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I cannot count the number of times I came up with what I thought was a great idea for some kind of classroom activity, only to have it fall apart, leaving me frustrated and ready to throw the whole thing out. 

Suppose, for example, that I was starting a nonfiction unit and I wanted students to choose a nonfiction book from the library for independent reading. Before heading down, I would give bare-bones instructions like this: “Ok, we’re going to the library and you’ll have 20 minutes to check out a nonfiction book. Once you’ve done that, if you have extra time, just find a seat and start reading quietly.” 

We’d head down the hall and right away my frustration would start to build as a few students touched things on the hallway bulletin boards, banged on lockers, waved at their friends through the windows of classroom doors, and of course, made noise. Once we got into the library, the class would spread out, many going to areas that did not house nonfiction books, some starting to laugh and fool around right away, others immediately huddling to socialize, while a small handful actually started looking for nonfiction books. I would start playing teacher whack-a-mole, darting around the library, redirecting students and reminding them of what we were there to do. By the time we were done I would be totally frustrated—it had taken way more time than I’d planned for, quite a few students had books they just randomly grabbed rather than chosen thoughtfully, and the librarian was more irritated than usual with my students and with me.

Things would have gone so much better if I’d understood the concept of norm setting, where prior to an activity the teacher describes in great detail the expectations for that activity, including conduct. Had I known this, before leaving for the library, I would have taken a few minutes to review the expectations for behavior in the hall and in the library, talked about what they should do if they couldn’t find anything they liked, then drawn a quick map of the library layout and pointed to the nonfiction shelves, the areas they should stay out of, and where to sit after checkout. 

To some, this level of detail might feel like micromanagement, but unless you happen to be working with a group of exceptionally mature students, setting norms for how one conducts themselves in various environments is actually part of what they need to learn in school; it’s the “socializing” we offer as one benefit of formal schooling, and the need for it lasts well beyond the elementary years. 

(By the way, before I leave this library scenario, I should add that another thing that would have made things go so much better is if I’d actually done a lesson on how to choose a book for independent reading, exploring some of the different types of books that fall under the umbrella of “nonfiction” and even offering some recommendations. I’m embarrassed to say I definitely did not do that. So many of the mistakes I made as a teacher came from assuming my students knew how to do things I had picked up over years of life experience, and then I’d get mad when they didn’t know.)

Norm-setting can happen before any event or activity: having a guest speaker, beginning a Zoom session, doing group projects, working with equipment or manipulatives. You can also review norms over and over for activities you do regularly, like having class discussions or using technology, to keep expectations fresh in students’ minds. And it doesn’t have to be top-down: Students generally know which behaviors are conducive to certain activities, and if you set aside a little time for a discussion, they’ll be able to provide all the guidelines you would have thought of, and probably some you hadn’t.

Like with so many things in teaching, norm-setting requires extra time, and if you’re like I was, you’ll be tempted to just skip it, but if you find that too many of your plans go off the rails, the time you spend on norm-setting will definitely pay off later.

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