I began thinking about rules a few weeks ago while I was watching the film Matilda (based on the Roald Dahl book).
Miss Trunchbull is famous for saying, “If you are having fun, you are not learning.” Her class rules look very similar to the picture on the left. I asked my students about these rules. Unanimously, they claimed to dislike the rules. There are too many. They all start with “No”. They are not fair. This is the feedback I received from my students on these rules.
Then again rules came up in The Giver by Lois Lowry, where Jonas receives a list of rules for his new job.
1.) Go immediately at the end of school hours each day to the Annex entrance behind the House of the Old and present yourself to the attendant.
2.) Go immediately to your dwelling at the conclusion of Training Hours each day.
3.) From this moment you are exempt to the rules governing rudeness. You may ask any question of any citizen and you will receive answers.
4.) Do not discuss your training with any members of the community, including parents and Elders.
5.) From this moment you are prohibited from dream-telling.
6.) Except for illness and injury unrelated to your training, do not apply for medication.
7.) You are not permitted to apply for release.
8.) You may lie.
These rules prompted a lot of discussion because Jonas lives in a world full of rules and some of these rules seem to contradict the rules he normally has to live by. Lying, for example, is forbidden. Rudeness requires an apology. Dream-telling is a normal part of every day. Medication is a right, as is applying for release. Can rules be different for different people who live together in the same society? Or, in our case, in the same classroom? What happens when people are following different rules?
And now I’m in taking the Breaking Rules webinar with Professor John Fanselow. I have been reflecting on the rules I subconsciously follow in my own classes …
Lately I have let my students make the rules for the class. I did this because I learned that it would make them more amenable to following rules and accepting consequences. In theory, they would even remind each other of the rules and enforce them themselves and I could keep my hands nice and sparkly clean.
Clearly I was expecting magic. What actually happened brought me back to reality. First of all, they made lists as long as the one in the picture and every rule started with “No”. No running. No Korean speaking. No eating. No drinking. No chewing gum. No sleeping. No fighting. No arguing. No cheating. Don’t be rude. The list went on and on. What could I do?
I started by recasting the rules in a positive light – “No running” became “Walk” and “No Korean speaking” because “Speak English”. Some of the rules were way less clear that way, though. “Do your own work” had to be explained, and “Agree with everyone” was impossible. “Don’t be rude” got changed to the equally vague “Be respectful”.
Then I asked them to justify the rules. If they couldn’t, we threw it out. What we ended up with was a list of rules that everyone agreed on and mostly understood. We never did have time to talk about consequences.
The students did not police each other. Since consequences were not clear, even to me, students did not always find them fair. One day I tried asking a student what his consequence should be. He became so frustrated that he yelled at me “Just tell me.” He didn’t want choice. This was my wake-up call.
New classes start again soon, and I am going to break my rule of learner autonomy in rule-making. I’m going to make the rules for them. I’m going to make specific rules and clear consequences. I will make only one concession: they can make changes if they can successfully explain the reasons for their changes.
Here is the list I have so far. What would you change? What would you add?
1. Speak English in class. However, seeking clarification and planning projects need not be done entirely in English.
2. Keep the classroom clean. Please clear off your desk and put all garbage in the bin before you leave the classroom. Push in your chair and clean around your desk.
3. Complete all homework on time in the manner requested (electronically, on paper, etc).
4. Attend all scheduled classes. If you cannot attend a class, please let me know by email or text message before the class begins.
Update (January 7, 2013): Today is the first day of an elementary school English camp (252 hours of English in three weeks – that’ll larn ’em).
Making the rules did not turn out quite the way I had planned (nothing ever does), but here’s what we ended up with:
This class is very low level and ranging in age from 8 to 11. We started with the school’s pre-made rules poster. Then I asked them, one by one, whether they wanted to follow each rule. One of the girls was pretty insistent on “be quiet” but was literally shouted down by the “be noisy” camp (with whom I tend to agree anyway). That’s the rule I’m most uncomfortable with, to tell the truth. I can’t imagine enforcing it. By the end of the class, we had to add “Don’t try to kill your classmates” but otherwise, the rest of the rules held. I suspect by the end of the week there will be new rules about throwing things and staying up all night.