How Do Rules & Traditions Shape Communities? | Facing History & Ourselves
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How Do Rules & Traditions Shape Communities?

Students create classroom rules through a group activity, and learn the relationship between customs and laws as it relates to a safe learning environment.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • Civics & Citizenship




One 50-min class period
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement


About This Lesson

In Lesson 6, students analyzed Suzanne Goldsmith’s definition of community. Goldsmith explains that a group of people become a community when they have a shared goal. A class is a community of learners: The shared goal, or “common enterprise,” is the intellectual, moral, and social development of students. In Lesson 7 students looked specifically at Memphis in order to identify some of the components of a geographic community. In Lessons 8 and 9, students read texts that explored how individuals within communities and between communities relate to one another, often by forming distinctions between we and they. Categorizing people is a universal aspect of human behavior. The important question is not how to avoid these categorizations but how to recognize when they are detrimental to the health of a community and its members. Eve Shalen recounts how divisions between the “in” group and the “out” group at her middle school resulted in the ostracism of particular members. Historically, we know that such distinctions have resulted in discrimination, and, in the most extreme cases, the labeling of some groups as subhuman has resulted in genocide.

What leads some societies to deal with membership in ways that may result in ostracism, prejudice, and violence whereas other communities strive to prevent discrimination? To answer this question, we begin by looking at the customs nurtured by a community and how these customs are formalized into law. In this lesson, students will think about the relationship between customs and laws (or rules) as it relates to a safe, productive learning environment. They will consider the difference between laws and customs and begin to think about the rules they want to adopt in their classroom. By the end of this lesson, the class should have a contract that they can all sign as a symbol of their commitment to upholding the norms of the community.

As students create their classroom contracts, the lesson introduces them to some of the key building blocks of civilizations: customs, laws, rules, and contracts. Throughout their study of world history, students can reflect on how the rules and customs of other societies nurtured particular relationships among their members. Just as students attempt to establish rules to help the classroom community achieve the best environment for learning, they can investigate how societies throughout history developed customs and rules to achieve their own particular goals.

  • Students will develop an understanding of the relationship among laws, customs, and community cohesion.
  • Students will be able to define the terms rule, law, contract, and custom.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 4 activities 
  • 2 handouts

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Lesson Plans


To prepare students to think about the rules they want in their own classroom, begin by asking them to think about what qualities a classroom community should have to provide a safe learning environment for all of its members. Students can meet in groups of three or four to discuss the following prompt:

The goal of a classroom community is to provide a space where all students can do their best learning. Do you think Eve Shalen’s classroom community was a good learning environment for all of the students? Why or why not? What qualities does a class have when all students are able to do their best learning?

Give students three to five minutes to discuss this prompt. Then ask each group to share its list of qualities and record their responses on the board.

Before students create rules to nurture the qualities of a good learning community, help them think about the relationship among rules, customs, and culture. Begin by asking students the questions, “What could we do if we want to have a classroom with the qualities of a good learning environment? How do other communities, even countries, try to get their members to behave in certain ways?” Students will likely bring up the idea that countries have laws that everyone must follow or communities have traditions and customs that members adhere to. When students mention laws or customs, ask them to identify specific examples.

At this point in the lesson, students can define the following words: rule, law, custom, and contract. Although laws and customs are both types of rules, customs tend to be more informal whereas laws are established by governments or institutions. If you have time, you may want to create a Venn diagram in which students fill in examples of laws, examples of customs, and examples of laws that are also customs. For instance, holidays often start out as customs but then become part of the laws, such as the national holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas. In some communities, throwing garbage away in trash cans is a custom but not a law. In these communities, if you litter people may give you a funny look but you won’t be fined or put in jail. Other communities have antilittering laws. In those communities, if you litter a police officer could give you a fine and if you refuse to pay the fine you might even end up in jail.

A contract is a document that turns customs into laws by making them enforceable by a government or other institution such as a religious organization. Explain to students that in this lesson they will create a class contract. A contract is made up of rules as well as consequences, which articulate what will happen if the rules are not followed. Contracts often begin with mission statements or preambles which state the purpose or goals of the contract. You may want to lead the class through the process of writing a class mission statement. You could do this by incorporating the qualities recorded on the board into a sentence or two. The mission statement might begin with the phrase, “To support the best learning environment for all students, we believe our class must. . . .”

When you have a class mission statement, ask students to meet in small groups to generate a list of rules to support the mission or purpose of the class. With each rule, students should also consider consequences—what should happen if students don’t follow the rules. The handout “Writing a class contract” included with this lesson has been designed to help structure students’ discussion in small groups. Students can record the rules and consequences on a large sheet of paper so that the rest of the class can read along as groups present their ideas.

Determining how to synthesize the ideas from all groups into one class contract can serve as a lesson in governance and democracy. Do you insist that the class reach consensus? Do you use majority rule? Or do you, as the teacher and authority figure, make the final decision? If time permits, you can use this portion of the lesson to teach students about terms such as democracy and dictatorship. Most likely, you will not have the time to go into these concepts now, but you can refer to this exercise later when you discuss the various government systems of other civilizations. For the purpose of this lesson, a majority rule decision-making process is both efficient and effective. You can have students vote on rules relatively quickly, which will be more likely to encourage buy-in than if you were to make the decision. You might decide that for any rule to “pass,” at least 60 percent of the students must agree to it.

Curriculum connections: Students can compare their class contract to the legal codes of other societies. For example, they could compare their class contract to Hammurabi’s Code. Just as students created their class contract by thinking about the purpose of their community, the rules that support this purpose, and the consequences for breaking the rules, they can also analyze the norms of other societies by using the same three factors: purpose, rules, and consequences.

As a final activity (or homework assignment), provide students the opportunity to reflect on the process of making a class contract. You could structure this reflection as a think-pair-share. First, students respond to a prompt in writing. Then they discuss their responses with a partner, and finally they share an idea from their conversation with the class. Here are some prompts to guide students’ reflections:

  • Does having a contract that is unique to this class contribute to a feeling of community? Why or why not? Do you feel any differently about this class now than you did yesterday?
  • What is the difference between writing the rules yourself and being told what the rules are? What role should community members have in creating the rules?
  • What is the difference between how laws are made and how customs are established? What would it take to establish class customs? Give an example of a custom you would like to have in this class.

Students can respond to one of the prompts listed in the follow-through section in their journals.

Since this is the last lesson in the unit, now is an appropriate time to have students synthesize what they have learned about identity and community. One way to do this is to have students look through their journal entries and the other work they have produced over the course of these 10 lessons. Then, ask them to make a list titled, “The Top Ten Things I Have Learned about Identity and Community.”

Another summative assignment might ask students to construct their own glossaries of key terms used throughout these lessons, words such as identity, community, membership, conformity, bystander, upstander, laws, customs, contract, and society. In addition to defining these terms, ask students to illustrate their glossaries and/or use these terms in a sentence.

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