Creating a Classroom Bill of Rights
Children should not come into a classroom in September and simply be told what the rules of the house are. Without having been a part of the rule making, they will not be as likely to respect the rules. Instead, the teacher should work with her class to establish a classroom Bill of Rights.
The strongest reason for having children brainstorm classroom guidelines together in the beginning of the year is control. When students walk into a classroom and are told what rules to follow, an element of control is lost. Nobody, children or adults, enjoys being controlled. We all want to have a say. Many teachers feel the need to be in control, and for many giving up that control is hard to contemplate. I think, however, that it is an important concession to make. I have learned that children are not wily beings predisposed to anarchy if someone isn't there every second to manage their daily routines. In fact, I believe just the opposite to be true. I think that, when given authority over their own lives, children can be trusted to make and follow through with great decisions - especially when this authority is coupled with loving guidance, help in planning activities and exercises that model good decision-making skills.
Related to all of this is establishing a classroom Bill of Rights. In the first week of school I gather the children before me and put them to the task. I tell them that I am going to put them in small groups. In their small groups I expect them to come up with as many rights that they think they should have in the classroom throughout the year. Once put into their groups I give them time to talk with each other about their ideas. One person in each group is directed to write down the group's ideas on paper.
We return a short time later to the carpet and I chart each group's responses, having a healthy discussion about their ideas along the way. The list generated typically contains about twenty important ideas, some of them similar. I next ask the whole group how we can narrow it down by deciding which ideas are similar. Some children will notice that "not to be hit" and "not to be kicked" can be grouped together and later turned into a classroom right relating to student safety. Some other children may notice that "have fun" or "play games" are related, and items like these can be later grouped into a classroom right related to socialization. For general classroom rights under which many of the student ideas can be grouped refer to my previous article on student rights.
Once we have all the items or most of the items on the list grouped (typically they can all be broken down into four or five groups) I will suggest a general student right that encapsulates each group. I discuss each general right with the class and how it relates to all of their suggestions.
For the last part of this activity I get one of our talented printers to draw up a poster that highlights the student bill of rights in various color inks and I post it on the wall for the year. When children behave in a manner that violates a student right I immediately refer to the chart. Since the student helped make the chart, I don't have to explain that it's my rule he is breaking. Instead, I remind him that it's his rule he's breaking, and highlight how his behavior is affecting the classroom community.
A classroom Bill of Rights is a great way to put accountability on the students. In having been a part of establishing the standards for behavior themselves, they are more apt to take these guidelines seriously.