Quick Tip Tuesday: Building relationships in the classroom

October 5th, 2010

I don’t know about you, but every time I read one of Debbie Miller’s books, I wish I could be a student in her classroom. Reading today’s Quick Tip, you will see why: Debbie shares how she builds a connection with each student in her classroom and how she shows her students how to treat each other with respect to create a true learning community. This Quick Tip is from Debbie’s book Reading with Meaning: Teaching Comprehension in the Primary Grades.

I begin by paying attention to the little things. It’s noticing Paige’s cool new haircut, Grant’s oversized Avalanche jersey, Kendal’s sparkly blue nail polish, and Cody’s washable tattoos. It’s asking about Palmer’s soccer game, Jane’s dance recital, Elizabeth’s visiting grandpa, and Hannah’s brand-new baby brother.

It’s giving Ailey a heart rock to add to her collection, copying a poem about cats and giving it to Gina because I know she loves them, and even putting a Band-Aid on Grace’s tiny paper cut. Showing children we care about them and love being their teacher is an important first message. And at the same time, I’m modeling for children how to show someone you care about them; I’m modeling how you go about creating lasting friendships.

Teaching children how to listen and respond to each other in respectful, thoughtful ways also helps foster new relationships and caring communities. I used to have long conversations with children about this, telling them how important it was to listen carefully to each other and to really think about what their classmates have to say. I’d talk about responding respectfully, to look at the person you’re speaking to, call them by name, and on and on. But the very next day a child might groan at a song another had chosen, wildly wave a hand when someone else was talking, or flip through the pages of a book while another child was sharing. And I’d go into the whole respect routine again. During these conversations, the children were just as eloquent. They sounded just like me! But their behavior didn’t change. And I’d wonder, “What’s going on here? Why don’t they get it?” And even sometimes, “What’s wrong with these kids, anyway?”

Eventually I realized, of course, that nothing was wrong with “these kids.” They didn’t get it because I hadn’t shown them how. I’d told them to be respectful, thoughtful, and kind, but I hadn’t shown them what that looks and sounds like.

The best opportunities to show kids how occur in the moment. When Frankie says to Colleen, “Colleen, could you please speak up? I can’t hear what you have to say,” I can’t let that pass without making sure everyone heard. I can’t let that pass without pointing out how smart it is to want to hear what someone has to say. I say, “You guys, did you just hear Frankie? Frankie, could you say that again?” She does, and I ask, “So boys and girls, why was that such a smart thing for Frankie to do?” They respond, and then I use their words and mine to bring our thoughts together. And when Max tells Jack that his idea is “a little bit dumb,” I can’t let that pass either. I say, “Max, I’m sure you didn’t mean to be rude to Jack, but when you said his idea was a ‘little bit dumb,’ that’s what you were being. It’s okay to disagree with someone, but there are nicer, more polite ways to do it. You might say something like, ‘Jack, I don’t understand what you mean’ or ‘Jack, why do you think that?’ Try it again, Max.” He does, beautifully this time, and I don’t miss the opportunity to let everyone know how much we’ve learned from Max today.

Or Sean is trying to find a place in the circle, and he starts nudging himself into a spot four inches wide. I say, “Sean, could you think of a better way to get yourself into the circle?” Sean’s stumped. “Well, how about this? The next time you need to be in the circle and there isn’t room, how about asking someone to scoot back so you can fit in? Let’s try it right now. Just say, ‘Sunny, could you please scoot back so I can fit in the circle?’” He does. Next, I turn my attention to Sunny. “Okay, Sunny, Sean has asked you nicely to scoot back. What could you say back to him?” She says, “Sure, Sean, I’ll scoot back for you.” With smiles all around, she does.

Is the first time the charm? No. And probably not the third time either. But remain diligent. Remain calm. Don’t give up the good fight! Once the flagrant violations are in check, watch closely for the rolling of eyes, the private conversations, the exasperated sighs. Don’t let those go by either.

You can use these first lessons—we can call them “anchor lessons”—to refer back to. For example, when Sarah snaps at Troy, I say, “Oops, Sarah, what’s another way you could tell Troy what you’re thinking? Think back to how Max handled something like this.” We’ll assist her if she needs it, but a gentle reminder is usually enough.

Here are a few more teachable moments:
To the children with the wildly waving hand when someone is talking: “You know what, guys? I know you’re not meaning to be rude, but when your hand is up and someone else is talking, I’m thinking you’re probably focusing on what you’re going to say rather than listening to the person who is speaking. What do you think? Since we can learn so much from each other, remember to keep your hands down and really listen and think about what your friends are saying. When they’re finished, you can share what you’re thinking.”

To the children who abruptly get up in the middle of a story or discussion: “Oh my goodness, you’re going to leave us now? Think of the learning you’ll miss! Can you wait until the story [or discussion] is over? Thanks.”

To the children who always have something to say, no matter the topic or the day, and the ones who hardly have anything to say, ever: “Today I want you to think about yourselves as listeners and speakers. If you’re someone who’s great at talking a lot, I want you to be a listener today. See what you can learn. If you’re someone who is a great listener, I want you to do some talking today. We want to know what you are thinking, too. Raise your hand if you think you do a lot of listening. Raise your hand if you think you do a lot of talking. Wow! You really know yourselves. That’s so smart. Let’s try it.”

To those who have already heard every book in your library and can’t wait to let you know the minute you hold it up: “That’s so great you’ve heard this book before. And you know what? Since we know how much more we can learn and understand when we reread, I want you to pay special attention when you hear the story today. Think about what you notice this time that you didn’t notice before. Think about what puzzled you the first time, and what you think about that this time. Will you let us know?”

Doesn’t all this take a lot of time? You bet. But it sets the tone for learning and thoughtful conversation; it paves the way for the work that lies ahead. Once children realize you’re not going to relent, once they realize that this is not just a “sometime thing,” and once they understand what you want them to do and why it’s important, it becomes habit. It becomes part of the language of the classroom.

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Chris Bowen  |  October 5th, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    It’s absolutely true. When teaching middle school, I had a particularly rough room of struggling readers. I had always wondered what happened to my second and third graders when they got to middle school. Sadly, the little kid who believed reading would happen for them, is now sometimes the angry thirteen year old who has no faith in books. To a kid like this, we all simply lied to them. Remember, it’s either black or white at that age. One day, after being pummeled by this class, one guy stayed back.
    “Mr. Bowen, why are you so nice to us? I mean, we are vicious to you. So, why are you so nice?”
    “Because. My behavior doesn’t have to change. My behavior is really right where it needs to be. Why would I stop being a kind and decent person just because I’m upset? It’s your behavior that needs changing.” He thought on this.
    “But, I’m only one guy.”
    “Yeah. But, like it or not, you’re a leader. That’s why you came to talk to me. You’re a leader. You change? Half this room changes. Just like that.” And, it worked. Showing kids their better angels is incredibly powerful. So is modeling your own.

    Chris Bowen
    Author of “Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom”

  • 2. Cara  |  October 13th, 2010 at 11:23 pm

    Building a safe, nurturing community is extremely important. Investing time in cultivating relationships enables students to feel safe to share their ideas and feelings. I also believe that more learning will happen when authentic relationships exist.

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