Middling through

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, which pits a cartoonist kid against a rule-obsessed principal, is better than middling, writes Susan Wloszczyna on rogerebert.com.

Based on a popular book series, the movie follows a new student who pledges to break every rule — there are more than 100 — in the school’s Code of Conduct.

The movie raises issues such as “standardized testing, the disregard for children’s artistic pursuits and the overall regimentation of school life,” writes Brad Wheeler in the Globe and Mail. Yet despite the movie’s “think outside the box” message, “the filmmakers themselves do precisely the opposite.

Instead of rules, set procedures

Don’t spend time and energy establishing and enforcing classroom rules, writes Coach G. Provide  “clear procedures” that give kids structure. “You can’t do your best at anything if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do.”

Making classroom rules

Who Makes the Rules in a Classroom? asks Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land. According to the latest dogma,  good teachers get students to collectively write their own classroom rules.

It seems democratic and encourages “buy-in,” teachers believe, even if students are just as likely to break their own rules as ones set by teachers.

When Flanagan tried it in her own music classroom, students came up with a list of “don’ts” — as in don’t empty your spit valve on someone else’s chair — but “it never felt as if we were wrestling with the really important issues: Building a functioning community. Safety. Personal dignity. Kindness. Order. Academic integrity. Democracy.”

She offers ideas about creating classroom rules, such as:

 •You’re shooting for influence, not control. Fact is, teachers never have absolute control over kids, even using techniques like fear, punishment, isolation and intimidation. (In edu-speak, “consequences.”) You want kids to behave appropriately because they understand that there are rewards for everyone in a civil classroom.

•No matter what rules you put on paper, your most important job is role-modeling those practices, not enforcing them. Behave the way you want kids to behave: Ignore minor, brainless bids for attention. Make eye contact with speakers. Don’t be an attention hog–your stories aren’t more important than theirs. Don’t be rude to kids. Apologize publicly when you’re wrong. Remember that you’re the adult in the room. It’s your calm presence that institutes order, not rules.

Don’t restate the obvious or load up on “don’ts,” she advises. But do give clear instructions when needed.  “Stress: order facilitates learning, makes the class a pleasant place to be.”

 •Integrity helps build community. The most important directives in democratic classrooms are around ethical practices: A clear definition of cheating, understood by all students, in the digital age. Why trust and personal best are more important than winning. Why substandard work isn’t ever OK. How true leadership–kids want to be leaders, too– is a function of respect.

“Carrots and sticks” can be counter-productive, Flanagan writes. Students’ good behavior is its own reward: They get to attend a “civil, well-managed” school.

School rules year round

Schools are trying to enforce school rules on weekends and in the summer, reports USA Today.

Students across the country are going on notice that drinking, smoking, using drugs or posting risqué photos on the Web on weekends and during the summer can get them sidelined from school activities during the school year.

Student athletes and those involved in other extracurricular activities in states including New Jersey, South Carolina and Indiana are signing codes of conduct that hold them accountable for their behavior regardless of whether school is in session.

Some districts require athletes to “be on good behavior 24-7 during the school year,” USA Today reports. Others have year-round rules that include athletes, band members and choir members; some go even farther.

Indiana’s American Civil Liberties Union is representing two female volleyball players in the Smith Green Community schools who were disciplined for allegedly posting sexually suggestive photos on social networking sites during summer vacation.

Students wearing the school’s uniform can be held to a higher standard, says Erik Weber, attorney for the Smith-Green schools. “If they don’t like the rules, they don’t have to play,” Weber says.

Schools are having trouble enforcing rules on campus during school hours. I’m surprised they’re trying to control what students do on their own time.

When children make the rules

Children make the rules at Innovations Academy, a K-8 charter school, reports Emily Alpert of Voices of San Diego. It’s called “positive discipline.”

Instead of adults laying down the law, Innovations has handed much of the power to the kids. Children at the school have confronted a classmate who was too loud during class. Middle schoolers brokered rules for when students can spin in rolling chairs. Third graders figured out how to share a single, coveted cardboard fort. And they agreed to stop teasing boys who were friends with girls.

. . . Punishments and rewards are frowned upon. Instead, the school seeks to help children right the wrongs they make, figure out why a student is misbehaving and how they can redirect their actions.

Some parents complained last year about “a lack of discipline” last year, prompting the school to add “class councils to mediate student complaints and disputes.” Third grade remains a problem because many students are new to the school.

Earlier this week in one classroom, third graders stood on desks, tossed paper idly and gabbed as the class tried to discuss an upcoming bake sale.

A girl in neon pink fishnets grew frustrated at the noise. “I think that everyone should be quiet because it’s my turn!” she exclaimed. “I’m waiting!”

“Positive discipline” is popular in theory, Alpert writes, but few schools go as far as Innovations Academy in letting kids make the rules.

Here’s a What Works Clearinghouse webinar on improving behavior in elementary classrooms.