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Creating Classroom Norms in this New Normal

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With the start of the New York City public school year around the corner, I keep revisiting last Fall to consider what exactly I should attempt again and what I should leave behind. Of course, the beginning of the year is fun. It’s joyful to meet students, begin symbiotic relationships, and figure out what piques curiosity in different children. 

Using the Past to Move Forward
Each school year is different from all others, but last Fall was its own category. The start of school was delayed due to safe city-wide norms not being set by the proposed first day of school. We worked remotely before eventually going in person. Then, our class had to quarantine four different times because of potential Covid exposure or confirmed cases. It felt like the second we got settled, we were jostled out of place again. 

When we gathered in September 2020, it was students’ first time in the building since March 2020, similar to many students this Fall who were remote the entire last year. Students’ and staff’s nerves were palpable. We kept our distance from each other, were diligent about our masks and hand sanitizer, kept the windows open, and tried to navigate sharing books and materials. 

Creating Community Norms
Many elementary school teachers facilitate the creation of communal norms – agreements made by the class that benefits the class. I have found them to be most helpful when I go in with authentic curiosity, as opposed to when I secretly have the three norms I want in the back of my mind. During the years I had pre-set norms, we rarely referred back to them. In the years they were authentically co-created, kids would bring them up often or use them to reset the tone after breaks from school. They’re not necessarily necessary in a meaningful learning environment, but it can be comforting to have anchored expectations walking into each day.

Usually, my questions about creating norms are similar to:  

  • What do I need to do for myself this year? 
  • What are my hopes for third grade? 
  • What do I hope for my community and what would I like to ask of them?

Last Fall, we asked ourselves those questions, but we also asked:

  • Why are we in school?
  • What are our goals for each day? (e.g., If ___ happens, it will have been a meaningful day.)
  • What do we care most about? What can we do to show that?

Students shared understandable anxiety about their safety, their families’ safety, and potentially being shut down every day. They talked about what they liked about virtual distance learning and what was challenging. They couldn’t remember their expectations of third grade before Covid-19, but they had admirable expectations of themselves and their class. They were ready to learn, take care of one another, be communicative, cultivate criticality, leverage whatever space they were in, and be nimble with the outcome.

After reflecting as a group and independently for a week, the following are the norms we came up with:

  • Stay safe.
  • Do what I have to do.
  • Be gentle. 
  • Ask BIG questions.

Photo of our chart in the classroom with the norms.

Being Gentle On Each Other and Ourselvess

Last fall, staying safe was an obvious priority with specific guidelines around what that meant. We discussed making sure we take breaks when we need to because, yes, we’re in a pandemic, but we’re also humans who are more than our work. When thinking about why we’re in school, kids have genuine excitement about learning and growing. A big part of that is asking what we call “big questions”. Big questions require space, a set time to discuss, time to quietly process, or returning to the question later when we’ve read or listened more about the topic. Being gentle on each other and ourselves was a new one for me. 

Students sign our norms each year as a display of commitment to uphold them. One student, Jerome*, came up and told me he could sign onto all of them except for being gentle on himself. I affirmed him and asked why he felt that way, and he said it was just too hard to do. So I told him about asterisks, and he put an asterisk by his name with our understanding that that norm would be hard for him, but he should keep thinking about it.

I think a lot of people feel like Jerome. It can feel simple to try to take care of your community, do your work, and engage critically with the world. However, it can sometimes feel impossible to turn that generosity back on yourself, especially when everyone around is anxious and decision-makers don’t necessarily center on the people their decisions impact. 

We continued with our year, kept talking about our norms, and one student suggested adding “go with the flow” because of the constant changes out of our control. The whole class signed onto it, and it was added. Part of our morning routine was an optional share of which norm(s) to focus on for a particular day. Students could share their norm focus aloud or sign their name or initials next to their norm(s) whenever we were quarantined.

Screenshot of morning meeting with kids’ initials signed next to the norm or norms they want to focus on for that day.

Now we’re re-upping for another year, another time when it will be many kids’ first time in person since March 2020. In addition to reflecting on last September and how we created the foundation for our learning community, I’m considering how that foundation set us up for the whole year. In June, we had class reflections about our norms—which ones they liked, why they connected with them, and which ones they would take with them into fourth grade. Jerome’s reflection read, “My favorite norm is being gentle on myself. I’m going to do that all summer and next year and maybe the rest of the years.” If nothing else happened last year, having a kid value himself and being gentle on himself is plenty. Though this will be another weird, unpredictable year of school, I have no doubt kids will commit to growing as individuals and as a community in big and gentle ways.

Noelle Mapes

Noelle Mapes WNET PBS Digital Innovator

Noelle Mapes is a public school teacher in New York City. She learns daily alongside the funniest 8-year-olds who like to ask big questions, think about power structures, and read Marisol McDonald books. Noelle is a 2020–2021 Big Apple Teacher of NYC, a WNET PBS Digital Innovator, and she is earning her PhD in Urban Education at City University of New York Graduate Center. Her professional interests include abolition in the classroom, critical digital literacy, and the ways integration policies fail us and serve us.

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