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Karen Onyx


"I think what surprises the kids the most is that we don't have a set of rules made up for them on the first day of school," reports Karen Onyx. "When we explain that they will be setting the rules themselves, they just sort of stare at us. It takes a while to sink in."

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By the time students reach her sixth grade language arts classes at Carusi Middle School, Onyx says, most of them are aware of the general rules of a classroom. Teachers typically set their expectations for behavior in various areas of the school and review the rules to make sure students understand them right at the start of school.

"As a student, I always hated those days and felt that many of the rules were antiquated and had little purpose other than boring us," said Onyx. "I have never been fond of being told stuff I already know. But ask me my opinion, and you usually have me hooked."

Carusi Middle School is a large suburban middle school in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, east of Philadelphia. The school, which serves 1,000 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, is divided into nine houses or teams (three per grade level). Each houses teachers strive to develop a unique team personality, so the houses are more than just an organizational tool; they are learning environments in which everyone thrives.

Giving students a say in creating the rules they will follow and the consequences for their actions provides a sense of ownership. When student-created rules first were introduced, Carusi had just become a First Amendment School and had received a replica of the Constitution to display in the library. So, in keeping with that theme, the guidelines were called the "House Rules."

"We pulled all 100 or so students from our house into the library and mixed them into different groups of eight to ten," Onyx told Education World. "We talked about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and how they support and protect everything we do. We also talked about rights versus responsibilities and our expectations as citizens of this country."

Next, each student was asked to write five necessary and acceptable rules for the school year. They compared the individual sets of rules in groups and each group created a single list of five rules. A representative from each group then read its five rules to the whole house. All the rules were then sorted into four or five categories. Each rule was rephrased to emphasize the positive, and consequences were outlined for positive and negative behavior. Finally, a "think sheet" was created for times when it might be necessary for students to document consequences.

"[Each year] we have the constitution typed into presentation form and then we have a formalized signing," says Onyx. "All students and teachers in the house, the guidance counselor, our sixth grade principal, and our building principal sign the document with great flourish and ceremony. This year's signing ceremony fell on Constitution Day." (September 17)

The "House Rules" are mounted on paper, laminated, and hung by the door in each classroom, where everyone sees them daily. The current rules read:

Our House Rules!

We, the students and teachers of House 6-1, in order to form a more perfect learning community, will treat EVERYONE with equality and respect.

We will demonstrate this by:

  • Taking responsibility and control of our mouths and our bodies at all times
  • Honoring the rights and property of our House and our School
  • Being prepared and on-time to class -- this includes planner, supplies, completed homework, positive attitude, and engaged brain
  • Dressing appropriately
  • Helping to create a safe and positive community
  • Cooperating, communicating, contributing, and sometimes compromising our ideas and energies to the betterment of our community
  • Having FUN!
That we might like:
  • Positive Acknowledgement from peers and teachers
  • Satisfaction in knowing that we are doing our best
  • Pleasant work environment for the whole house
  • No worries about getting into trouble
  • Our teachers and our parents pride in our work habits and accomplishments

That you might not like:

  • The "Look"
  • Verbal Warning
  • "Think" Sheet
  • Discussion
  • Lunch Detention
  • Team Conference
  • Parent/Guardian Conference
  • Administrative Referral -- "Voice Sheet", (after-school detention)

"The kids who normally follow rules, really follow their own," Onyx observes. "The kids who question rules and why things are the way they are have little they can argue about. With the kids who have behavior issues, we have several steps of consequences that they have helped to develop. Usually handing them a think sheet and asking them to explain themselves is a strong influence on their future behavior."

The positive consequences are a real plus for kids who do what is asked of them and more. They provide a reason for following the rules and see that their efforts are recognized.

"Often a child will come up and say, 'We've tried this, this, and this. What can we do to get [child's name] to work with the group?'" added Onyx. "They are taking the steps to solve their own problems following logically established patterns of behavior. They are citizens of the house who are trying to work out their differences."

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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