I used to start with the litany of rules myself, because it was what I was told to do.
- You do not ever use any contractions when you are writing for school.
- You must never use the personal pronoun “I” in any form in any school writing – including personal essays.
- Every essay must have five paragraphs.
- Every paragraph must have at least five sentences.
- Every sentence must have exactly five words.
- Every word must have exactly five letters.
Since my own thinking has shifted, and since I always want my students to be thinking, I have begun starting the school year differently. Instead of having rules posted in my class, I begin by having my students write about the best class they’ve ever been in, and the most unpleasant class. I ask them to write about, in both cases, the behavior of the teacher and the students. (I ask them to not use real names for the “unpleasant class” teachers.)
The results are remarkably consistent. A great class has a focused, attentive, enthusiastic teacher who likes students and explains things well, and students who are there to learn, are willing to work, and have manners and respect. An unpleasant class has students who are unmotivated and rude, and a teacher who exhibits any of the following traits in some combination: assigning and assessing instead of actually teaching, yelling a lot, not caring, making lots of threats, and testing students on things they never taught.
So my students and I talk about what kind of class that we want to have. It’s pretty simple. There are some rules, but our class isn’t built on rules. It’s built on purpose. A great class exists to learn.
This year I took the activity a step further. I asked students to do the following activity in small groups:
● Attending a theme park
● Asking someone on a date
● Basic military training
● Being an audience member at a concert
● Being in court in any role, from defendant to lawyer
● Being part of a class discussion
● Class changes
● Dressing yourself
● Eating in a restaurant
● Football – playing it
● Football – watching it
● Going through a drive-through at a fast food place
● Going to the movies
● Having a conversation with a friend
● Interacting with people on social media
● Performing in a play
● Reading for school
● Reading for your own enjoyment
● Playing a video game alone
● Playing a multi-player RPG
● Taking a class
● Using silverware
● Using a public restroom
● Virtual school
● Working out in a gym
● Writing and sending an email
● Writing for school
● Writing for your own enjoyment
● Writing fiction
● Writing poetry
This activity got students (and their teacher) thinking. Rules are paradoxical. Sometimes essential, especially for “fun” activities. Sometimes rules should step aside when they obscure the purpose of the activity rather than create or reveal it.
I followed up this activity with a simple journal for my ninth graders. What have you learned about writing and reading? I am at a new school, teaching ninth grade for the first time in over 20 years, and my students are coming from many different places: public, private, charter, and home schooling. Many students focused on writing rules they’d been taught, and those rules were nearly all “surface features” of writing. Use periods and commas. Capitalize. Indent. Spell correctly.
One type of rule many students brought up was the “X sentences per paragraph” rule. We debated it. Answers from the various schools and teachers rang out. Ten sentences! Eight to twelve sentences! Five sentences!
Finally one person in each class usually said something like this: “You stop adding sentences to a paragraph when you’ve said what needed saying.” And I gave that person an Amen. In writing, thinking about what you are doing is more important than following rules. There are rules, but following them blindly doesn’t lead to good writing. Thinking does. Making writing about rules obscures its purpose.
The same goes for school itself. Making school all about rules obscures its purpose. It should be about thinking. It should be about being there to learn. My Big Inquiry Question for this year is one that I hope will get students thinking. It’s one I think more adults should think about. What is the purpose of education?
To introduce this topic, after our discussions of about rules, I have students do the following activity:
I have students explain their top choice and their lowest choice in writing, and to each other. I then survey the class on their top and bottom choices and tally the results on the board. The results were very consistent across the board (literally – they were on the board!).
Mrs. Paquetts, with her model of unquestioning obedience and rule-following was the least popular educational philosophy by far in all five classes. Students also felt that her model is the one schools generally promote, though perhaps in a less cartoonish fashion.
Mr. Dewey, with his philosophy of tapping into students’ own enthusiasms, and running an educational system based on enthusiasm, had the most popular educational model – by far. I know some people will object to his model as being too “touchy feely.” David Coleman would look at my class and tell them he doesn’t give a $#!+ about their enthusiasms. But I think there’s something there.
Linking what I have to teach to students’ enthusiasms, frustrations, and interests has been a big part of my philosophy for many years, and it seems to work.
(If you’d like to try either of those activities with your classes, feel free. And please, let me know how it goes. I think you, and your students, might find them… thought provoking.)
There is a place for rules. I happen to agree with Mrs. Paquetts about not driving on the wrong side of the road or against the arrow at the supermarket. The reasons for those rules are clear-cut, and have obvious benefits for everyone who drives.
But in many situations, rules take on a life of their own and become the only thing anyone sees. Rule-based writing becomes an exercise in unthinking rule following, and it usually results in bad writing. Rule-based education becomes an exercise in unthinking obedience.
If that is our highest good, we are in trouble.