“If We Were Going to Have a Safe, Happy and Fun Classroom…”

In this post, sixth grade classroom teacher Bill Ferriter describes a process that he recently used with students to develop a set of classroom promises that are designed to define just what teachers and students need to do in order to have “the best year ever.”

As I mentioned over the weekend, I’ve been working with my students to craft a set of classroom promises designed to make sure that our classroom is a safe, happy and fun place this year.  

The experience was inspired by a process described in Pernille Ripp’s newest book, Passionate Learners. Pernille’s argument is that a healthy classroom depends on giving students genuine input in developing the expectations that govern a classroom.  Students will only invest in their learning spaces, she believes, once they realize that they truly have ownership over what happens once they walk through the classroom door.

While I spent WAY more time on this process than I expected to, I think the experience was super productive.  At the least, we had a fantastic conversation about the commitments we need to make in order to ensure that our year is something special.  At the best, we have a set of promises that will guide our work and that will allow my students to thrive without “supervision.”

Here’s what my students decided was important to them:

If we were going to have a safe, happy and fun classroom, Mr. Ferriter would:

Be fair and firm with all students.  This means that Mr. Ferriter will recognize and reward good behavior.  This also means that Mr. Ferriter should recognize and help when a student is struggling.

Be fun, active and creative while working.  This means that Mr. Ferriter will do his best to plan fun lessons and to be humorous.

Recognize that there are activities besides school in our lives.  This means we need Mr. Ferriter to give an appropriate amount of time for assignments and an appropriate amount of homework.

If we were going to have a safe, happy and fun classroom, students would:

Work hard and give our best effort all the time — whether we are working alone or in groups.  This means no matter how hard or easy our task is, we will try our best.

Participate, cooperate and be positive during class.  This means we will include other students in group efforts and we will participate by raising our hands, working well in a group, and recognizing the right time to lead and to follow.

Listen to the teacher and respect other students.  This means we will treat others the way we want to be treated and we will stay quiet when it isn’t our turn to speak.

Not bad, huh?  If you’re interested in learning more about the process that we used to develop these statements — or in the handouts that structured the work — keep reading.


We started by silently brainstorming around four key questions:

  1. What kinds of behaviors are important for making classrooms safe, happy and fun?
  2. What kind of behaviors make classrooms unhappy/unhealthy places to be?
  3. What kind of behaviors drive you completely crazy in a classroom?
  4. What promises would we have to make to one another in order to make this the best year ever?

Students recorded their initial reactions to those questions on butcher paper.

Then, I asked them to craft a written reaction to a comment added by another student.  I explained that a reaction could include agreeing with the original comment, disagreeing with the original comment, adding an example to the original comment, or asking a clarifying question about the original comment.

We were left with papers FULL of thoughts about the kind of teacher and student behaviors that make classrooms safe, happy and fun (see here and here for samples).

The next day, students worked in groups of three to look for trends in the kinds of behaviors that both teachers and students would have to demonstrate in order to make our year the best ever.  They used this handout to structure their observations, to record any trends that they could spot, and to write promise statements detailing the kind of behaviors that we wanted to see in our classroom this year.

While writing promise statements, I explained that it was important to express our expectations in positive language.  We practiced by converting statements like, “If our classroom is going to be safe, happy and fun, students shouldn’t blurt out” into statements like “If our classroom is going to be safe, happy and fun, students should be good listeners when others are speaking.”

Once groups had written three statements describing the trends in both teacher and student behavior that they spotted on our initial brainstorming documents, we came together to generate a master list of every expectation that we had for one another.  Our final list of teacher expectations included 15 different promise statements and our final list of student expectations included 9 different promise statements.

Together, we worked to combine statements that shared the same core ideas.  We also polished language a bit — making sure that we had turned every negative into a positive.  Finally, students voted for the statements that mattered the most to them.  Each student could vote for both three teacher behaviors and three student behaviors.

While voting, I asked students to see if they could spot the will of the class.  “Sometimes when we are voting,” I explained, “I don’t want you to be influenced by your peers.  In this case, though, I DO want you to be influenced by your peers.  If you see that one of our promises is SUPER important to everyone else in our class and you think you can live with it, vote for it.  We are trying to find the ideas that we can ALL get behind.”

When voting was over, I asked four students to stay at lunch time and pull our promises together into one neat list that was wordsmithed, polished and ready for review.  I took their final language and turned it into a handout that students now have in the front of their notebooks.

Here’s that handout:


My plans are to review our classroom promises each day while we are filling out our agendas.  The way I see it, classroom culture — like the culture in any human organization — needs constant nurturing and reinforcement.  I will also reward and recognize students publicly for honoring our classroom promises.  Students need to hear and see examples of our promises in action if those promises are going to become valued expectations for everyone.

I’m also going to ask students to reflect regularly on their own ability to honor our classroom promises.  The second page of the Promises handout linked above is designed to give kids chances to think about how their actions are moving our class forward and/or holding our class back.

I also have plans to develop a handout that allows students to give ME feedback on how MY behaviors are either moving our class forward or holding our class back. I figure that I can be a model for my students, showing how to receive and react to feedback — both positive and negative — publicly.

Finally, I’m going to develop mini-lessons designed to give students the kinds of skills necessary to confront peers who are breaking our classroom promises.  I want my students to recognize that if we are serious about making our classroom safe, happy and fun, we have to be comfortable correcting one another when our behaviors are getting in the way.  I’m not sure what those lessons will look like yet, but my guess is that they will involve a bit of role playing and a set of suggested phrases that are polite but direct.


Looking forward to hearing what you think.  In fact, I’d LOVE some feedback.  What do you like about the lesson?  What would you change about it?

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  • KrisGiere

    Just a thought…

    Bill wrote:

    I will also reward and recognize students publicly for honoring our classroom promises.  Students need to hear and see examples of our promises in action if those promises are going to become valued expectations for everyone.


    Just a thought about the rewarding you mentioned, have you considered having students nominate classmates who uphold these promises or include pointing to peer examples of these promises in action as part of their own reflection, which you could then use as a sort of nomination?  We only see so much from our teacher seat in the room.  Nominations — formal or informal — could potentially provide you with some additional insights.

    I look forward to hearing about how this fares for you this year.  Keep on being awesome!


    • billferriter

      Kris asked:

      Kris asked:

      Just a thought about the rewarding you mentioned, have you considered having students nominate classmates who uphold these promises or include pointing to peer examples of these promises in action as part of their own reflection, which you could then use as a sort of nomination? 


      Thanks for the feedback, Kris!  

      And in the great minds think alike category, I started having kids recognize peers for following our promises yesterday!  After each small group task, I asked three students in my classroom to recognize someone who had followed our promises well.  Those students earned a point for their “house” — a team competition that we hold every year to encourage responsible work behaviors.  

      I also talked about the fact that if NO ONE followed the promises, students didn’t need to recognize anyone.  We discussed the fact that recognizing kids who HADN’T honored our promises would do nothing but reinforce the kinds of behaviors that we DON’T want to see happening in our classrooms.

      I’m not sure how this will all work — and I’m sacrificing more class time than I expected to pull it off — but if I can get a solid culture nailed out early in the year, it should pay dividends later.

      Rock right on, 



      • KrisGiere

        More thoughts…


        As I think about what you are doing, I am encouraged greatly.  I think it is a wonderful way to build a community in your classroom that might take too much time early on, but should speed up as students become more accustomed to it.  I am very excited to see how it plays out for you in your classroom with your students.  I hesitated to post my thought on student nominations last time because I was certain that you already had done this but just hadn’t written about it.  I was sort of right.

        One thing that I keep thinking about is what those nominations will tell you if you look at them for something deeper than just points and reaffirming the culture you are trying to create.  I would highly recommend having every student nominate someone (maybe nominate someone from each team, not just their own) to you each week.  My reasoning is connected to a blogpost that I read a while ago and I am thinking you may have read it to about a teacher who had her students write out a request each Friday listing who they wanted to sit by the next week.  What she learned was deep and telling.  If you haven’t read it or if my description doesn’t jog your memory of it (the description definitely doesn’t do the blog post justice), please check it out.  Maybe, you’ll find similar deep and transformative results.  (And if they hand in their nominations, you can save a little class time too.)

        I wish you all the best!


  • Chris

    Language Arts

    Love this, but a few questions. What age group? Single class all day, or rotating classes? If you have rotating classes (i.e. two 7th grade LA classes, two 8th grade LA classes) it could be more difficult as each class will likely come up with different expectations. Thoughts?

  • Traci E Vicente

    Super Plan!

    I have also tried a similar rule writing project in my classrooms and the extra time spent in the beginning of the year was well worth the payoff it provided throughout the entire year.  I found I did not encounter as numerous disciplinary issues as some of my other colleagues teaching the same special populations.  Kudos to you!  There is a school/community based program called “Tribes” which is well worth the training if you can get the admin buy-in. Tribes can be structured to work with a class, a grade level, a department or an entire school. http://tribes.com/

  • Theresa O’Connor

    Great Ideas for Generating Classroom Rules

    Giving students more ownership in the classroom will have them more engaged and motivated to succeed.

  • pwcrabtree

    VERY RC…

    Hi Bill, 

    This is a lot like what Responsive Classroom Schools look like… for the first 6-8 weeks in a responsive classroom there is not a lot of curriculum instruction. Instead the teacher and students focus on creating a set of classroom rules, building community, and practicing the rules and routines that help their classroom run smoothly.  Our school is RC and while I don’t agree a hundred percent with all of the RC philosophy (ie: no rewards or positive reinforcment),,, I will say that morning meetings, collaboration on classroom rules, and interactive modeling and practice has made a huge difference in our school and is worth the time!  It is so weird you are back already… I didn’t get out until the last week in June… and go back in just over a week.  Good luck! Let me know if you need resources or more info.  🙂