The Lower School’s 4 R’s + RC = Building Our Lower School Community Norms

Every community has norms. Some norms are publicly shared for clarity within the community. Others are more implicit, learned only after a community member has spent time in the mix, observing and getting acclimated to “the way things are.” Are these unstated norms a hidden agenda? In most cases, they are simply a manifestation of what’s worked, what’s done, and what traditions are upheld in a community—more like a hidden curriculum.  In a school setting, the community norms are the “rules for school”—what we expect, what we tolerate and what we strive for.

A couple of weeks ago, Middle School Head Jen Cort blogged about the 3R’s in Middle School: the expectation of achieving Rigor, Relevance and Respectful Relationships. This piqued my curiosity because by that point in time, I had learned that the Lower School’s 3R’s are Respect, Responsibility and Ready to Learn.  To add to my confusion, I learned that the 3R’s of long ago included Reverence. So what are the real 3R’s? What are our community norms? Where does that fourth R fit in?

Almost a month ago, the third grade classes met me in the Meeting House for Meeting for Worship and a “town meeting.” We settled into silence in that space, waiting to receive whatever messages came our way. We discussed the norms for our grade community—actually the 4R’s: Respect, Responsibility, Ready to Learn and Reverence. The students had clear ideas of what it means to demonstrate Respect and Responsibility. They also offered examples of what it looks like when they are Ready to Learn. Then we got to Reverence; and they were stumped. Since I had brought cue cards with one of the 4R’s written on each, I asked the students to find the hidden word inside of Reverence.  One child found immediately the word “ever.”  I acknowledged his discovery by saying that when you hold something in reverence, you might say, “I don’t think I’ve EVER seen anything like that!” Then I pointed out the word “revere,” and we discussed what it means to revere, to hold in awe, to be amazed by something. The teachers and I gave examples of things in nature (mountains, a field of purple flowers) and the things that people can do (accomplished athletes). These are things and people that we revere. Likewise, we can hold each other in reverence and be amazed and in awe of the people in our community, who they are and what they can do.

How do you teach a young child about these 4R’s? It goes beyond book learning and extends into the creation of a healthy culture and climate. In the Lower School, we rely on the Responsive Classroomapproach, which focuses on the development of the social skills needed for each child to be successful both socially and academically. The approach teaches and reinforces skills in the areas of cooperation, assertion, responsibility, empathy and self-control by focusing on building respectful and responsible classroom and school communities. Morning Meetings set up a classroom climate in which everyone has a voice. After greeting each other and interacting with a Morning Message from the teacher, the students practice their active listening skills as they sit in a circle and share. They learn non-verbal signals to agree with their classmates, giving every member of the class their due “airtime.” They practice not interrupting or adding their two cents when someone else is the center of attention. RC also gives us tools to allow students to ask questions and make comments of a speaker within limits. (This is no easy feat for a Lower School child.) Given perimeters, the students grow to understand that they need to pay full attention during sharing or presentations, so that they can ask informed questions. They learn to measure their comments so that they are impactful and unselfish. Most importantly, they learn that they may or may not be chosen to ask a question or make a comment. When the child sharing says, “I’ll take 5 questions or comments,” the group realizes that there is a limit to their participation which they must accept and respect.

One of the most impactful components of Responsive Classroom is interactive modeling. After class groups work on developing their norms and rules, the teacher previews the expectations for the group. “Sometimes when we’re in the circle or working together, I’ll need you to stop what you’re doing, look up and listen to me. When I do, I’ll raise my hand and be quiet. When you notice, you do the same thing. Watch and see what that looks like.” By offering an example of a situation while modeling the expected behavior and asking for student feedback, the teacher engages the students and helps them to further internalize the expectations. “What did you notice about what I did first?” “Who can show us how to respond to the signal?” Students are then invited to role play and model the expectations, and the class is prompted to volunteer what they noticed. “What did you notice about how Melissa responded to Jeremy’s raised hand?”  Then the group practices together with the teacher’s assurance. “I’ll watch and see how well you do the things that Jeremy and I modeled.” Finally, the teacher offers specific feedback. “These are the things I noticed…”

So what does all of this modeling do for the students? What are the take-aways? We create an environment where the expectations and boundaries are known. Children are encouraged to be responsible and responsive listeners and fully present members of a community. Through active listening and interactive modeling, they demonstrate their understanding and readiness to learn. By allowing every person to have a voice and a chance to shine, they recognize that each of their fellow students should be revered for their ideas, experiences and expertise. When children receive specific praise, their attempts to meet expectations are noticed and reinforced. What better motivation than finding out exactly what you did right and having your efforts recognized!  The end result is a community where the norms are not part of the hidden curriculum, but front and center, and we create a culture in which Respect, Responsibility, Readiness to Learn and Reverence are the tools for school and life success.

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