Instead of starting with expectations for how students should behave, what if a school began the process of community-building by asking how students wanted to feel at school every day? This is precisely what Changemaker School Prospect Sierra set out to do by creating charters in its classrooms: living documents democratically designed by students that articulate behavior expectations. Instituted as part of the RULER approach to social and emotional learning, the charter design process began in the classrooms with the students considering how they wanted to feel at school every day.
Already equipped with a rich vocabulary of feelings and emotions from Prospect Sierra's extensive social and emotional learning curriculum, students in one fourth grade classroom broke into small groups to brainstorm and agree on a few words that described how they wanted to feel in the classroom and elsewhere at school. All the groups' words were then listed on the board, and the students discussed each of them, deciding which ones best described the feelings they wanted to have. During this stage, students demonstrated leadership by using their voices and advocating for the words that they strongly believed in.
According to fourth grade teachers Kelly Smith and Lucia Blakeslee, "One student, who tends to not be very participatory, felt very strongly and really defended including the word 'peaceful' in the charter. As it turns out, the class decided on a different word, but the process empowered him to talk about something that he really cares about in the classroom." Individually the students then voted, and the class ended up with the five words that received the most votes. In the end, "respected, comfortable, engaged, safe, and confident" were agreed upon by the whole class.
After deciding on the five words for the charter, the second step was for the students in the class to decide on what those words looked like in everyday practice. According to Smith and Blakeslee, this was a bit more challenging for the students. For example, students wanted to say that "respect" is realized when everyone is nice to one another. Yet what does being nice really mean? Practicing empathy and stepping into another person's shoes, the students realized that being nice might look different to different people. To overcome this challenge, the students themselves identified specific, measurable behaviors that they would hold themselves accountable for to uphold the charter. These very specific behaviors—like not interrupting each other, sitting up, and making eye contact—were visible ways to show respect. Defining the specific behaviors for each of the five words made the charter real and tangible for the students.
As a third and final step, the students talked about what would happen when the charter was broken. They understood that the charter would not be followed 100 percent of the time and that mistakes were going to happen. In response, they came up with ideas such as "kindly reminders" and guidelines for "authentic apologies" to help their peers and teachers get back on track. Now when a student or staff member feels disrespected, uncomfortable, unsafe, unengaged, or unconfident, they can refer back to the charter and use it as a tool to work with the class to remedy the situation.
Do: Create a charter with your kids or students.
In three 45-minute class periods spread out over three days, this Prospect Sierra class was able to create their charter, which has already proven to be an extremely valuable tool in their own school context. By following the three steps above, your students can also create a charter for your class. Alternatively, try creating a charter for your family by asking your children how they want to feel when they are at home or participating in family activities. If they want to feel loved every day, what would that mean and look like?
Before you try to create a charter, the Prospect Sierra staff has a number of suggestions. The principals of the elementary and middle schools at Prospect Sierra, Sheila Puckett and Heather Rogers, emphasize that students must decide together on what words in the charter mean. They add that although creating a charter requires time, discussion, and reflection, the buy-in it creates from students and staff makes it invaluable. Smith and Blakeslee echo the importance of creating this buy-in from the teacher perspective. They maintain that by involving the students in deciding how they want to feel in the classroom, they help the students understand the importance of the expectations set forth in the charter as well as help students feel ownership for them. As one fourth-grader remarked, "We can't really disagree with (the charter) because we made it up.”
You can see the process of creating a charter in the video above. To download an example of Prospect Sierra's 4th grade charter, click here. If you decide to create a charter with your students, let us know in the comments.
A version of this post originally appeared at Start Empathy.