Before students create rules to nurture the qualities of a good learning community, help them think about the relationship among rules, customs, and culture. Begin by asking students the questions, “What could we do if we want to have a classroom with the qualities of a good learning environment? How do other communities, even countries, try to get their members to behave in certain ways?” Students will likely bring up the idea that countries have laws that everyone must follow or communities have traditions and customs that members adhere to. When students mention laws or customs, ask them to identify specific examples.
At this point in the lesson, students can define the following words: rule, law, custom, and contract. Although laws and customs are both types of rules, customs tend to be more informal whereas laws are established by governments or institutions. If you have time, you may want to create a Venn diagram in which students fill in examples of laws, examples of customs, and examples of laws that are also customs. For instance, holidays often start out as customs but then become part of the laws, such as the national holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. In some communities, throwing garbage away in trash cans is a custom but not a law. In these communities, if you litter people may give you a funny look but you won’t be fined or put in jail. Other communities have antilittering laws. In those communities, if you litter a police officer could give you a fine and if you refuse to pay the fine you might even end up in jail.
A contract is a document that turns customs into laws by making them enforceable by a government or other institution such as a religious organization. Explain to students that in this lesson they will create a class contract. A contract is made up of rules as well as consequences, which articulate what will happen if the rules are not followed. Contracts often begin with mission statements or preambles which state the purpose or goals of the contract. You may want to lead the class through the process of writing a class mission statement. You could do this by incorporating the qualities recorded on the board into a sentence or two. The mission statement might begin with the phrase, “To support the best learning environment for all students, we believe our class must. . . .”
When you have a class mission statement, ask students to meet in small groups to generate a list of rules to support the mission or purpose of the class. With each rule, students should also consider consequences—what should happen if students don’t follow the rules. The handout “Writing a class contract” included with this lesson has been designed to help structure students’ discussion in small groups. Students can record the rules and consequences on a large sheet of paper so that the rest of the class can read along as groups present their ideas.
Determining how to synthesize the ideas from all groups into one class contract can serve as a lesson in governance and democracy. Do you insist that the class reach consensus? Do you use majority rule? Or do you, as the teacher and authority figure, make the final decision? If time permits, you can use this portion of the lesson to teach students about terms such as democracy and dictatorship. Most likely, you will not have the time to go into these concepts now, but you can refer to this exercise later when you discuss the various government systems of other civilizations. For the purpose of this lesson, a majority rule decision-making process is both efficient and effective. You can have students vote on rules relatively quickly, which will be more likely to encourage buy-in than if you were to make the decision. You might decide that for any rule to “pass,” at least 60 percent of the students must agree to it.
Curriculum connections: Students can compare their class contract to the legal codes of other societies. For example, they could compare their class contract to Hammurabi’s Code. Just as students created their class contract by thinking about the purpose of their community, the rules that support this purpose, and the consequences for breaking the rules, they can also analyze the norms of other societies by using the same three factors: purpose, rules, and consequences.