FEATURE

I Start the Year with Nothing

When students make the rules, classroom community soars.
Illustration by Christina Ung

The building where I taught middle school for nine years had no walls but only partial divisions composed of nose-high lockers. One “special ed” and four “regular ed” teachers shared the educational responsibility for 120 students each day. Our voices rose above the fluid din of our combined efforts. We were a full-inclusion, outcomes-based school with a diverse student population, and our goal was to teach them all—and teach them well.

Middle school is a scary thing for our students—it’s the first time since kindergarten that they’ve been forced into classes with strangers. Every year, as my new students wander in, toss their bags and find a seat, I take stock of the amazing collection of visibly different ways the age 12 can look on a human, and I wonder if I have the tools to bring those kids together.

My colleagues sometimes think, because I’m an artist, that I’ll have colorful bulletin boards in my room, but each year I leave my room bare and unadorned. I start the year with nothing but a giant piece of paper and a marker. And I ask one question: “If you could do anything you wanted in school this year, what would it be?” 

This year was the same as usual. The response was silence. I tried again, “Anything? Come on! You’re the boss this year.” 

Nothing. I sat on the floor. “Come here, please, and sit where I can see everyone.” Without my help, the students formed a circle, bending their heads around their neighbors, making sure they could see each other, sliding back to make space.

Teaching Tolerance illustration of kids playing in the space

“She can’t see this guy! Move over!” The energy changed.

“Please,” I interjected.

“Huh?” 

“Move over, please.”

“Oh, sorry. Move over—please.”

“Thank you,” we both said simultaneously and laughed.

“I don’t feel like writing. Can somebody else do that for me?” I said and tossed the marker to a kid sitting near the back. I took his spot on the floor, forcing him forward with my decision. He took charge right away, flaunting his power. I reminded him to pose the question again, “If you could do anything you wanted in school this year, what would it be?”—and this time the answers poured forth.

“I wanna be the teacher!” Hysterical laughter.

“Write it down,” I directed the new “teacher.” He did, but his spelling wasn’t great and he knew it. He seemed a little scared, and his bravado was fading.

The kids yelled at him, hoping to be recognized: “I want to grade the papers!” “Sit at the teacher’s desk!” “Field trips! Oh yeah, Hershey Park!” “No, I wanna go to the beach!” The new teacher couldn’t keep up with the rest of the kids, “his” students. When he was about to give up, I suggested he get help. A zillion “Ooh, ooh, me! Pick ME!” shouts later, he realized he not only needed a writer but some crowd control, too. I told him, again, to ask for help. He picked two others the class decided to name “bouncers.” At my prompting, the new teacher asked the question again, “Okay, what do you guys want to do this year?”

The bouncers insisted on manners and, amazingly, the class proceeded without me until their paper was filled with ideas: a homey classroom with real furniture, plants, lamps, painted walls, beanbags, FOOD!, a drinking fountain in the classroom, a fridge, students running the class, teaching, grading, deciding what to learn, field trips, parties, FUN! FREEDOM! POWER! 

Eventually, the students started to get tired and a little bummed out. Their lists seemed ridiculous and impossible. It was time for me to step back in as facilitator.

“Nice job,” I said, but they were quiet. Then they accused me of lying to them. Their eyes followed me as I stepped to a cabinet and removed a roll of paper. I asked someone to go in my desk and find me some tape, and, suddenly, the energy was on the upswing. They couldn’t believe I had let someone in my desk! I used the tape to hang up a wish list created by one of my classes from the previous year.

“This is the wish list from last year’s class. Everything that’s crossed out, they did.” Next came a barrage of, “They did THAT? REALLY?” I assured them it was true, and then someone asked, “Well, HOW did they do that?” 

It was my opening: “What do you think you’d need to do in order to be able to do that?” I asked, and the ideas poured out. I drew a T-chart on the board with the words “want” and “how to get what we want,” and the students dissected the process behind one of the other class’s projects.

I continued the conversation all morning, building the ground rules by which our class would function over the course of the coming year. By the time we finished, my colleagues were well into their second subject, but we’d done something as or more important—we had successfully set the foundation for a democratic classroom.

We had determined the structure and process of future weekly class meetings. We, as a class, decided to insist on making time for these meetings, which would follow a pattern: 10 minutes of gripes/complaints, 20 minutes for planning something from their wish list, and 10 minutes of sharing and compliments.

By the end of the month, my classroom was decorated and beautiful and homey and productive. Eventually, we had a full library (run by students) and a publishing center (run by parents). We made birdhouses in geometry and painted them and sold them for $20 each to fund a whale-watching trip. We groomed and rode horses at a farm. We painted a 40-foot mural in the cafeteria promoting our favorite books, and we made a video for new students and English language learners showing them around the building and introducing them to the faces of the nurse, the principal and the teachers. We invited the members of our ever-changing community to share food and culture and professional expertise with us. We built, painted, constructed and invented. We learned academics, respect, tolerance and the meaning of democracy in action. Our classroom was a place where all things were possible, including bridging differences in race, culture, language and financial resources.

By the end of the year, we could barely remember what it was like to feel like strangers, and we knew that, although we might have started the year with nothing, we’d learned to create everything together. 

Assess how student voice is valued in your classroom and school.

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