Starting with a Common Signal

“Where should we start?” is a common question for schools that want to implement the Responsive Classroom approach schoolwide. There’s not one right answer, although it’s definitely helpful to invest early on in helping teachers master the core classroom practices. Besides that, a good way to start is to establish a signal for quiet attention that will be used consistently throughout the school—in classrooms and in hallways, in the cafeteria, on the playground, and in the bus line.

This is what the Future Leaders Institute (FLI), a public charter school in New York City, decided to do. FLI teachers started using Responsive Classroom and Developmental Designs practices in their classrooms three years ago. Recently, the school’s leadership team turned its attention to schoolwide practices that will align with and support this classroom work. When I visited FLI last September, the school was getting ready to establish its all-school signal.

This is a great place to start for many reasons. First, having an all-school quiet signal is incredibly useful. All adults in the building, including classroom teachers, special area teachers, staff, administrators—even guest teachers—will use it every day to give directions and reminders to students and to make announcements. Plus, the whole adult community can be meaningfully involved in the process of creating this signal, as I saw at FLI.

FLI’s administrative team started the process by dedicating twenty minutes to it at an all-school faculty meeting. Jeremy Abarno, director of FLI’s lower school, began by naming two goals for the session: to share decision-making about schoolwide matters with the faculty and to gather ideas for a signal for quiet attention that would be developmentally appropriate for all the students at FLI, a K8 school.

Groups of teachers were challenged to each propose a signal for schoolwide use. The room buzzed with energized conversations, and then each table group presented their signal. There were many ideas: one group presented a short rhythmic clapping signal, another a single clap and hands-up “eagle” signal (representing the school’s mascot), and another a simple one-hand-up gesture.

In the ensuing task of narrowing down the choices, there was impassioned discussion about the eagle signal, which involved raising a fist with pinky and pointer finger extended. Although many K–3 teachers found this option appealing, some of the middle school teachers wondered if their students might take liberties with the gesture. There were also concerns that some gangs in the neighborhood used hand signals and that the eagle signal might be misinterpreted because of that. Primary grades teachers changed their minds when they heard these concerns. As the twenty minutes drew to a close, the faculty remained engaged in thoughtful debate.

Jeremy told the teachers that they would return to this topic at their next meeting. He explained that the final decision would be made by consensus, a familiar process for this staff. While communicating great confidence in their ability to come to a mutually agreed-upon decision, Jeremy acknowledged that reaching consensus can be difficult and explained that should the group be unable to come to consensus, FLI’s head of school, Peter Anderson, would make the final decision.

When the group reconvened the following week, someone suggested blending two of the ideas on the table: a rhythmic clap and a hands-up signal. Jeremy did a quick “negative poll,” asking “Is there anyone who can’t support using this signal as a schoolwide signal?” There were no negative votes. The teachers had come to consensus! Everyone cheered and a schoolwide signal was born.

This whole process only took about twenty-five minutes. Jeremy told me he thinks one reason the process worked so well is that the teachers at FLI are truly invested in developing schoolwide systems of support for their students. I’d also note that the decision-making process FLI used was both meaningful and efficient—goals and expectations were stated clearly, and the mix of small group work and whole group discussion allowed many people’s voices to be included.

Of course, coming to adult agreement on the signal is just a first step. The real work involves teaching, modeling, and practicing the signal with all of the students during the first weeks of school and continuing with reminders and reinforcements after that. Schools that do this important work will have a strong foundation for implementing all of the schoolwide Responsive Classroom practices.

Babs Freeman-Loftis, Responsive Classroom professional development specialist, was assistant head of the lower school at the University School of Nashville for nine years, and before that, a physical education teacher.

About Future Leaders Institute

Future Leaders Institute was founded by a group of New York City teachers with a vision of starting a public school that would provide students in Harlem with a high-expectation and high-performance educational experience. The school opened with forty students in third and fourth grades in 1998. FLI applied for and was approved for public charter school status in 2005, and by 2009 had grown to serve 345 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. They use the Responsive Classroom approach in the elementary grades and Developmental Designs at the middle school level.

Tags: Quiet and Other Signals, Schoolwide Rules, Whole-school meetings