On a recent #ClearTheAir Twitter chat discussing themes in the book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby, Val Brown raised this question:
And my first response was to talk about the music I use in class:
I also rely on my body to do a lot of my “talking.” The way I sometimes clown during my demonstrations and make silly faces to get my point across, these actions remind me of how much not only my students but also I am seeking connection. This goes beyond being liked, it means being a source of interest, curiosity, trust, care, even surprise and finding those characteristics in others.
When I have struggled with students in class – when their behaviors felt hard for me to handle, when they regularly tried my patience and we got into power struggles that left us only resentful of each other – writing has often helped me step back and see more of that child and my own behaviors. I’ve kept stacks of notes on students and re-reading them reminds me of a few things:
- The information at my disposal about a child and their circumstances is always incomplete.
- Change is always in progress and my judgments about a child’s behaviors can cloud and confuse my observations of changes because of what I want or am trying to achieve.
- My writing only includes my voice (even if I imagine or think of the voice of the other).
That said, I want to revisit some old notes from way back and think about seeing children as “fully human” and what that can look like. I’ve left out the names to maintain privacy.
I feel that I have gotten to know T. a little better this quarter and I’m glad. While we have had our difficulties, I have learned to appreciate her resilient and resolute character. She has had to make some difficult choices in terms of in-class behavior but recently I have noted a significant change for the better. She is far more aware of her decision-making and as a result is making better choices increasingly often. She is no longer indifferent to the choices and their consequences. I also see her enjoying activities more and even when something is not to her liking (which she openly expresses) she has learned to carry on. I am encouraged by the progress I am witnessing and sincerely hope to see it continue.
It’s pretty safe to assume that “better choices” means in compliance with my expectations and that “no longer indifferent to choices and their consequences” means that she has learned to avoid punishment by exclusion. It could be that I’m learning to like T a bit more because she challenges my authority less, so in school we call that progress.
D’s overall behavior has improved since our last conversation. He is more amenable to following the regular plan and obviously enjoys the positive recognition that goes with it. No day’s behavior is quite the same as the last but the fluctuation between extremes seems to have diminished for the time being. D’s ability to read fluently strikes me as a possible source of some of his general tension. He’s so far ahead of many of his peers on that account that I can understand why he feels a natural tendency to want to speed things up whenever possible.
Again, a greater degree of compliance has obviously been reached although here I am looking for ways to understand what might be fueling this student’s need to “get ahead of the game” in my eyes. That does not mean that my guess is at all correct but it might be part of the picture.
C. is a lively and tireless communicator. He is quick to let you know what’s on his mind either verbally or more frequently with his very distinctive facial expressions and body language. Often his expression tends towards the extreme: he either loves an activity or refuses to participate. He wants to work with one person but will hardly consider and alternative. Thankfully, PE involves lots of movement and opportunities for animated contact so that C. is usually very keen to participate and enjoy the fun.
This last one feels a bit more like the observation note that helps me paint the picture of the child I actually taught. My greatest challenge remains being able to see children as they are rather than how I wish they were. And given that reality of who they are, asking the question sincerely: What can we create together?
When I have asked kids at the beginning of the year what they want from PE, some of the most common answers are:
- to learn some new skills
- to get better at…
- To be with friends
They don’t typically mention being seen, recognized, appreciated, cared for, respected – because these are understood as part of the (at least potential) package of school, of being members of a community, of belonging.
For most students, alienation can be overcome by teachers who create a sense of belongingness. Belongingness comes about when students experience frequent, pleasant interactions with their peers and teacher. It also comes about with the sense that others are concerned for who they are and for their wellbeing.
My task as the teacher is precisely to insure as steady a supply of belongingness as possible to all of my students all year and that is something we have to develop with each other. I cannot demand or decree it. Nor will it happen organically by itself. It will be something we create. Together. Again and again. This is one way to interpret Carla Shalaby’s call to “be love” in our classrooms with students.
Belongingness helps me get closer to understanding what specifically needs to happen as we build our classroom culture for the year:
To support belongingness, then, teachers need to do more than create strong relationships. In addition, they need to create norms and expectations about how students treat each other.
In order to move beyond compliance and exclusion-avoidance, I will need to involve my students a whole lot more in setting the parameters (and pie in the sky!) for our time together than I ever have. If I ask them, I also have to listen. If they offer ideas, we need to discuss them. I am convinced we can explore belongingness together. And practice being fully human with each other, with the music on or off.
image (c) edifiedlistener 2018