Gavrin Klein, a middle school teacher at the Greenfield Hebrew Academy (GHA) in
Atlanta, GA, uses engaging, relevant activities to link student behavior to
GHA’s Social Contract. This fall, I had the opportunity to visit Jennifer’s
classroom and speak with her about how this process unfolds. What follows
summarizes what I learned.

GHA students and
teachers first create classroom Social Contracts and then work with the whole
school community to refine these contracts into a school-wide contract. Jennifer
feels her students need to construct their own understanding of what a Social
Contract really is before they can be expected to abide by it fully. To guide
them to such an understanding, she leads her students in a free-association word
activity in which they write as many words as they can that relate to what
“social” and “contract” mean to them.

During one such activity, her
students came up with the following list for the word social: “our grade, Ms.
Seffrin, not in cliques, friends, talking, socialize, hockey, spending time
together, social life, socialize, Adam, CPR, lunchtime and recess, swimming, 6th
graders, kids/teenagers, adults.” Additionally, Jennifer’s students produced
these associations for the word contract: “paper you sign, Declaration of
Independence, big document, dictionary, mortgage contract, agreement, peace
treaty, bill, law, court, music contract, signature, quill pens, important
people, tax bills, parcel.”

Reflecting on this word-association process,
Jennifer says, “Like any word-association lesson, it is hard to not feed words
and ideas into the students, and [instead] let them truly come up with their own
genuine thoughts. I try to assign myself the job of a scribe and nothing more
during the brainstorming part of the process.” When she feels students may be
getting off track, she steps in and facilitates the discussion more actively,
taking care to not enforce her interpretation of the words.

After the
class compiles its free association lists, Jennifer facilitates a conversation
about what they’ve gathered, leading them towards a working definition for
Social Contract by pulling some of the associations from each column. Finally,
she and the class work together to formulate a concluding

We might say, then, using some of our own ideas, that a
Social Contract is an agreement, something like a peace treaty,
written on paper
we all sign, that we’ll use like a set of law
that will help us to become independent. We—adults and kids
alike—will use it to guide the time we spend together, as we socialize
and talk
: in our class, our grade, at lunchtime and recess, etc. It
will help us all be friends, and should help assure that we try not to
form cliques

The final rules within Jennifer’s school’s Social
Contract came to be:

  • Uphold an appropriate classroom environment
  • Be responsible
  • Show Kavod (respect in Hebrew)

Using the

Jennifer seeks ways of allowing students to assess the degree to
which the entire community is living according to the rules laid out in their
Social Contract. One strategy is to create and distribute to students a simple
survey. It asks students the following questions to assess the degree to which
teachers, other students, and they themselves are living by each of the Social
Contract’s rules:

  • To what extent are you being responsible?
  • To what extent are your classmates being responsible?
  • To what extent are your teachers being responsible?

questions like these allow her to unearth potential contract snags, thus
granting Jennifer and her class the opportunity to amend any

When they are completed, Jennifer collects the surveys and
tabulates the results. The averages she gets for each category provide her and
her students with a data-driven starting point for conversations about the
status of the Social Contract.

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the
highest, Jennifer’s students produced the following scores with their averages:

  • students being responsible 7.14
  • classmates being responsible 6.71
  • teachers being responsible 9.64

Using the data, it appears that
students saw their teachers being very responsible, while they saw themselves as
being fairly responsible and their classmates slightly less responsible. With
this data, Jennifer and her students were able to engage in conversations about
several topics:

  • noticing responsible behaviors
  • recognizing irresponsible behaviors
  • maintaining responsible behavior
  • changing irresponsible behavior
  • reflecting on why personal behaviors are assessed more positively than
    classmates behaviors
  • following responsible, contract abiding teacher

Words guide actions
Jennifer now has several
ideas about how to help students do better when it comes to following the Social
Contract’s rule about being responsible. If students have mentioned that they
have been wasting time by not responding quickly to the signal for quiet, they
(and Jennifer) may choose to remodel and practice how that procedure works. They
may also develop a plan for what should happen if a student continues to be
irresponsible by not responding promptly. On a positive note, if they notice
that their teachers always seem to show responsibility by being ready with their
lesson when the bell rings, students might brainstorm ways they themselves might
improve at arriving on time and being ready to learn.

But Jennifer
recognizes her class’s growth in using the Social Contract is incremental. She
notes: One area that I struggle with now is breaking the kids from the habit
of saying “Sorry” each time they break the contract. I try to consistently
remind my students that we all agreed to the Social Contract and that it is
their job to uphold their end of it, like it is my job to uphold my end of it.
One should use “sorry” for an accident, like stepping on someone’s toe, not as a
knee jerk response when asked to adhere to the contract. Instead, I encourage
the students to not say anything and focus their efforts on getting themselves
on the right track. I try to institute the belief that actions are stronger than

A note from Origins on the Social Contract

Groups of people who
work together need to agree about how the members will behave so they do not get
in each other’s way. The best guidelines for a group are those that the group
makes for itself. When individuals come together to form a social unit
(advisory, class, committee, team, the whole school), they agree to renounce
some individual rights for the rights obtained in the group. Sometimes such an
agreement is called a Social Contract. The Social Contract is the statement of
beliefs that the community agrees to abide by—beliefs that represent the core
values of the group, the social climate they are trying to create as a
collective in order for all of them to fulfill their goals for a task or for the
year. The Social Contract expresses what the students and their teacher feel is
right. Through a consensus process that leaves nobody out, they agree to abide
by this Social Contract. In some cases, as a second step the school meets as
whole to create one integrated, school-wide Social Contract.

Christopher Hagedorn is a Developmental Designs
consultant and staff writer for Origins.

Published January 2009