“The two main purposes of class meetings are to help each other and to solve problems,” Jane Nelson says. According to William Glasser, the American psychiatrist who developed Choice Theory, class meetings are a time when “the teacher leads the whole class in a non-judgmental discussion.”
Amongst the guidelines were a list of dos and don’ts. For example, blame or put-downs were not allowed. These meetings were a place to solve problems, listen to the person speaking, and give each child a voice.
The next day, I told my students to get in a circle then pulled out a wooden mallet.
“This is the talking stick,” I said, holding it up. “Only the person holding it is allowed to speak. While he or she is sharing, everyone is quiet and listening. Remember we are talking about feelings, not tattling or name calling. When someone is finished sharing a concern with you, either say, ‘Thank you for sharing,’ or apologize. No arguing back and forth.”
Seeming to savor the solemnity of a grown-up meeting, the kids nodded, sat up straight, and waited with folded hands.
I then explained that I had concerns about rule breaking and wanted to create a better class community. I turned to one boy in my class, whose name is changed to ‘Cole’ below for privacy.
“Cole, I feel upset about the choices you have made lately. You have thrown things, chewed gum, and disturbed kids trying to work.”
Cole’s face blanched at first but then he lifted his gaze to meet mine and mumbled a sincere apology. Recognizing how difficult that was for him, I gave Cole a congratulatory nod before passing the stick to the next child. I said that he/she could either share with “I feel” messages or pass. Many chose to pass but what surprised me was that the children from the most troubled homes were very open to sharing. Students faced those who had bullied them and said how much it hurt. The bullies apologized and thanked the speaker for sharing. Two girls, who had been arguing and talking behind each other’s backs, spoke about how much they missed each other. Even a couple of my shyest students spoke up to say how they felt about name calling.
On the second pass around the circle I focused on problem solving having each child say; “I know we’ve had problems in the past but I’d like to__________.” As they filled in the blanks, I was amazed that every single child said they’d like to be friends
At the end of the meeting, I thanked them all with the reminder that this was a special time for our class, not something to gossip about. They could share it with their parents but aside from that, what was said in a class meeting was private.
At the next gathering I was thrilled to discover how much better they’d been getting along. Those who had been gossiping were now sitting next to each other with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders. There wasn’t a single report of bullying.
Fortunately, Sister Maria Elephant never did show up. Oh sure, there are still days when my students push it. But when things start to feel out of control, I gather everyone in a circle to remind them that they have a choice. They can continue letting the bullying and disruption continue, or they can use their words to effect change.
I have found that when children are given the right communication tools, they can rise to the occasion. I think one of my students put it best in a pen pal letter she wrote; “We used to have bullies in our class but now kids are being nice. We know we have the power to make peace.”