Classroom Code of Norms, for students and by students

Last year, my sixth-grade team of teachers worked together with students to guide students to create a class-wide set of norms for behavior. The process was energizing and gave the students a voice in their own expectations, so I decided to do this on a smaller scale in my own classroom this academic year. This is a quick and somewhat easy exercise, spread over the course of a few days, and taking perhaps 30 minutes total of classroom time. You can do it, too, and it’s not too late if you’re in the first month or two of classes.

Here’s what we did.

(1) I had a conversation with students about what we mean when we talk about expectations, norms, and rules. We talked about what the benefits are of students authoring their own set of norms/expectations, and how we might not want to think of them strictly as “rules”, given the connotation and typical authority-driven production of lists of rules. This conversation was important, I think, to student buy-in.

(2) Students worked in teams of two or three, each group with its own (single) pad of sticky notes. They brainstormed, only being told that they should write down everything that it’s reasonable and hopeful to expect from students in our classroom. They wrote everything from “Don’t talk over the teacher” (teacher centered) to “show up prepared” and “be nice” (student-centered).

Student-Generated Norms, Part 2

student brainstorm, arranged by category – this is a category loosely defined by the family of expectations centered around student behavior during class

(3) I stood in the center of the room, having one group at a time offer me what they thought was an important sticky note. I’d take the note, read it aloud, and ask for anything else that seemed to be similarly worded, the same idea, or in the same ball park generally. I’d walk around collecting any that students held out that seemed to fit. It was important at this juncture that all students be listening carefully. (They still tuned out here and there but typically were engaged.) Before moving to the next sort of norm provided by a different starting team, I put the collected notes on the whiteboard in these student-created categories. (With more time, there’d be a thinking activity around students categorizing their own stickies.) I then would move to the next group, have them choose their important sticky, and I’d collect similar ones from other groups right on the spot – and I’d put that stack on the board in another category group of stickies.

At the end of about a 20-minute bit of class time, we had gotten student ideas on stickies, categorized them, and put them on the board in those categories of expectations.

(4) With the categories filled in with student-generated ideas, the second day of work happened with stations (yay!). At each area of the room – there were five categories and so five stations – I set out a posterboard with the stickies from the category of focus on the left-hand side of that board. To the right, I wrote the word “gist” at the top of the page. Then I gave each group two minutes with each board. They could add to the “gist” by summarizing what they are reading on the sticky notes. They’d add “+1” if they agreed with what already had been written as accurate summaries of the stickies. I guided them to look for ideas that others had missed so that we could get a full picture of what the class thinks.

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(5) I added a step at this point on the second day that I now think was superfluous – but I’ll record it for your consideration. I had another 60-seconds-per-station round during which students rewrote the gists in words that, I said, “could go on the wall.” This didn’t seem to be a great use of time, looking back, but it was only about 7 minutes with stoppage time included.

(6) Today, I selected the wording that worked best from the student gists. I typed it, printed it, and posted it on the wall. I talked to the students about whether or not they approved. I asked for any objections. There were none.


Interesting afterthought: Six different sticky notes warned that students should “respect Mr. Capone’s board games. I appreciated that sentiment, reiterated and supported the notion, and then did not add that as a stand-alone norm.


Have you tried this or something like it in your classroom? I’d love to hear your experience. Feel free to leave a comment. Please follow, if you enjoy hearing about these experiences and ideas.

About Steve Capone

Writer hailing from Salt Lake City, Utah. Interdisciplinary teacher (read: generalist guiding inquiry) at an independent school. Adjunct instructor at a medium sized state school. Lover of learning. Favorite destination: Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, Germany. @CaponeTeaches on Twitter M.S. Philosophy (Univ. of Utah 2013) M.A. Humanities (Univ. of Chicago 2007) B.A. Philosophy & English (Washington & Jefferson College 2006
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