An engaging discipline plan that students can relate to? This concept seemed to be an elusive oasis to me my first two years of elementary music teaching. When I first started with the elementary age group, I honestly thought that my saying, ‘These are the rules, follow them‘, would have lasting effects in my classroom. Predictably, as each school year went on, the students pushed the boundaries, learned my weaknesses, and my saying ‘these are the rules‘ meant nothing to them anymore. I felt frustrated, worn-out, and lacked the excitement that young students need to thrive in a specialist classroom.
Going into my third year of teaching, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Among other things, this book opened my eyes to how young students perceive rules. I was a dictator in my classroom! I preached night and day about how I wanted more collaborative learning in music and how I couldn’t understand why the students were holding back. I didn’t realize that the problem wasn’t in my presentation of the material, but in the rules of the room!
Last year was truly a turning point for me as a teacher. From Day 1 I utilized Responsive Classroom techniques, created rules that students could relate to, and took into account what students thought were fair consequences. By collaborating with my students to make a set of rules and expectations, my classroom grew into a much more enjoyable learning environment and we accomplished more than any previous year… and I didn’t lose my voice as often!
An activity I do with all of my classes at the beginning of the year is called “I Hope Music Will Be…”. Students are encouraged to brainstorm, either on paper or aloud, a list of things that they hope to see in the music classroom. A lot of times I get responses that talk about how much fun that students are expecting to have, but rarely do students venture (on their own) to keywords like ‘safe’ and ‘positive’. After talking about what we think would be good ideas to keep the classroom safe and in control, we usually come up with a list that looks like this:
1. Be gentle with the classroom instruments.
2. Only talk when you are supposed to.
3. Stay in your circle spot or personal space without touching other people.
4. Make sure that everyone has a partner or a group to belong to!
5. Try your best, even if you are trying something for the first time.
These are all rules that I have given to my classroom in the past, but by having the students actively participate in the “creation” of these rules gives them much more accountability when breaking a rule in the future. When someone complains about something that we have decided as a group is a rule, I will often notice students point to our rule board and say, “But we made up the rules! It’s fair!”. Ah, nothing can make my heart sing more than hearing a student defending the rules of the classroom!
(I will point out, however, that many of the younger grade levels will not get to all of the rules you personally would like in your classroom on their own. I find that using language like, ‘What about the xylophones and maracas? Is there a rule that you can think of that would help keep them safe in case we get too excited playing them?’ helps immensely. Not giving them the rules verbatim, but very clearly guiding them in the right direction!)
Adapting Discipline for the 2012-2013 School Year
As someone who is mildly obsessed with creating a warm and visually pleasing classroom learning environment, I decided that this year I would take my discipline plan one step further using a theme that all of my students can relate to: Angry Birds!
I’m not sure how this will evolve as the year goes on, but for now (using inspiration from our friend, Pinterest) I have set the ground work for what will hopefully be a good discussion on rules, consequences, and coping strategies for the beginning of the school year. I still plan on using my good old standby “I Hope Music Will Be…” at the beginning of the year, but this year with my younger students I will be using the birds to guide discussion about creating rules. So far my four birds (or categories) under which we will make our rules are: Angry Eyes, Cutting Words, Throwing Objects, and Body Out of Control.
What strategies do you use when forming rules? Do you collaborate with students in interpreting classroom expectations? Any themes?
Comment below to start the conversation!