave our students an opportunity to help others
who may have no idea how to resist being drawn into a side conversation. Asking
them to think of the solutions and vote on the best one was a great way of
bringing participatory democracy into our ATM.
My teaching partner and I
wrote down observational data of side-talking in our classes following this ATM.
Like the positive effect I reported above after introducing TAB during an
earlier ATM, our results indicated that, while there were specific students for
whom side conversation continued to be an issue, the class as a whole improved
weekly during the fall.
Committees report to ATMs
support building a positive school community, we organized our team into
committees that met weekly and reported their work to the whole group via our
ATM. One committee developed and managed a Students’ Concerns Box. During their
first report to the group, they indicated they were embracing the use of Role
Play as a problem-solving strategy, and would try to use Role Play in the future
whenever they received a concern that could be handled through a dramatization.
The fact that kids took the strategy and chose to implement it without teacher
direction or input was refreshing and exciting to see!
Meetings to work on social skills has helped both students and teachers to
implement our Social Contract in a unified, equitable way. Kids know what our
strategies are and that everyone is using them in the same way. The meetings
help my teaching partner and me to work closely and to stay consistent in our
student interactions. We feel we’ve reaped the benefits of using the “buddy
teacher” construct and expanding it to include many other proactive and reactive
Martha Erickson teaches 5th and 6th graders at Browns
River Middle School in Jericho VT.