When you work at a summer camp the most important thing to find out is what the unwritten rules are. This is probably true anywhere, but camps make their money by carefully enforcing not rules, but traditions. This is not optional. Kids love structure and similarity. When the camp that I work at in the summer built new buildings we had girls who were glad they were in the old cabins, because to sleep in the new ones would have ruined their last year at camp.
The grace of God allowed me to to have a professor in college who let this line slide out in a class one day. He said he memorized his first paragraph of his lesson, his opener, for every class he taught for his first 5 years of teaching. I thought that was a heroic effort, and one that I could never replicate. I have to admit that I am never that sure of what is going to happen during a class period. But I thought of a solution. On the first day I taught I walked in and I said, "Hello, my name is Mr. Peterson and I will be your Earth Science teacher today." No one looked at me all that funny. This is quite common for the first day. Every once in a while on the first day someone will ask, "Are you our teacher tomorrow too?" Most often I just get the blank stares and smiles that come with the first day.
When it starts to get interesting is day two. I say the same thing. And again. It takes about two weeks before a student raises their hand and asks, "why?" Why do you do that. I explain that I am striving to meet the goals of a college professor that taught me to have my opener memorized. I explained that it would make them know that they were in a different class than they had just been in, and that I was there to help. Some days, when I am in a hurry, I forget. Usually, in one or two minutes a student will raise their hand and say, "who are you and what are you trying to teach us?" I smile, introduce myself and know that community is being built.
Another piece of my tradition is the cookie song. It started out rather simple. I would sing the cookie song if there were cookies mentioned anywhere in the third period announcements. Since we have hot lunch and there was dessert with hot lunch this would happen quite regularly, may be twice a week. At the end of the song the students will join for the last part at the top of their lungs. It take 30 seconds, but does so much for the rest of the period. Soon I had to come up with how do we let other hours sing the song. Now my rule is: if you bring homemade cookies for everyone in the class, I sing, they yell, and sometimes I dance.
You wonder what this can do for a classroom? What does it add to the community other than unhealthy eating habits? I did not really know either until I was at a conference and a sub was in my classroom. There were cookies in the announcements that day. A student stood up in the class and sang my part of the song. The class yelled. The sub gave them detentions. The next day I was still gone and there were cookies in the announcements. The student sang. The class yelled. The sub gave up. I had a long talk on Monday with the students about respect. They argued that they were respecting the community, I argued that they were not respecting the greater community. I am not sure who was right. I do know I was humbled by their loyalty to the class.
I have several other traditions, surrounding everything from how and when we take tests, to put downs (I have a zero tolerance tradition and traditional penalties that I apply to myself as well), to assignments, to birthdays, to question and answer time. I also have school wide traditions that involve stories that I tell in chapel and how I lead when asked at faculty events. Each of these thing make people feel safe where they are and comfortable with the environment they are in.
The research on this backs me up. In her book on storytelling in the classroom called, In the Presence of Each Other
by Johanna Kuyvenhoven, she says, "Learning depends a lot on being comfortable and happy in the room together." (Pg 88) I felt at home in the classroom described in the book with it daily rhythm of what would happen. The traditions of the room allowed for several different students from all walks of life and cultures to find their voices. Establishing who we are as a group, different from the rest of the world allows everyone, not just kids, the freedom to be who they are in that context. In the book the students have to be ready for their story time and Kuvenhoven established that early on they were not, but as the traditions became a part of who they were as a community, "As the weeks piled up behind us, children were almost always ready." (Pg 68) There was a sense that they became ready to learn as they became part of the learning. This is true as well in my classroom. Students are ready to learn when the traditions are established. They are ready to give to the purpose of the room once ground rules are established and they know where they are. I think that having some positive rules reminds them of a standard of behavior that is expected in the classroom, a standard of learning that is expected as well.
Parker J Palmer in his book To Know As We Are Known
argues for the same thing. In the book he claims that, "A learning space has three major characteristics, three essential dimensions: openness, boundaries, and an air of hospitality." (page 71) The traditions I establish meet two of the goals, and lead directly in my experience to the remaining one. He says, "The teacher who wants to create an open learning space must define and defend its boundaries with care." (page 72) The boundaries are established by the traditions that I set in my classroom. The best part of setting them as traditions is that I need not be the only one who defends the boundaries. In the video attached to this post, listen closely as the cookie song comes. The students yell, "Dance!" I had not started by dancing, but the tradition would not be complete without it. They demand that the boarder is defended. Sometimes another teacher will walk into my room for some reason or another and they will hear students asking for other students to change their behavior or be more careful with equipment. I praise them for being a self disciplining classroom. They are defending the boarders of their learning.
Palmer's third pillar of an open classroom is the idea of hospitality, "a place where every stranger and every strange utterance is met with welcome." (page 74) I love that description, and I would like to think that I, by defending the boarders with traditions, make a spot for everyone to be a part. I establish traditions for this very effort. I tell them how we are to treat new adults that enter the room. I establish traditions for students not from our hour. There are traditions for students who are late to class and students who have to leave early. We work at including everyone who comes through the physics barriers of our room and make them a part of the community within.
There are times when the traditions are not followed, and there are dangers to having too well established traditions. They can get in they way. But as we watch for their harmful effects, they open the classroom itself to the possibility of openness, learning and truth seeking, unlike any classroom I have had before where I did not work hard of this. I am not sure exactly how I got here, but I do feel free to share more about who I am with my classes as we work out our lives and traditions together.