Growing the Good: Collaborate with Students to Develop Class Norms

How might we till the soil of our students' experience towards co-creating with them some new norms for collaborative class work?

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Pam, my colleague and co-conspirator (and our new Upper Grades Head of School) has invited me to collaborate with her 3rd grade social studies class on what may grow into authentic and innovative stem-based learning (heh heh) in our school garden.  We're dreaming dreams of turning our school garden into a happy hive of social entrepreneurship and experiments in sustainable farming -- and it should all connect perfectly with our school's budding interest in design thinking-based education, and this unfolding unit on local agriculture, right?  

To our surprise, we discovered that our students -- cheerful, willing, and energetic -- were pretty ambivalent about working in small groups.  (It was surprisingly embarrassing to note how long it took us to uncover this need.  More on that another time.)   

This being our first-ever collaboration (and my first attempt at doing anything in an elementary grade classroom), we realized that we needed to pump the brakes on churning through content to address how we might tackle the work we hoped would enliven and enlarge their spirit.  We spent the better part of a week interviewing our students in various formats, all towards uncovering their experiences of working together, both inside and outside of school.  These exercises included individual journal writing, small-group and whole-class discussion, and -- our favorite! -- a share-out of one Post-It note stories: "The best out-of-school collaboration I ever had was __________________." 

Having begun to assemble a list of what we did and didn't like about working in small groups, we took a peak at Mt. Vernon Presbyterian School's norms -- and set our students loose on brainstorming their own.  (This, of course, was a small-group exercise of its own, hiding in plain sight.  It offered all kinds of opportunities for Pam and I to watch student interactions -- but, for the most part, to enjoy their growing collaborative spirit.) 

Finally, we did a class share-out of all our potential norms, and each student voted for their favorite five.  

While they ate lunch, Pam and I evaluated their list, and -- adding our own two cents -- have narrowed the list to five: 

Have fun. 

Be curious.

Share the well. 

Everyone's vision has value.

And...: That last one remains a work in progress.  Pam and I will challenge our students tomorrow to work one more time to hammer a faithful compromise or synthesis between these three: "Don't be afraid to be wrong/Have a positive mindset/Do your best." 

We cannot wait to see what our students make of these norms -- and, perhaps, what those norms make of their teachers. 

[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or research.

It takes real courage for teachers to practice a model of liberatory design (thanks, David Clifford and others!) and seek to "Notice" and "Reflect" upon what of MY teaching practice is keeping my students from making the learning their own.


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Photo of Alysha English

Kevin Day Loving this contribution! I love that you explored multiple strategies for interviewing your students and there were several different ways for students to express what they needed. I'm really curious to hear more about your realization that students were ambivalent about small groups. Was there a specific moment that made you realize this? Did a student express something? Was there a pattern you observed? Would love to hear more about what this moment/discovery looked like..
Also, I think it's so awesome that you brought student voice in to vote for their "Top 5" (and thank you for sharing an image of what this looked like) . Lastly, AMEN to your final synthesis. It takes both courage and humility. Thank you for exercising both and for sharing your journey with our community.

Photo of Kevin Day

Hey there, friend --

Thanks for your steady gaze on this (late) post...!

Our first insights into student ambivalence towards small group work surfaced as Pam and I wandered together into our first-ever collaboration. We noticed that, beyond some predictable student restlessness and a few minor personality conflicts, there seemed to be this... deep preference among students to "do MY work." It felt as if this was their default understanding of what it meant to be a thoughtful, on-task student: To isolate, focus, and get after it - alone.
We also noticed that a new student to our school -- soft-spoken, articulate, and insightful -- seemed to flit around the margins of the room like an anxious butterfly. Did he need a safe place to land? Did he prefer being everywhere at once? During our early conversations, it became clear that he'd had some negative experiences at his former school around small-group work. He never said as much, but we wondered if he was avoiding what he figured would be another inevitable conflict.
Together, these insights -- along with our (Pam and my) desire to work together, before our students, in a way that showed we were "walking our talk" -- made it feel like it was time (in the words of EquityXDesign and David Clifford) to "take an equity pause" and just talk about it. So glad we did...!

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