Friday, August 10, 2012

We the Peeps of the Classroom...

So begins our classroom constitution... "We the peeps of the classroom..." Setting up a functional classroom is such a challenge and classroom rules are a big part of what makes a classroom successful (or disastrous). I wish I knew more how to do this as a first year teacher because my first year was... rough. Mostly because I didn't know how to set up the classroom. I could manage one just fine during student teaching, but starting with a bunch of blank-slates staring at me was overwhelming to say the least.
Day 1
As part of my state's Social Studies curriculum, the 5th grade has a large focus on the United States Constitution, its purposes, and its parts. So, three years ago I started setting up my classroom rules into a "Constitution" and integrating a lot of my Social Studies content. It takes about three weeks in all (but I was out for a three day training in the midst of that) which seems like a long time, but we always had a "draft" form of our rules to guide our behavior and the student "buy in" is phenomenal. I'm going to break it down into little pieces so you can see how this all grew into our full constitution we have today.

Day 1: In our Morning Meeting we had a discussion about our hopes and dreams for the fifth grade. What do you hope to accomplish? How do you want this year to be different? We did a think-pair-share where each student had to come up with an academic goal and a non-academic goal for this year. Once we had all shared we summarized what we heard on to our list.

Days 2/3
Days 2/3: Again in Morning Meeting, we discussed how we could help each other accomplish these goals through our actions. We tried to keep it all framed in the positives because it would be very easy to get negative (and also to go off on rabbit trails). "Don't spit." "Don't kick" "Don't Punch." is well covered in "Be in control and think about your actions."

The next day we took a look at our rules and tried to see if any of them related to each other. The students color coded them by how they saw the relationships. In the picture you can see that all of the "Be nice..." theme rules were colored in orange. This list served as our rules until our official copy was made. These eventually became our "Articles" in the Constitution.

Day 4/5: Morning Meeting/Social Studies

We started studying the Preamble to the Constitution. We did many things, but one of things that I think was most useful was breaking the Preamble down line by line and examining what it means. We used prior knowledge,  dictionaries, and thesauruses to figure out all those fancy vocabulary words to finally get down to the "nitty-gritty" of why the Constitution was written. We put this in our Government Lapbook that we are building together.

Day 6: Students write a preamble for our own Constitution. They had to think about why we need rules and how they help us accomplish our goals. They worked in teams to break it down for themselves and I encouraged to make it in their own language. The teams then displayed their preambles and students went around with post-it notes making comments about which parts they liked from each preamble. Then together, we picked the best of each one and made a combined preamble. This is ours...

Day 7-12: We begin our study of The Bill of Rights. There are many things that we do to study Amendments 1-10, but my favorite is to do the hand motions while we learn them. You can see them HERE. I've added some and changed a few (because it doesn't address all of them), but essentially they are the same.
Another of  my favorite things to do is assign each student an amendment (or a part of an amendment such as 'freedom of speech') and have them create a poster that contains three things. First, the poster must state the right that the amendment is protecting, then the remaining 
two are to be drawings. One drawing shows what life is like with the amendment in action. The second drawing shows what life would be like without the amendment. I'm very clear that I accept stick figures, but they must be stick figures in very clear and detailed situations  These usually end up more in comic form which is great. Then we do a museum walk to enjoy our classmates work. 
Museum Walk
Days 13/14: We bring it all together at Morning Meeting as soon as we finish the Bill of Rights and we wrote down our inalienable rights that we have in the classroom. This year's class was not as easily led by me as last year's class was so there were a few that I had to just about give them, but they still think they came up with it, so I'm pleased. We added it to our constitution. The following day we all voted to ratify the Constitution and signed it into law. 

They are so proud of the Constitution and will talk about it with anyone who visits our class. It's been great for management too. The students have really bought in to the whole concept and have been referencing it when students are making bad choices. Hopefully this continues, but I'm thinking this is going to be a great year! 
Our complete (and massive) constitution! 


  1. I'm a first year 5th grade teacher. Please help! Would you also teach about the actual Constitution as you do this unit? Do 5th graders know what the Constitution is yet and especially its importance to our country? I'm thinking a little prior history review would help? Any comments or suggestions would be a great help! Thanks!

    1. Hi! Sorry I didn't see this comment sooner! I actually teach about the Constitution while we are doing this unit. Students typically will know what the Constitution in, but they certainly don't know about all its parts. Usually they just know "it's the document that set up our government". They don't understand how it is different from the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, or the purpose of the preamble, etc. Tennessee's standards have us getting pretty in depth, so I'm not sure how far you'll need to go where you live. The students studied the Revolutionary War in 4th grade so I did some scaffolding through discussion of why we had that war, who we fought, and the outcome. I tried to lead them (without them knowing they're being led) to the conclusion that we never wanted to live under a monarchy again! This led to the conversations about setting up a government. Hopefully your students have a bit of prior knowledge to build on because it certainly helps!