Fully Human and Hello, Belongingness

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Spotted in Vienna’s First District

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:

  1. The information at my disposal about a child and their circumstances is always incomplete.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Here’s another:

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:

  • fun
  • excitement
  • games
  • 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.

Math educator, Ilana Horn, describes the concept of belonginness in her book Motivated and this blog post and I cannot stop thinking about it:

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

Humanity Rant or Why #PeopleAreWorthIt

The Washington Post headline says this:

Education
If you want your children to succeed, teach them to share in kindergarten
The opening sentences establish the following:

Kindergartners who share, cooperate and are helpful are more likely to have a college degree and a job 20 years later than children who lack those social skills, according to a new study.

Kids who get along well with others also are less likely to have substance-abuse problems and run-ins with the law.

The research, which involved tracking nearly 800 students for two decades, suggests that specific social-emotional skills among young children can be powerful predictors for success later in life.

The research was set up as follows:

“The study is based on data collected beginning in 1991 at schools in Nashville, Seattle, rural Pennsylvania and Durham, N.C. Teachers of 753 kindergartners were asked to rate each student’s skill level in eight areas: …

Each teacher was asked to assess how well each statement described the child on a 5-point scale: “Not at all (0),” “A little (1),” “Moderately well (2),” “Well (3)” and “Very well (4).”

Researchers then tracked those students for two decades, using police records, reports from parents and self-reports from the children.”

And all of these findings of course support the conclusion that quality pre-school really matters and that if we invest there, we can further improve student outcomes: “It does offer the promise that if we can help kids get to this place by 5, that it will be sustaining,” he [a director at a nationally recognized university research institute for  Early Education] said. “You don’t have to worry that it is going to unravel.”

I am so tired of these studies and the reporting of these studies which would love to have us believe that there is a magic solution; a key strategy we’ve overlooked but urgently need to reassert. That more funding and resources should flow in this direction instead of that one. I am so tired of experts commenting in ways which inflate the reported research with false significance. The wherewithal to comment about how correlation is not causation fails me. Enough of the false assumptions that ‘if we would finally focus on X, we could really improve Y’ in isolation from the systems in which all these things work!  I am so done with this approach of trying to explain the world.  I do not plan to read the study and find the holes in the fly-by, sensationalist reporting but I do want to pause and say that I have had my fill.

In a different post, Diane Ravitch lends space to the arguments of NYT columnist, Joe Noccera and his discovery of research by an MIT professor, Zeynep Ton.

“Joe Nocera heard a radically sensible idea from a professor at MIT named Zeynep Ton. She said that instead of cutting costs to the bone, employers should “provide employees a decent living, which includes not just pay but also a sense of purpose and empowerment at work.” This strategy “can be every bit as profitable as companies that strive to keep their labor costs low by paying the minimum wage with no benefits. Maybe even more profitable. Getting there requires companies to adopt what Ton calls “human-centered operations strategies,” which she acknowledges is “neither quick nor easy.” But it’s worth it, she says, both for the companies and for the country. Surely, she’s right.”

To read on is to learn that Ton’s research performed in the retail sector supports the idea that companies can benefit (i.e. boost their profit margin) by actually taking good care of their employees rather than treating them like disposables. And Ravitch suggests that Ed reformers could take some cues from these findings.

Why do we still require so much instruction on these points?  That is my main question. What failure of understanding prevents us from creating communities and organizations that serve the interests of many rather than of the very few? What fears keep us from meeting the social-emotional needs of our students without reams of data which demonstrate the benefits for achievement outcomes? When did it become so damn counter-cultural for us to educate our children with kindness and warmth? At what stage did we begin to view employee well-being and satisfaction as a wasteful and unnecessary expense?

Can we assume that these company CEOs and their supporting management in Ton’s research failed to learn to share in Kindergarten? Of course not! They are the ones with lucrative jobs and high levels of academic attainment. They learned well how to get along with others and most likely enjoyed a host of privileges throughout their school and work careers. The operating systems smile upon these sons and daughters of positive social adjustment. (And their likely well adjusted economic and social backgrounds.)

I get so weary when we employ academia to tell us what our moral and human responsibilities should be: to respect each others’ humanity, to connect our self-interest with the positive welfare of the commons. And to understand that we are all, yes all, better for it when we share more rather than less, provide support rather than strip it away.

One of my twitter colleagues and friends supports the hashtag #peopleareworthit. His name is Kris Giere and he consistently invokes this phrase. I see now why it needs to show up every day, several times a day. We need these reminders. We desperately need to be reminded of our capacity to do good in the world, to make someone’s day easier, nicer, more worthwhile in simple and complex ways. We have this capacity and more of this needs to show in the world. Wherever you can make a positive contribution be it a smile, a tweet, a show of gratitude, a donation – do that. Show your humanity, model kindness, stand up for fairness, lend a hand where it is needed.

We shouldn’t require research to tell us how and why these actions are good and that #peopleareworthit.  We also need to do more than play nice. We need to apply our intelligence in moving past the rhetoric into concrete action, no matter how seemingly small and local. Start somewhere, start now, start because caring shouldn’t need to take a number and wait to be called on. Thankfully, I have found so many positive models both online and off, locally and globally. And I see that I have much more work to do – on myself, in my communities of belonging and beyond. This is one more start.

 

Knowing not

A recent post in my twitter feed truly gave me pause:

Enough said...

Enough said…

So true, I thought. And I thought about:
My students and all the desires, impulses, hopes and expectations they bring to my classroom…
My colleagues and all that it takes for them to bring it, day after day, with intent, purpose, joy and lots of prep…
My sweet husband, whose days at work remain a kind of mystery even as he describes them to me…
My oldest son, whose identity is unfolding daily, hour by hour…
My youngest son, whose inner life is so richly imaginative and full of wonder and also of many fears…

So much I cannot know. So much to which we remain blind. And yet, to be kind, to show respect, to listen, to be present … These are all choices we can make to bridge the gap of so many unknowns. This is the stuff of connection and humanity. This is what holds us together as strangers, colleagues, friends, family: the capacity to reach out while knowing not.

Special thanks to Elena Aguilar who posted this quote on her Art of Coaching Facebook page.