Read-Alouds for Rule Creation

Classroom rules work best when students understand why rules exist and how rules will help them, as individuals and as a group. I have found several children’s books over the years that help inspire conversations about these topics. Here are some suggestions:

Do Unto Otters by Laurie Keller. When his new neighbors, the otters, move in, Rabbit learns of the guiding principle, “Do unto otters as you would have otters do unto you.” He asks himself, “How would I like otters to treat me?” He comes up with some ideas, such as “I’d like otters to be considerate” and “I’d like it if we could share things,” which Keller illustrates with some hilarious asides and speech bubbles. You could use this book to start a conversation about how children would like others in the class to treat them.

Never Spit On Your Shoes by Denys Cazet. In describing her first day of school, Annie the dog describes her own teacher’s efforts to lead a rather wild class in a discussion of the rules. Some ideas the animals contribute are “Always keep your tools dry” (from a beaver) and “Just say no to catnip” (from a cat) and “Never spit on your shoes” (from a goat). You could use the book to launch a discussion about how the rules the class in the book developed did not really help them learn and enjoy school (as the pictures show!). Then encourage your class to think about what some more positive and helpful rules would be.

Officer Buckle and Gloria by Peggy Rathmann. Officer Buckle is dedicated to teaching children about safety rules (“Never stand on a swivel chair,” “Never leave a thumbtack where you can sit on it,” etc.), but his earnest presentations put children to sleep. All that changes when he starts taking his dog Gloria along, and behind his back, Gloria acts out what would happen if children didn’t follow his rules. Children start paying attention and become fully engaged in his talks! Use this book to launch a discussion of why rules are necessary, or to practice taking a list of many specific rules and putting similar ones into categories.

What If Everybody Did That? by Ellen Javernick and illustrated by Colleen Madden. Funny and engaging illustrations show what happens when a boy imagines possible answers to the question he keeps hearing from adults: “What if everybody did that?” For instance, we see the fat zoo animals that would result if everyone broke the rule about not feeding them, and the cluttered roadside and animals dodging flying objects that would result if everyone threw cans out of car windows. Reading this book could inspire a great class discussion about why rules exist. And, because at the end of the book the boy’s thoughts turn in a more positive direction (“What if everyone gave out hugs?”), you could also use it to start a conversation about rules that would make your class a safe and happy place.

I also asked some colleagues for suggestions about great books and ideas for classroom rule creation with students in the upper elementary grades.

A teacher in a workshop I led recently said she uses The Secret Knowledge of Grown-Ups by David Wisniewski to start the rule-making process with fifth graders. Wisniewski portrays the multitude of rules grown-ups have developed and the reasons they give for those rules as mere pretexts for the real, top-secret story: behind each grown-up rule is an issue of critical importance to our national security. For example: The reason children have to eat their vegetables? Otherwise vegetables might regain world domination! Children will be drawn to the idea that there is an adult conspiracy afoot and to Wisniewski’s hilarious explanations. To use this book, you’d need to move into a discussion of what rules your class might need this year, along with the obvious and not-so-obvious reasons for those.

Martha Hanley told me she ties the rule-creation process into learning about the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. She sometimes uses the book We the Kids by David Catrow. In it, he takes the preamble to the constitution and makes sense of it through cartoon-like illustrations of three children and their dog on a camping trip. For instance, for the words “provide for the common defense,” Catrow portrays the dog standing guard outside, as the children play in the tent. This fun take on the preamble, along with School House Rock’s musical version, would inspire students both to learn more about the Constitution and to create their own meaningful set of classroom guidelines.

Martha reminded me that September 17th is Constitution Day! Even if you have already finished making your classroom rules, that makes it a great day to revisit and celebrate them!

Learn more about creating rules:

Rules In School: Teaching Discipline in the Responsive Classroom offers practical techniques to help you set expectations, teach and reinforce positive behavior, and quickly get children back on track.

Margaret Berry Wilson is the author of several books, including: The Language of Learning, Doing Science in Morning Meeting (co-authored with Lara Webb), Interactive Modeling, and Teasing, Tattling, Defiance & More.

Tags: Classroom Rules, Language Arts