Frank Miller
There are few joys greater than those experienced by the teacher of a group of caring, considerate elementary school students. A kind word, a smile, a warm hug-these are some of the intangibles which make teaching the most rewarding, heart-warming career one could hope to have. On the other hand, a group of students who seem to constantly bicker can create an unproductive teaching situation. This article describes a practical, teacher-tested approach for fostering a cohesive classroom environment full of children who treat one another and their teachers with warmth, dignity, and respect.
When I first became a fourth-grade teacher in 1976, I had recently completed a graduate degree in guidance and counseling. During my studies, I had encountered many concepts that I felt would be useful in my role as an elementary teacher. Early in my first semester of teaching, I found this expectation to be even more true than I had envisioned. Soon after school began, it became painfully obvious that I would have my hands full just trying to maintain a safe environment in my classroom, much less one in which learning could be expected to take place. The fourth-graders who had been assigned to my class proved to be an extremely competitive group, many of whom seemed to feel that the way to get ahead was to put others down. After several frustrating days, I decided it would be necessary to put my guidance and counseling training to use.

I had been particularly impressed with William Glasser's Reality Therapy approach for group counseling. In his book, Reality Therapy,1 the author tells of his experiences working with delinquent girls, using a group counseling approach to establish rapport with the girls and to help them develop a sense of self-awareness and responsibility for their actions and decisions. Glasser later wrote Schools Without Failure,2 in which he applied many of his ideas to educational settings. It was to this source that I turned seeking viable approaches for helping my students learn to get along with one another and develop a sense of responsibility for their actions toward one another.

After carefully reading Schools Without Failure, I had a good idea of what I hoped to accomplish with my class. Specifically, I planned to implement group counseling sessions, which Glasser describes as "class meetings," with my students as a vehicle for helping them develop increased social awareness and diplomacy skills. If my plan was to be successful, I realized that I needed to present the concept to my students in a way that would motivate them to buy into the idea.

After lunch the next day, I embarked on a journey which was to have a profound effect on my class that year, as well as on my subsequent teaching career. Based upon Glasser's work, I tailored my classroom meeting approach to fit my individual teaching style and the nature of the children with whom I worked. Also, this approach continually evolved as I learned from the failures and successes experienced along the way.

Planning a Class Meeting
A class meeting is an open-ended discussion in which relevant issues are discussed. The group leader (i.e., teacher) poses questions related to the issue at hand for which there are no "right" or "wrong" answers. The questions are worded in a way that is conducive to stimulating free discussion, exploration of values, self- discovery, and/or problem-solving.

The first step in planning a class meeting is to determine the topic of discussion. The topic must be relevant, and ideally one of immediate and high interest to the class. For example, if there has been a problem with aggressive behavior on the playground during recess, this would be a legitimate topic for discussion. The object of the class meeting, in this case, would be for the teacher to help the students explore the issue and take responsibility for developing their own solutions for the problem. The role of the teacher in the process is that of a facilitator. It is especially important that the teacher remain non-judgmental throughout the course of the discussion.

Once the topic for the class meeting has been determined, the teacher prepares some introductory statements to initiate the discussion, and makes a list of specific questions designed to stimulate thought and open-ended dialogue on the part of the students. In the example mentioned above, some appropriate questions might be, "What is happening on the playground that is causing people to get hurt?" and "Why do you think some people are doing these things which cause others to be hurt?" After guiding the children in exploring the playground situation in some detail, an appropriate closing question might be, "What can we all do to make sure that no one else gets hurt on the playground during recess?" The overall goal is for the students to come up with their own solutions to the problem.

Initiating the Class Meetings
It is essential that students be able to interact freely and spontaneously in order to have a successful class meeting. For this reason, the optimal seating arrangement for the activity is a circle or horse-shoe shape. This arrangement allows the children to interact in a more personal, intimate manner than if they were looking at the backs of one another's heads-

as is often the case in more traditional seating arrangements.

The teacher begins the initial class meeting by explaining to the students that they will be having regular class discussions in which they will be free to express their feelings and opinions about some relevant and timely topics. There will be no "right" or "wrong" answers, but only "true" answers (i.e., answers that express an individual's honest thoughts and opinions about an issue). No student will ever be required to verbally participate in the discussions, but all must show respect to others by listening to their contributions.

The topic of the first class meeting should be simple, and one in which the children are likely to have a high level of interest. For example, a good kick-off question might be: "What would you do if you had a million dollars?" I have never experienced any problems in getting elementary students to respond to this question!

Keeping the Class Meetings Going
It is a good practice to establish a specific time of day during which class meetings can be held on a regular basis. For example, I had success in scheduling the meetings immediately following the lunch period. After this routine had been established, the students would not let me forget when it was "class-meeting time!"

Examples of Class Meeting Topics
Topics for discussion are virtually unlimited. Some topics for problem-solving class meetings might include the following: Making Fun of Others, Getting Along with One Another, Bullying, Tattling, Doing One's Best Work, or even, Respecting One Another's Ideas During Class Meetings. Additionally, class meetings can serve as an effective format for allowing students to have input in determining and enforcing classroom rules.

In addition to serving as a vehicle for seeking solutions to relevant problems, class meetings can also provide opportunities for expanding self-understanding and for exploring and clarifying one's values. It is particularly important in this type of class meeting that the facilitator's questions, as well as the subsequent discussion, be open-ended and non-judgmental. Some topics for this type of class meeting might be: When I Am Grownup..., What Makes Me Happy, My Friends, How I Solve Problems, or, Things that Are Important to Me.

Finally, the class meeting format can be used to facilitate an in-depth study into specific areas related to the curriculum. This type of class meeting resembles a traditional class discussion in many ways; however, the discussion remains open-ended and tends to focus on higher-level thinking processes. The emphasis is on process (i.e., thinking logically, making sound judgments) rather than on achieving a predetermined end product (i.e., specific content knowledge or "right" answers).

Examples of topics for curriculum-related class meetings might include the following: Endangered Animals, Man in Space, The Colonization of America, or, My Job. The following are some questions which might be explored during a class meeting related to the topic of "Man in Space" (after the class had made a thorough study of the topic):

"If you had a choice, would you live in a colony on the moon? Explain the rationale for your decision."
"How might your life be different if you lived in a colony on the moon?"
"How might food and other supplies and materials be obtained by the moon colonists?"
"Do you think mankind should spend billions of dollars exploring space when there are millions of people on our planet who are starving to death because they have no food? Explain the reason(s) for your answer."

The Role of the Facilitator
Class meetings often stimulate enthusiastic, and sometimes even heated, discussion among members of the class. It is important that the facilitator remain impartial while helping students stay focused on the topic of discussion. Furthermore, the facilitator must ensure that all participants attend to and respect the opinions of other group members. Students must be reminded that, even though they are never required to make verbal contributions to a class meeting, they are expected to be active listeners. Each student has an obligation to help create and maintain an environment in which the opinions, dignity, and worth of each individual are acknowledged and respected.

Class meetings can serve as an effective format for introducing relevance into the classroom setting. As students grapple with pertinent issues related to the classroom, they find themselves gaining insights and developing problem-solving skills that may be applied to their lives outside of school. Students develop a sense of ownership and responsibility for their roles as functioning members of the classroom society. They learn to be receptive to the views of others, even though they may not always agree, and to resolve differences of opinion through open discourse. Class meetings stimulate students to become more aware of their own feelings, opinions, and values orientations, and provide opportunities for students to express these views in a non-threatening environment.

The traditional classroom structure, as a rule, provides little opportunity for students to engage in the type of open dialogue required to derive many of the benefits listed above. With an investment of approximately 15 minutes a day, the class meeting format changed my classroom environment from one of disruption to one in which all participants-students and teachers alike-came to accept and respect one another as individuals and as valued members of the classroom society.

sample class meeting formats
After briefly introducing the topic for discussion, the facilitator asks the following questions:

After briefly introducing the topic for discussion, the facilitator asks the following questions:
After the class has conducted an in-depth study dealing with the topic of endangered and extinct animals, the teacher asks the following questions:
1.William Glasser, Reality Therapy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965).
2.William Glasser, Schools Without Failure (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

About the Author
Frank Miller is an Assistant Professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. He received his Ed.D. from University of North Texas. Prior to that, he taught elementary school and used class meetings with his students for thirteen years.