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Ditch rules. Make a class motto.

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

MOTTO by Langston Hughes I play it cool I dig all jive. That's the reason I stay alive. My motto As I live and learn, is: Dig And Be Dug In Return. In his poem, Langston Hughes’s motto is simple, memorable, and meaningful. “Dig And Be Dug” encompasses all of the qualities that make a person good—words to live by. In my classroom, I want my students to have words to live by. A motto is a maxim; it’s a phrase that indicates a person’s motivation and character. Because mottos are simple, memorable, and meaningful both in the classroom and beyond, I decided to ditch classroom rules altogether and have a motto instead. Our classroom motto: Be an Upstander. How can a motto replace rules? When kids are given a motto, the rules are not authoritatively given to them. Instead, we figure out the path towards living our motto as a community. In my class, we have a Bystander/Upstander bulletin board. On it, I have a poster from Facing History (do yourself a favor and check out their free curriculum and posters at

The poster is a photograph of 15 year old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, attempting to enter her high school after the end of segregation. She was denied entry. In the poster, she is alone and surrounded by an angry mob of white supremacists. No one is helping her. No one is standing by her side as an ally. Those who were not yelling were watching and doing nothing. My students and I unpack the picture. What is the role of those yelling at Eckford? What role did those play who saw the hatred of the mob and did nothing? We discuss the roles of those working for justice and injustice and how those roles might play out in school: our classrooms, the hallway, the lunchroom, the bus. To further our conversation, we look at another poster from Facing History that depicts a bully, his victim, and several bystanders. We talk about the role each person is playing. We also talk about what is missing: an Upstander. What would an Upstander do when facing injustice? It’s not an easy conversation. We discuss what to do when the situation we’re facing is dangerous. We explore ways to advocate when our own friends are the bully. We brainstorm all of the big and small opportunities to stand up for good. All year long, we work to be Upstanders. No, our motto is not a rule, but it gives us something to aspire to. Throughout the school year, kids recognize each other for being Upstanders on our classroom bulletin board. They can do this anytime. Instead of constantly reminding my students of our class rules, they reinforce and encourage each other with our bulletin board. Throughout the school year, we all become better citizens of our classroom, and, hopefully in the long run, we become better citizens of the world. My recommendation to teachers: consider ditching the rules and adopting a meaningful motto instead.

Print this image and use to create your own Upstander bulletin board!

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