Contracting for Back to School | Facing History & Ourselves
Students in classroom
Activity

Contracting for Back to School

Develop a classroom contract to create a brave and reflective community of mutual respect and inclusion.

Duration

One 50-min class period

Subject

  • Advisory
  • Civics & Citizenship
  • English & Language Arts
  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12

Language

English — US

Published

Updated

Overview

About This Activity

An inclusive and welcoming learning environment is anchored in a classroom that is grounded on principles of mutual respect. Contracting is the process of openly discussing with your students expectations for how classroom members will treat each other to foster an inclusive class culture. By the end of this activity, your class will have a contract that lays the foundation for a learning environment where all students feel seen and heard. 

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process

We recommend that your students start the process of contracting in their third or fourth meeting, after they have learned each other’s names and engaged in community-building activities.

A classroom contract is a classroom management tool, not a behavior prevention tool. In other words, a contract in and of itself will not prevent behaviors that undermine classroom norms. Inappropriate behaviors will emerge in the best of classrooms. Instead, a classroom contract is a tool to establish norms that are essential to an inclusive and welcoming environment and to help you address student behaviors that could undermine those norms. Consistently enforcing your contract as a class is a key to successfully establishing a positive learning environment.

Classroom contracts are not static documents. Students should revisit their contracts periodically throughout the year. Good times to revisit, and possibly revise, the contract include: 

  • Before and/or after reading or viewing a challenging piece of content 
  • Before engaging in a discussion about a potentially controversial or challenging topic 
  • When a student feels that they, or members of the group, have not lived up to one or more of the expectations on the contract

Because there is so much to cover in the opening weeks of school, such as name and introductory games, getting to know the teacher, and administrative tasks, you might find that you need two to three sessions to complete the contracting process. Natural breaks in the activity occur after students have journaled and defined contracting and worked in small groups to create their list of norms, and after the group has voted to decide on the norms it commits to upholding during activities and discussions.

To get the contracting conversation started in a more concrete way, you could share with students a list of norms, rules, or expectations that have been used in other Facing History classrooms. Ask students to discuss what they think about these norms. Which ones do they think would help this group create a safe, respectful, productive learning environment? Invite students to edit this list by deleting, revising, or adding to it. Here is a list of norms that have been used in previous Facing History classrooms:

  • Listen with respect. Try to understand what someone is saying before rushing to judgment. 
  • Make comments using “I” statements. 
  • If you do not feel safe making a comment or asking a question, write the thought in your journal. 
  • You can share the idea with your teacher first and together come up with a safe way to share the idea with the class. 
  • If someone says an idea or question that helps your own learning, say thank you. 
  • If someone says something that hurts or offends you, do not attack the person. Acknowledge that the comment—not the person—hurt your feelings and explain why. 
  • Using insults and derogatory terms is never okay. 
  • If you don’t understand something, ask a question. 
  • Think with your head and your heart. 
  • Share the talking time—provide room for others to speak. 
  • Do not interrupt others while they are speaking. 
  • Write thoughts in your journal if you don’t have time to say them during class. 
  • Journal responses do not have to be shared publicly.

Another way to help students develop a classroom contract is to have them envision what they would like to have happen during certain scenarios. Scenarios could be drawn from students’ own experiences. They might include situations such as the ones in the following prompts: 

  • When we have an idea or question we would like to share, we can . . .
  • When we have an idea but do not feel comfortable sharing it out loud, we can . . . 
  • When someone says something that we appreciate, we can . . . 
  • When someone says something that might be confusing or offensive, we can . . . 
  • To make sure all students have the opportunity to participate in a class discussion, we can . . .
  • If we read or watch something that makes us feel sad or angry, we can . . .
  • To show respect for the ideas of others, we can . . .

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Procedure

Steps for Implementation

To prepare students to develop a class contract, ask them to reflect in their journals on their experiences as students in a classroom community. You might use prompts like these to structure students’ reflection: 

  • Reflect on classrooms that have a welcoming environment for teachers and students. Describe what these welcoming classrooms look, sound, and feel like. In other words, what would you see, hear, or feel in welcoming classrooms? 
  • Reflect on classrooms that have an unwelcoming environment for teachers and students. Describe what these unwelcoming classrooms look, sound, and feel like. In other words, what would you see, hear, or feel in unwelcoming classrooms?

Explain to the class that they will be working together to develop a class contract. A contract implies that all parties have a responsibility to uphold the agreement. Ask them to define the term “contract” and share their ideas about the purpose of contracts and the types of things that contracts can protect. 

You might also define and discuss the term “norm”: a principle of right action that is binding upon the members of a group and serves to guide, control, or regulate proper and acceptable behavior.

Ask students to silently reread their reflection on welcoming and unwelcoming classrooms. Then ask them to brainstorm a list of norms/expectations that they feel are important for everyone in the class to follow in order to foster a brave and welcoming environment.

Divide students into small groups of three or four and ask them to share their lists. Then ask groups to come up with three expectations/norms that they feel are important for everyone in the class to follow. They can write their three ideas in their journals or on chart paper that you hang on the wall.

After the class has completed its contract, reaching consensus about rules, norms, and expectations, it is important for each student to signal his or her agreement. Students can do so by copying the contract into their journals and signing the page, or you can ask all students to sign a copy of the contract that will remain displayed in the classroom. Let students know that they will revisit and reflect on the contract over the course of the year and they can speak with you if they feel that parts of the contract are not being followed.

Facilitate a closing discussion about the activity and how students felt about the way they worked together to create their contract. You might draw from the following questions: 

  • What process did your small group use to come up with your three or four norms? What do you think worked well in your small group? How do you think you could do better the next time you work in a small group? 
  • What process did our whole group use to come up with our contract? What do you think worked well in the process? How do you think we could do better the next time we work on a project as a whole group?

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