Patterned after family meetings in her own home, teacher Donna Styles established a format for class meetings that enabled her students to share their thoughts and solve classroom issues on their own. In Styles’s model, students take turns acting as a discussion leader, while the teacher promotes a respectful atmosphere and participates as a group member. Encouraged by the students’ positive response to her approach, Styles decided to share her expertise with other teachers. Included: Tips for holding successful class meetings.
“I believe that creating community in the classroom and fostering a safe environment in which students are empowered to make choices, provides the rich ground from which confident, self-directed, successful students thrive and grow,” Donna Styles tells Education World.
A teacher for more than thirty years, Styles is a veteran educator who has taught students in kindergarten through 7th grade, in both regular and multi-aged settings. She has worked as a regular classroom teacher, in English and French immersion classes, and as a thinking skills/enrichment resource teacher. She currently teaches grades five and six at Len Wood Elementary School in Armstrong, British Columbia (Canada). Styles’ practical and effective approach to classroom management did not develop from her extensive teaching experience, however, but from her hands-on experience as a parent!
“My husband and I had successfully used family meetings in our own family for years,” she explains. “We saw the positive effects of including our children in family decision-making. We saw firsthand how much more responsible our kids acted on an everyday basis, how much more an integral part of our family unit they felt, and how elevated their self-esteem became when their views were heard and considered. I realized the possible application in the classroom setting.”
Research Styles conducted for her master’s degree proved to her beyond a doubt that, in the eyes of students, class meetings are as effective as the literature on the subject claims. In her view, class meetings can play a critical role in the development of students’ emotional, social, moral, and intellectual development. Styles suggests that class meetings also can promote personal growth, leadership, organizational and public-speaking skills, thinking skills and cognitive gains, problem-solving skills, and interpersonal skills — creating a community of learners.
AN IDEA WORTH SHARING
“Class Meetings are most successful in classrooms that have a warm, caring, supportive environment — classrooms in which students feel comfortable to learn, feel safe to share their ideas, and feel free to ask questions and take risks,” explains Styles. “Students in those kinds of classrooms are supportive of one another, work together cooperatively, encourage one another, assume responsibility for their own learning and behavior, and are allowed to make decisions.”
In her book Class Meetings: Building Leadership, Problem-Solving and Decision-Making Skills in the Respectful Classroom, Styles outlines several key components that make class meetings unique and effective:
- Students sit on chairs in a circle.
- Meetings are held every week.
- A set format is followed.
- Students lead the meetings.
- Both problems and suggestions are discussed.
- Students encourage and compliment one another.
Styles maintains that incorporating class meetings is a reasonable task if teachers prepare students for meetings in about two to three lessons during the first weeks of school. She proposes that lessons involve the teaching and practice of encouragement, creative problem solving, and circle formation. After several trial meetings, with the teacher leading and modeling the process, students become meeting leaders, with each student taking a turn as discussion leader during the school year.
CONDUCTING CLASS MEETINGS
In a typical class meeting, Styles says, desks are moved to the perimeter of the room and students take their designated places in a circle of chairs. The meeting leader opens the meeting. Old business is discussed and new business is dealt with. “Thank yous” and compliments are offered and the meeting is closed.
If a student wants an issue raised at a meeting, he or she places a slip of paper inside a box provided in the classroom. The papers, which include the name of the student and the date, constitute the new business of the next meeting. Typically, three types of issues are put in the box: a problem involving one or more people, a problem or issue affecting the whole class, or a suggestion for a class activity.
During class meetings, Styles says, the teacher
- acts as a coach — providing guidance to the leader, when necessary.
- fulfills the role of secretary.
- performs as a group member — offering information only when needed, and making comments only when necessary to keep the tone positive and helpful.
The student leader
- keeps the meeting running smoothly.
- opens and closes the meeting.
- follows the order of steps for conducting the meeting.
- follows steps for solving problems.
- follows steps for discussing suggestions.
- makes eye contact with each person speaking.
- participates as any other member.
- keeps discussions on topic.
- lets students know if they are out of order.
- asks questions, clarifies or restates problems or ideas.
- speaks loudly and clearly.
ACCOUNTABILITY MADE SIMPLE
“Class meetings help make good classrooms even better,” says Styles. “The true power of meetings lies in their ability to empower students, to motivate them to learn, and to help them discover their personal best. When both students and teachers are able to voice opinions and thoughts in a quiet, respectful atmosphere, mutual respect and understanding develops. The students realize that it is their classroom as much as the teacher’s, and they take ownership and pride in that.”
Styles has found that, with classroom meetings, discipline becomes a minor issue. Problems are discussed in meetings and students themselves determine the consequences for misbehavior. Students become highly accountable for their actions in the classroom, she observes, when their peers are taking note of their behavior and discussing poor behavior in class meetings.
“When students choose solutions to problems, they have a stake in seeing that the consequences are followed,” Styles states. “Problems in the classroom are no longer just the teacher’s problems to solve — they become the class’s problems. Practice with the process each week enables students to become excellent problem-solvers, coming up with fair and effective methods of helping classmates improve and change behaviors that interfere with others or with their learning.”
Suggestions put into the box give students an opportunity to work on committees and to plan and orchestrate many interesting and fun activities during the year, Styles points out. This generates excitement and energy in the classroom, helping students to “buy into” coming to school and to feel a sense of belonging to the group. “As a teacher, I think there is no other tool that has such a long list of benefits. Conducting weekly class meetings with this format easily makes it one of the most powerful tools a classroom teacher can use. And it’s so simple — one period a week!” Styles reports that — without exception — students love class meetings, and that the approach is conducive to the inclusion of students with special needs.