No Time to Reflect

If you asked most teachers to give you a list of their top learner qualities, I would bet that reflective would be somewhere at the top of most of the lists.  Teachers know that reflective students can think about their experiences, identify mistakes or improvements, and make adjustments to previous ideas.

Reflection is Demanding Work

However, teachers also know how difficult reflection is.  Many students who come into my class don’t understand how valuable reflection is for learning.  Some of my brightest students view reflection questions as a waste of time.  They are looking for tasks that show academic prowess and don’t think reflection does that. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Reflection is a demanding, metacognitive task that takes time and demands sustained focus.  By metacognitive, I simply mean that it requires students to think about their thinking or learning process, make observations and come to conclusions.

The Difficulty with Stopping

Further, no meaningful, detailed reflection happens in a short amount of time. Of all the things that can be rushed at school, reflection is not one of them. It takes time for students to collect their thoughts or mentally reconstruct an experience that just happened. But stopping is a struggle in fast-paced school environments that are dynamic and future-orientated. Additionally, for teachers, there is usually a gazillion things on their ‘To Do’ list and not enough time to do them.  On top of daily tasks, there are also the government curriculum standards and content to get through.  With a constant stream of “To Teach” and “To Dos” rolling in from our phones and email inboxes, stopping our classes to allow students to reflect on their learning is incredibly challenging.  But isn’t this why it is so important? As our society and schools become more inundated with information, shouldn’t we be more intentional about having our students stop and reflect on their learning?

Developing a Rhythm of Reflection

Over the last few years, I have become more intentional about making reflection an integral part of the learning in my classroom. As I read through my report card reflections from last term, I was really proud of the progress my students have made in their ability to reflect. Here is a sample of what one of my student’s wrote in response the three questions below.

  1. What is one area where you have experienced growth as a learner this term? Provide specific evidence.
  2. What are you most proud of as a learner this term?
  3. Going forward, what is a way you would like to grow as a learner?

One area I experienced growth as a learner is taking more ownership of my learning. At the start of the term, I always did the least work possible. I always asked the teacher what the minimum requirement so that I didn’t have to do a lot of work and carry on with other things. Throughout the second term, however, I realized that if I wanted to learn, I had to be more of a risk taker and try my hardest on everything I do. Now, whenever a project is assigned, I always think “How can this piece of work be even better” instead of thinking “I’m done” so that I can produce my best work possible.

Something I’m really proud of as a learner this term is my Cool Pool project. I’m really proud of this project because my partner and I work very hard on it. Another reason I’m proud of this is because my partner and I both had an important role in making the pools. I cut all the cardboard pieces out and Rebecca glued all the cardboard pieces together with a hot glue gun. Together, we built a pool that turned out better than I expected and I learned to give other people a chance to express what they think about the project instead of just listening to my own opinions.

Going forward, I would like to grow further in taking ownership of my own learning. I can do this by thinking about how I can improve in something instead of doing the minimum requirement. I think that if I grow in this as a learner, I can produce better work at school and feel like I want to learn. I can do this by putting my mindset in the right place and thinking “How can my work be even better” instead of thinking “I’m done” and moving on with other things when I hardly tried at all.

7M Student

When I think back on my own growth in teaching reflection, one thing has made a significant difference is embedding regular times of reflection. At first, I started making informal times of reflection a more intentional part of the self-evaluation process. Then, I began to include specific refection prompts at the end of each unit.

Fast forwarding a bit, my school decided to start including student refections and self-evaluation in our report cards. This added huge value to reflection and gave more voice to students in the evaluation process. From these Term-End reflections and my own, the students and I started developing goals for the next term. Last term, I decided to include those term goals in a Goal Tracker document to help students intentionally self-evaluate and reflect on their goals three times during the term.

In the Goal Tracker document I used last term, students set two goals for the term and developed a plan to meet those goals. One goal was relational and the other was academic. The other two goals in the docuement were set by me (the teacher) and their parent at the student-led conference. In the second term, I use the Core Competencies in the B.C. Education Plan to help structure these goals. For example, if we were setting the relational goal, I would use the “I can” statements in the Social Responsibility Competencies Profiles to help the students find a goal to work on for the next term. Before the Student Led Conference, I also scheduled a short one-on-one meeting with each student to review their goals and make sure it represents an authentic challenge.

After the goals were set, I had the students post this Goal Tracker on their digital portfolio three times. Once for their initial self-assessment, again at the mid-point of the term with a reflection about their progress, and a third time at the end of the term with their term-end reflection.

As I reflected on my use of the Goal Tracker, I realized that it was a very simple and effective way of keeping the goals in front of my students and I. It also helped our class develop a regular rhythm of reflection.

Reflection Tips

  • Over-reflection is as equally as ineffective as under-reflection. Reflecting too often leads to reflection fatigue and extracts significance from the process.
  • Negative and positive exemplars are a great way to communicate to students what quality reflection looks like.
  • Reflection needs to be timely. Have your students just completed a major project or experienced a presentation that has impacted them. Take a few minutes for them to reflect.
  • Collect your reflection for the term in one place. I use Seesaw to collect reflections so that parents can read them and we can both refer back to them to track growth over time
  • Quality reflection requires high quality prompts and reflection questions. I really like some of the reflection questions on the core competencies in this resource from the BC Education Plan.

If you have some strategies to help students reflect on their learning, please add or link them in the comments below

Restoring What is Broken

When I think about the relationships I have with my family, friends, and co-workers I feel very blessed. There are so many people in my life that are passionate, happy, thoughtful and generally just fun to hang out with. Yet, even within this amazing group of people, there are times when a conflict emerges. The conflict isn’t always negative. In fact, often healthy conflict that is very productive. But when conflict has caused deep harm or hurt, there is a question about the next steps that need to be taken. These next steps can be punitive or restorative and they set the culture of the communities we live in.

Healthy Conflict

Negative conflict is so prevalent that it’s easy to forget the positive conflict exists. Healthy conflict is sometimes necessary for good communication to occur. In an article published by Edutopia, Elena Aguilar gives five indicators that a school-based team is engaging in healthy conflict.

  • They are wrestling to understand ideas.
  • They are asking questions to probe for deeper understanding.
  • They change their minds.
  • They are demonstrating curiosity
  • They are holding student needs at the center of our work.

Discussions like these ones can lead to a positive student impact and more transparent leadership. A critical voice in the discussion can help move the conversation in the right direction. In fact, healthy conflict can is often an important part of a more informed decision-making process.

Harmful Conflict

Sadly, negative conflict is all around us. I have often been a guilty participant in conflicts that are harmful. Even this last week, I had a conflict with my wife that I wished I could have taken back. I was being overly sensitive to her criticism and I responded with a harsh tone and a cutting words. As my two sons watched from the dinner table, I envisioned them talking to their mom in the same disrespectful tone that I had just addressed her and realized that I would have to apologize to them and to her to make things right again.

Large groups or organizations also develop cultures and policies about negative conflict that can be helpful or harmful to students. Whether they are harmful or helpful may be determined by the way they view the conflict.

Two Different Systems of Handling Conflict

Recently, I listened to the powerful story that Katy Hutchison told at a TEDx talk in West Vancouver, Canada where she contrasts two different models of the criminal process. The first, was a punitive model and the second, a restorative model. She examines each of these two systems to help others construct better ways of approaching conflict in schools.

The Punitive Model

Hutchison says that the punitive system of criminal process, is characterized by three major questions:

  • What law was broken?
  • Who broke that law?
  • What is the punishment going to be?

She says that this model pays little attention to the needs of the victim or the community. The emphasis in this system is focused on a just punishment for the offender. The question of rehabilitation or restoration of the criminal to the community or the victim to the criminal is a secondary consideration.

The Restorative Model

Contrastingly, the restorative model works on the assumption that when harm happens to the community, it is a violation of a relationship and the questions change significantly. The restorative model wants to know:

  • What happened?
  • Who has been affected?
  • What are we going to do to make things right?

Hutchison uses these two models to talk about how schools approach conflict on a very practical level. If the conflict is primarily viewed as a violation of relationship, teachers and administrators take a “time-in” to discover the story behind the actions. They also focus their response on how the offender will make things right in their community.

As a teacher, I want to become better at using restorative practices to respond to the conflicts that happen in my classroom, school and family. Rather than encouraging further isolation and distance with quick punishments, I want to use time-ins with students to figure out what is going on in their lives.

I would encourage you to listen to Hutchinson’s full TEDx talk (below) and hear her personal journey to restore a relationship with the person who murdered her husband. It is a powerful story of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Not So Simple Collaboration

The concept of collaboration seems simple but it’s not. Anyone who has actually attempted to collaborate with other teachers or team members in their community knows that great collaboration is both difficult and messy. The potential for all sorts of difficulties abound. Over-communication, under-communication, miscommunication, micro-managing, inefficient task completion, lop-sided workloads and unhealthy relationships are just a few examples of how things can go wrong.

However, being apart of a great team can be a really rewarding experience. There are things that a team can accomplish that an individual could never achieve on their own. A good team can motivate and support you in difficult moments, help you see blind-spots in your teaching practice and teach you new skills. Teaching teams also provide the potential to develop meaningful relationships that will last far beyond the present job or task.

As I write this blog post, I think of a number of teachers dwell in classrooms on my wing of our Middle School that have encouraged me to write this year. I would have never had the motivation to start blogging more regularly during this school year without their input and encouragement. I’ve become a better writer and had some great conversations this year due to their engagement with my writing. This blog is really an expression of collaboration and inspirations with the colleagues at my school.

Collaboration is equally as difficult and beneficial for students. For example, there are so many learning benefits for students when they provide each other with formative feedback. There are so many things that students can say to each other that they would never accept from a teacher. For example, they might admit and that they don’t understand a certain concept to a peer but feel defensive about admitting this to a teacher. Having good collaborative teams in the classroom multiplies the amount of formative feedback in your classroom exponentially. Sometimes students come into my classroom with the expectation that learning happens in a direct exchange between the teacher the student. I attempt to change the culture of learning in my classroom so that students recognize that much of the learning in our classroom also happens through interactions with classmates.

Two Pitfalls of Collaboration

Over-dependency on Others

In general, I think there are two major ways that collaboration can fail. I imagine these as two ditches that we can fall into while trying to move forward on the road of collaboration. The first is over-dependency on others. Over-dependency is a mind-shift that can happen the instant that a teacher mentions the words, “group project.” Immediately, someone in the class is devising a way to escape the essential struggle that is a part of every learning experience. An over-dependant collaborator might think, “The group can complete this task without me” or, “I can’t add anything to this conversation or project.” Under-valuing your own contribution or just refusing to put in the effort that is needed can get in the way of meaningful collaboration.

In my experience as a teacher, over-dependency on other teachers leads to a lack of innovation and creativity. Often there is a lead teacher that is made the front-runner for the group and the other teachers fall in behind simply mimicking his/her pedagogical moves. Is not that copying doesn’t help us learn sometimes, it does. However, if this kind of pedagogical mimicry becomes a pattern, it can inhibit the teachers impact on the unique learners in his/her classroom. Further, it can also prevent teachers from engaging in critical and creative thinking about their own practice.

Retreating to Silence and Safety

If over-dependency is ditch on one side of the road to effective collaboration, safety is the ditch on the other side of the road. By safety, I’m thinking about avoiding the necessary relational messiness of collaboration. True collaboration involves some sticky situations–there is no way around them. It depends on strong relationships with others, listening to each others story and members being vulnerable with each other. When we open ourselves up to offer ideas, give our opinions and perspectives, there will be opposition, disagreement and sometimes it will seem like discussions or project isn’t going anywhere. When confronted with those who aren’t doing their fair share of the work or those who act as if they know everything, it can be tempting to close your classroom door push forward alone. However, withdrawing into the safety of isolation doesn’t help anyone over the long term. Those who are not willing to take the relational and creative risks don’t learn anything new from their colleagues.

Suggestions for Staying on the Road

Group Norms Help Establish Expectations

One of the most helpful concepts from the Professional Learning Community model that I found helpful is the idea of establishing norms for collaborative groups. This post from Jigsaw Learning contains a Google Drive folder of many helpful samples of group norms. The idea behind the norms is not primarily to establish a code of rules. Instead, they help establish a common expectation for all the members in the group to prevent hidden expectations from separating group members. For example, consider a norm about disagreement or conflict that says, “We always communicate those who we have disagreements (or conflict) with before we communicate about them with others.” If I find myself in a situation where Teacher A is sharing about a conflict or exchange where they were hurt by Teacher B, it becomes a normal expectation for me to ask Teacher A, “Did you tell Teacher B that he/she offended you with his comment?” These common expectations help communication and enable us to build stronger relationships.

Group Norms Create a Sense of Ownership

It is also helpful to teach students to set norms for their group work because it gives them a sense of ownership. Writing down norms as a group gives a helpful reference point for everyone in the group and helps encourage ownership and self-regulation of behaviour in the group. Consider one of the most difficult group norms in my class, “We will contribute evenly to the workload of this team.” Having a group of students write this down and agree on it is often more powerful, at least in Middle School, than the teacher telling these expectations to the class. Sometimes Middle Schoolers are more concerned about pleasing their peers than the teacher. It also provides a student-centred basis of accountability. If students have discussed these norms, then they can hold each other accountable.

Further, if my students are feeling disengaged with what I’m teaching them, it is sometimes because I haven’t invited them co-construct the assignment or project that I’m asking them to complete. Empowering others by including them in the decision-making process often leads to feelings of ownership and engagement. The same is true of collaboration. Giving the student guidance and exemplars is important, but having them set the norms and giving them a chance to work through disagreements with those norms in place is equally important.

Team Innovations Encourage Creativity

Writing an article for Forbes, Stephanie Cartin suggests that team collaboration can be improved by hosting “Team Innovations” where each member of the team is encouraged to present an original/new idea for the team. This fun activity can help others come together as a group and give members of the team the chance to share their ideas. It also gives other team members a sense of what kinds of things are going on in other classrooms around them.

Implement Effective Task Management

Another key to successful team collaboration is implementing an effective system that manages the tasks and projects that your team is to accomplish. This is particularly helpful when a team of teachers is organizing a school-wide or grade-wide event with a number of different teachers and organizational tasks. Optimally, a task management system would include a place to store data such as a calendar, documents, and chat functionality. I’ve just discovered a task management, cloud-based software called Smartsheets. I love its compatibility with Google but am not sure if I want to pay for the subscriptions to use it regularly at this point. There are many task management tools like this that allow everyone to work within the same framework.

Spencers Seven Keys to Collaboration

Recently, I used John Spencer’s video Seven Keys to Collaboration video to remind my students about some helpful principles of collaboration. I recommend it as a great resource for teachers or students to create some good discussion about collaboration. Spencer’s Seven Keys are ownership, dependability, trust, structure, shared vision or directions, fun and candour.

If you have some helpful resources that you use with your students or teaching team, I would really appreciate it if you linked a website or named a book in the comments below.

The Power of Publishing

Over the past few years, our middle school has emphasized Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a specific, inquiry-based model for teaching that has several distinct elements. One of the most powerful of Buck Institute’s Seven Essential PBL Elements is the final, “Public Product.” This pivotal, last stage of the project is where students share their work with the public by explaining, displaying or presenting it to audiences beyond the classroom.

Motivation to Learn

Sharing your work with a large audience can be scary for anyone but it’s also extremely motivating. Preparing a presentation or piece of writing for others creates a healthy pressure to produce your best work. This kind of pressure is distinctly different other classroom scenarios where the teacher may attempt to motivate the class by threatening to deduct marks or promising prizes for the best work. Under these conditions, the motivation of the students tends to centre on the teacher instead of their own learning. However, when students know that they will share their work with an audience beyond the classroom, they are more intrinsically motivated to make sure their best work is on display.

Supplying an authentic audience works to motivate students in a way that most of us are familiar with. Let’s say your boss asks you to make a big presentation at work. The task itself calls on you to put forward your best communication skills. You pour dozens of hours into your final product because you want to leave an impression on your audience. The classroom is no different. Who wants to write a story or make a book review just so their teacher can read it? What student wants to create a piece of writing that will be hidden in a digital folder or stashed in a pile of papers? The answer, of course, is that no one does. To make creative work meaningful, it needs to be shared with an authentic audience.

Storybird Student Publishing

Gathering an audience can be a tricky business but having the right tools is important. During the past few weeks, I learned about a publishing tool that gives students the ability to reach a larger audience with their writing. It’s a website called Storybird. Unlike many of the publishing platforms out there, Storybird is specifically focused on students.

How it Works

The website functions in a similar way to other educational websites. Teachers can create a class within the site and invite students to join. Before joining the class, the students need to create an account. If your school uses G Suit, it is really handy to have them create an account using their Google credentials. Once they have created an account and joined the teacher’s class, they can publish an Ebook or PDFs with beautiful illustrations for free. At first glance, it looks like students have to pay about $3.00 to publish these files, but once the students begin composing their story, they begin accumulating crowns that can be used to purchase a PDF or Epub file of their illustrated work. Students can also gather enough crowns to publish their work by having their parent sign up to receive communication from the website.

Publishing Formats

The Storybird website also has three different published products: Longform Books, Picture Books and Poetry. Due to the length of the stories that my class had already authored, I decided to have them create Longform Books. In the longform format, students can publish a written piece as one, long chapter or they can divide it into separate chapters. Although the Longform Books didn’t have as many illustrations as the Picture Books, there was an option to embed photos within the chapters. At the end of the composing and editing process, my students publish their stories as PDF file so that we could share them on the digital portfolio website we use called, Seesaw. Below, I’ve uploaded a few PDF versions of my student’s stories so that you can see what the final product looks like.

Although I was primarily interested in publishing a PDF file, because the affordability was appealing, there is also an option to order reasonably priced, printed copies on the website.

Storybird Publishing Considerations

  • It looks like the site is designed for students to pick a theme of pictures and write a story that conforms to those pictures rather than writing first and then finding pictures later. For example, the pictures are organized in themed packages and you cannot upload external pictures to add to your story. You also cannot pick illustrations from other packages. This is a limitation of the website that really matters–especially if you are creating Picture Books.
  • At the time of this post, there isn’t any clear way for writers to indent their body paragraphs. The first line of the first paragraph of each chapter can be indented, but I couldn’t find a way to indent the paragraphs that followed.
  • When composing Longform Books, students are required to publish their chapter before they create the next chapter. This was a bit confusing for my students because it looked like they were making multiple copies of their books. In the end, we discovered that publishing each chapter privately was just how the site worked to compile the chapters.
  • During the publishing process, it is a good idea to pre-buy download credits just in case someone has to publish their book twice–which happened to us a number of times. Buying the credits in bulk saves a lot of money. You pay $.20/download instead of $2.99!
  • I initially thought that my class would be able to share their stories with the other readers on the Storybird website, but as it turns out, student sharing is more limited than private accounts.
  • There are also writing lessons that you can assign your class on Storybird and I’m looking forward to trying one of the lessons with my class.

The Result

I wish I could bottle up the buzz in the air as my students composed their stories and send you a sample. The class was so proud to present their published products to each other and to their family and friends.

I’m still looking for ways to spread our stories to a larger audience through iBooks. If you have done something like this in the past, I would love to connect with you or read about your experience.

Copy the Cult

Copying was known as cheating in the schools I attended growing up but experience has taught me that copying is often a very important part of the learning process. In my visual arts class, I often have students copy a photo portrait of their own face in pencil. Copying allows them to discover knowledge about proportions, shading, different textures and even drawing techniques. Students are not the only ones who can learn from copying–teachers can too. In fact, using techniques or units from other teachers can actually be an effective form of professional development.

As a teacher who enjoys inquiry-driven modes teaching, I’m not a big supporter of ready-made types of curriculum. Commercial curriculum makers often have a particular audience or culture in mind when they create their product. As a result, these units or textbooks rarely appeal to my class. That is not to say they don’t benefit my teaching. I often rely on bits and pieces from textbooks and resource guides. I also draw on local authors like Adrienne Gear for her expertise. Her reading and writing resources are easily adapted to different classes. However, a steady diet of “canned curriculum” is not engaging to my students.

This is why Jennifer Gonzalez’s unit on narrative writing pleasantly surprised me. I’ve just finished teaching through it for the first time this term. It was awesome!

Much like Gear’s units, it was organized into a series of mini-lessons that were laid out topically. This made it very easy to adapt or skip lessons based on the strengths or prior knowledge of my class.

Each of the lessons also came with presentation slides and pages of clearly organized notes for the students. For example, the lesson on writing dialogue outlined some very simple rules that were clearly diagrammed so that the students could quickly refer back to them as they were writing their stories. These notes were (and will continue to be) an excellent resource for my students as they improve as writers.

One of my favourite mini-lessons in the unit was on pacing. Gonzalez explained how good stories have time jumps. They skip to the most interesting parts of the story to keep the momentum going. She also used a box diagram (below) to show how each story event is shrunk or blown up based on its importance. Some of the most dramatic events are expanded and developed in great detail while less important parts are squeezed into smaller summaries.

I can’t say enough good things about this unit. I only wished I had found it earlier in my teaching career. If you are interested in checking it out for your own class, it can be found here. There are several other units listed on her Teachers Pay Teachers account that I would like to investigate in the future. As I was writing this post, I bumped into her persuasive writing unit. It looks excellent too!

If you don’t already subscribe to the Jennifer Gonzalez’s website, the Cult of Pedagogy and her Youtube channel, I highly recommend them both as great resources.

A Year of Empathy

Empathy is s keyword for me in 2019 and one that I want to focus on with my class, school and family. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “How will I become a person of empathy this year?” I’ve also thought about how I can lead my students and family into greater empathy for others. This post is about some of the different strategies that I want to use to develop empathy in 2019.

Four Qualities of Empathy

Empathy has several different aspects to it. One definition that I have found helpful is Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy, referenced by Brene Brown in I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008).

To be able to see the world as others see it

Wiseman’s first quality of empathy is to see the world as others see it. This requires putting your own concerns aside to view the situation through another person’s eyes. One way that I’d like to cultivate empathy in myself is to intentionally read personal memoirs, autobiographies and biographies by authors who have different lives, beliefs and challenges than I do. How can I really communicate with others who have different beliefs or values than me if I don’t work at understanding their perspectives? I haven’t done a good job at this in the past. I’ve often read narrowly, inside an echo chamber of people just like me, and that doesn’t help to foster empathy.

To be nonjudgmental

The second quality of empathy Wiseman suggests is to be nonjudgmental. Making quick judgements of another person’s situation often discounts their experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation. In other words, it is a refusal to get into the messiness and hurt of the other person’s situation. Using stereotypes to form inaccurate assumptions is easy and often damaging to others. Asking more questions and listening to others is difficult and requires huge reserves of patience. This year, I want to become a better listener, someone who can be silent and connect without feeling the need to offer advice or try to put a positive spin on things.

To understand another person’s feelings 

Wiseman’s third quality of empathy is to understand the feelings of others. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. One habit I started in 2018, that I would like to continue this year, is stream-of-consciousness journaling. The traditional memoir style journaling, where every journal entry has completely developed thoughts and neat paragraphs, has never worked for me. It is too time-consuming and doesn’t help me get my thoughts and emotions out onto the page. Writing out random thoughts, experiences and emotions in bullet point, rapid-fire succession is far more effective. I’ve found that journaling, in this way, has allowed me to better understand my own feelings and responses. I think it has also helped me understand the feelings and responses of others.

To understand the feelings of students in my class, I want to continue using several different strategies to encourage these conversations. Over the last few months, I have started a Mood Meter in my class. The concept is very simple but effective. Students come into my class in the morning and move their name to the part of the meter that shows how they are feeling. Sometimes I ask the class if any of them would like to share about the feeling they indicated. Other times, it just helps me get an overall sense for the mood of the class.

A few days ago, I shared where I was on the meter. I told the class that I had a rough morning trying to get to school. One of my sons had decided to look for his library book just 10 minutes before we left the house. When he wasn’t successful in finding it, he burst into tears. He felt rushed and frustrated. For the duration of our trip to school, he whined about not having his book. It was amazing how this small story gave my students permission to share how they were feeling. I ended up learning much more about their lives and having a better understanding of how they were feeling that day.

To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Wiseman’s last quality of empathy is to communicate your understanding of what another person is feeling. Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” Brown suggests trying, “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

This quality is deeply connected to the second quality and reminds me of, what counsellors refer to as, active listening. The general purpose of active listening is to question, clarify and reflect back the emotion and connected circumstances. After listening and questioning, the counsellor might say, “You are feeling ___________ (insert emotion) because of ________________ (insert circumstance). Is this correct?”

Active listening in the classroom looks different than in a counselling office but there are practices that help teachers tune into students’ emotions. One of them is greeting students as they come into class. I’ll never forget watching the video clip (linked below) of Barry White Jr.’s personalized handshakes with his class and realizing the power of a simple face-to-face greeting.

Let’s be honest, I’ll never have the moves that Mr. White has but I can definitely improve what I’m doing right now. Too often, I’m sitting in front of computer screen answering emails when my students come into my classroom. Or, even worse, I’m just guarding the door to make sure my students aren’t late. How much more in-tune would I be with the emotional life of my class if I was standing outside my class greeting students face-to-face as they came in? That is one question that I would like to answer in 2019.

Morning meetings are another great idea for building community and understanding the emotional landscape of your classroom. Lisa Dabbs wrote this great post about morning meetings for Edutopia. She does a great job of answering the what, why and how of morning meetings. She also gives some great examples of how different teachers use them.

I’d love to hear any comments below about how you are building empathy in your classroom or community.

Stories Clear Familiarity Fog

Familiarity with an idea can be a really good thing. Having some exposure to a certain word or concept can speed along the learning process and build deep understanding. However, the opposite is also true. Familiarity can dull our minds and prevent us from deeper learning.

Selflessness is something we talk about a lot in my class. I want the student to understand our class as a learning community and think about what it looks like to put the needs of others before their own. Even though I want this to be a central focus of the classroom, if I come back to it in the same way too often, it loses its power and students are lulled to sleep by things they have heard before.

Fresh Stories Clear the Fog

One solution to counteract the fog of familiarity is to tell fresh, powerful stories that illustrate selflessness in a variety of ways. They allow my students to gain deeper perspectives and have fresh inspiration to serve others. Stories are also a secret weapon to engage the head and heart of a person in a way that is impossible when communicating with bare principles or propositions.

One recent example of a story that brought the concept of selflessness to life was in Suzanne Collin’s book, Hunger Games. Last week, I was re-reading the story and was struck by the selflessness of Katniss Everdeen as she volunteers as a tribute at the reaping.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the reaping ceremony is required by the Capitol to remind every district in the country of Panem of their submission to its power. Two child tributes are chosen from every district to compete in a lethal competition called the hunger games. The games require a male and female representative from each of the Districts to fight to the death in an enclosed area. Katniss is one of many impoverished residents of District 12. Her mother and younger sister, Prim, are all that is left of her family after her father died in a mine explosion years earlier. As a result of her father’s death, her mother falls into a paralyzing depression and Katniss is forced to be the primary caregiver and provider for her family.

On the night of the reaping ceremony, the mayor gives a speech reminding District 12 of their historic defeat by the Capitol and why they must offer tributes to the hunger games every year. The district’s female tribute is chosen, and to Katniss’s horror, it’s her 12-year-old sister, Prim. The crowd is disturbed by the draw of such a young tribute who will surely meet a sudden death in the arena. Katniss shakes off the shock of the moment and volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.

To acknowledge her heroic act, the residents of District 12 touch the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and hold it out to Katniss. Collins describes this gesture as, “old and rarely used…occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love (p. 24).”

Katniss’ powerful act of love for her sister is contrasted by the selection of the male tribute that follows. Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, is also chosen as a tribute but his only brother, that can volunteer to take his place, refuses. His refusal to risk his life for his brother underlines Katniss’ radical act on her sister’s behalf. It is a love that goes deeper than family devotion.

Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He [Peeta] has two older brothers, I know, I’ve seen them in the bakery, but one is probably too old now to volunteer and the other won’t. This is standard. Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.

The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins

“The radical thing” is what my students and I need to be reminded of every day. We want to be a community marked by radical devotion and servant leadership that puts the needs of others before our own. Stories like these grab our attention and inspire us out of our familiarity fog to be what we hope to be.

Do you have a story that has inspired your class lately? Tell your story or link your blog post below. I’d love to read it. If you would like to share this section of Hunger Games with your students, it is available from scholastic here.