Saturday, October 12, 2019

Watching 2 Master Teachers "Fit It All In"

180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents by Kelly Gallagher & Penny Kittle (p. 87)

I will definitely be re-reading this book so chock full of meaty ideas and examples for teaching secondary English language arts: research, theory, stories, and examples of teacher and student work, planning charts, mentor text lists, and lessons. However, I won’t be re-reading it until I’ve finished watching all of the 43 videos included—videos from 30 seconds to 40 minutes long of the 2 master teachers who wrote the book and their students doing the things described in the book—book talks, mini-lessons, book clubs, reading and writing conferences, and writing beside mentor texts, to name just a few that I’m finding really helpful.
As a secondary English teacher, I have been a fan of both Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle since I discovered their books about the art and craft of teaching secondary English language arts about 7 years ago, so a collaboration of the 2 was really exciting to me. As always, there was plenty of good specific ideas to support reading/writing workshop. And what a privilege to get to see these 2 experienced teachers at work, sharing their planning, process, successes, and slip-ups as they planned and then executed a year of teaching in their 2 classrooms on opposite coasts of the US. That these 2, with 31 years of experience each, continue to develop their teaching inspires me to keep trying new things myself.

Some of the things 
180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents helped me think about include how to have students do more reading and more writing; how to more consistently use mentor texts, mini-lessons, and quick writing; and how to conduct even better writing conferences. New practices I want to try include book clubs, a writer's notebook, and a multigenre research project. 

This book originated in response to the perennial English teacher question, “How do you fit it all in?” I started asking that question the day I walked into my first classroom 30+ years ago and to find a stack of 6th grade books: spelling, vocabulary, grammar, writing, literature anthology, plus several novels. And I had 45 minutes for 180 days, minus field trips, assemblies, testing, weather cancellations, and more to get it all in. Given how many times the authors had been asked this question, they decided to sit down together to hash out exactly what the “all” is they’re committed to fitting in, and what doing that would look like. The book is divided into 2 parts: planning decisions (start with beliefs, establish daily practices, map a year of reading, map a year of writing, and balancing feedback and evaluations) and teaching essential discourses (narrative, informational, argument, and multigenre research projects).

Here’s a list of planning beliefs that resonated with me from the beginning (85-93):

  1. Start with the finish line in mind (What exactly do I want my students to be and do by the end of the year? )
  2. Plan the teaching that threads through every unit
  3. Plan to change your plans
  4. Plan to reteach
  5. Plan to study your teaching
Numbers 1 and 2 I know, love, and work on. Numbers 3-5 articulated things that I do sort of on the sly, feeling like if I were really a good teacher, I wouldn't have to do them. To have them listed out there by some of my teaching heroes made me feel legit—yes! this is not only okay to do, but a best practice for growing myself and helping my students grow!

I am really looking forward to the opportunity to incorporate Gallagher and Kittle’s “finish line” vision into mine, to use that vision to refine the teaching that threads through all my units, then as I teach, to change my plans, reteach, and study my teaching. 

But first I have to finish watching all those videos.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Cultivating the Next Generation

No, I didn't cultivate this kale, but I wanted a strong visual!

“Mom, you want to come to the store with me to look at phone accessories?” A refusal was on the tip of my tongue—I wasn’t in the least interested in phone accessories, and there was this stack of grading to do. Fortunately before I could get that answer out, my better angel inserted another thought into my brain: “Wait—your 13-year-old daughter just invited her mother to spend time with her. Who cares what the ostensible reason is! Accept!” 

In the intervening 16 years I've remembered that moment as the one that crystalized my understanding that when I value people, when I’m truly interested in them, I choose to spend time with them on their terms. What I’ve also learned since then is that even if the activity or topic itself is not intrinsically interesting to me, if I am truly interested in that person, I will be curious about what they do, what they get out of it, what intrigues or gratifies or delights them and why it does.

My kids are no longer adolescents, but as I continue to teach adolescents, I continue to be intrigued by these burgeoning image bearers of God that enter my classroom, by their world that is becoming more and more different from mine, and by the challenge of understanding them and their world—both to connect them to significant content area knowledge, skills, and understandings and to just help them on their way to fulfilling all the potential God has given them to live wise, compassionate, joyful lives. I recently read a book that compiled a lot of what I’ve read and learned on this topic in a helpful, clear way, with plenty of support and examples—Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring by Jeff Myers. I found the information useful for either specific one-on-one mentoring, or the broader but still significant relationships between a teacher and her class. I especially appreciated the positive approach (every generation is different, each with its own blind spots and strengths) and the abundance of practical examples of questions and conversations.

The first of 3 parts focuses on the background: that relationship fosters growth, characteristics of the emerging generation, and how to build mentoring relationships. I especially appreciated the summary of research establishing the importance of relationship to learning: Students’ sense of being liked, respected, valued, cared for, accepted, and nurtured by a teacher is significantly associated with students’ motivation, engaging emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally in class; internalizing the teachers’ goals and values; and expecting success (30-31). The way to establish that relationship across a generation gap is to seek to meaningfully share the different life experiences that each generation has. “People committed to understanding seek to listen well and ask questions” (42). 

As I said, one of the things I appreciated was the many specific examples of questions and conversations. For example, in identifying 12 distinctives of the emerging generation, with pitfalls and strengths for each, the author also gives examples of ways to explore each. The first distinctive is comfort with complexity and ambiguity as opposed to right answers and the bottom line. The author urges the mentor to: 

[A]void overly simplistic answers or suggestions. Acknowledge ambiguities and complexities that are real, and be humble about what you don’t understand or can’t explain. Invite a conversation about mystery in the following ways:
  • "Let’s talk about what we can know and what we can’t know. Why do you think we have uncertainty in some areas? What are some things you are certain of?" /
  • "One of the great things about a life of faith is that it is adventurous—it is a mystery. What are some things about your faith that you can’t wrap your mind around? What are some mysteries of your faith?"
  • "Sometimes life just doesn’t add up. Are there experiences or things you’ve been through that just don’t make sense to you? What about them feels contradictory to what you would expect?"
Responding to a difficult issue can be tricky with the emerging generation. Here are some suggestions on how to respond clearly without ever-simplifying complex issues:
  • "Your question is a tough one and I don’t want to brush it off with a simplistic answer. Can you give me some time to think it over and get back to you?"
  • "Here’s what I think, but this isn’t an issue I would take a bullet over."
  • "I’ve spent a lot of tie thinking about that myself. Let me tell you some of the thoughts I had along the way, and what I ultimately ended up concluding." (43-44) 
While discussing 6 components of mentoring (modeling, friendship, advising, coaching, teaching, and sponsoring), Myer puts coaching front and center—briefly described as “listening and asking powerful questions to support someone’s success” (68). He devotes chapter 4 to coaching, and it’s an excellent introduction or a concise refresher, including things like 6 types of unhelpful questions, 3 coaching skills, 5 conversation-altering words (“Tell me more about that” [84]), 6 other things to do when you aren’t asking questions (85). All of these things are helpful in teaching as well.

The middle section covers 3 important areas of flourishing to address: “What is the purpose of my life?”, “What is true?”, and “What difference do I make?” (89). Myers devotes an entire chapter to each, and as an English teacher, I use each of these questions as essential questions in my courses, so these chapters are full of helpful resources, questions, topics, conversations, approaches. The final section contains practical how-tos from getting started to safety standards to monitoring your own spiritual growth. As a teacher, this was the least helpful part, but it would be essential for anyone wanting to mentor young people outside of a well-equipped institutional setting.

This book will definitely stay on my shelf as a source of questions, conversations, and resources for significant explorations of the concerns that crowd my classroom, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to further their ability to connect with young people in significant ways. The life experiences of my students are somewhat different from mine, but that difference doesn’t have to be scary or alienating—with true curiosity, wise questions, and good listening, it can be the catalyst for conversations that we all learn from!

P.S. Two additional resources for connecting with young people: 
(1) “The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia” on Cult of Pedagogy (especially for teachers)
(2) “The Culture Translator” by Axis (for anyone wanting to develop a relationship with young people and curious about the very foreign world they seem to inhabit—parents, grandparents, teachers, youth pastors, or others). A free weekly newsletter highlights 3 current hot topics in teen culture, gives a brief explanation with links for further exploration, and suggests questions for talking about it with kids. For example, this week’s (Oct. 4, 2019) addresses a rising TikTok teen influencer, the movie Joker, and Justin Beiber’s church wedding.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Adults Read Aloud, Too

Some of the books I've read aloud with grown-ups

True confession: The first time I read Moby Dick, I hated it. The second time, I loved it. What was the difference? Time, purpose, and community.

The first time I was in high school. I had chosen the novel from a list of independent reading books because I was a reader, it was a classic, and I felt I should. Then I put off reading it until the weekend before it was due. After all, I was a reader—it would be no problem to have to sit and read a book all weekend. That was before I realized that everything I was familiar with from the book as plot was covered in 50 pages. That left another 350 pages of chapters with titles like (I kid you not) “Of the Whiteness of the Whale.” Who cared? I had to have this read by Monday!

The second time was 3 decades later. A high school daughter struggled with insomnia. Not wanting to leave her up alone in the middle of the night, I revived our elementary tradition of a bedtime story. Since the point was to get sleepy, we decided to go for the classics (no cliffhangers or thrillers allowed). And do you know what? It wasn’t boring. In fact, it was thoroughly enjoyable. We read as I imagine much of the original audience did: for an evening’s communal entertainment, one person reading aloud while the others mended a harness or knitted warm socks. But we had no pages due tomorrow—we had infinite time. The point was not to finish, but to while away the time between bedtime and falling asleep. So every time we had a question, or the text made us think of something, we’d stop and talk about it. Sometimes we did more talking than reading. And that was fine. We’d been successful: we’d passed the time, and we’d enjoyed each other and the book. 

One discussion I particularly remember, because from then on we frequently alluded to “the luxurious discomforts of the rich.” (Isn’t that a great oxymoron—luxurious discomfort?) The passage described the wonderful feeling we were so familiar with on a winter night in our Tokyo house burrowed under warm quilts without central heat:   

…[T]ruly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal. (Moby Dick, ch. 11)

Did you realize THAT was in Moby Dick? 
Since that time, I’ve read many books aloud to my adolescent and later fully grown kids. I’ve also had the chance to read books with friends and with students. Here are a few other memorable grown-up read aloud experiences I’ve had:

  • The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (With a good friend--the book doesn’t have to be a classic to offer opportunities for conversation.)
  • Jane Eyre (With older kids, at a cabin by the beach on rainy summer afternoons. I can’t remember if that was before or after reading, separately, Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is clever and smart and funny, and greatly enhanced by familiarity with Jane Eyre.)
  • The Rosie Project (With a visiting grown daughter in the lull after the celebrative whirlwind weekend of the younger daughter’s graduation and wedding. Reading, we laughed so hard we snorted and teared up, and it was just the perfect time for that. See this blog for my processing of some of the more serious emotions of the time.) 
Maybe you listen to audio book to a similar effect. If so, excellent. For myself, I don’t listen well, so I have always been our family’s prime read-aloud reader. One of my daughters was all fired up to read me a book she loved in elementary school—The Book of Three. I thought, “Great! Love the initiative, and we can do it while I cook!” As it turned out, I just can’t follow audio without at least the visual of words to focus me. I still don’t listen to podcasts—I’d rather read the transcript! Plus, I feel like it would be harder to stop and start an audio book than to just pause and comment.

Maybe you participate in a book club to a similar effect. That’s good. And in some books, there are just too many conversations to remember them all for one big discussion at the end. Reading together may be a way to cultivate an appreciation for a classic, or to share a book that is so crammed with humor or insight or beauty that the whole experience cries out for a companion.

These experiences have enriched my own experience of reading, my thinking, and my relationships with the people with whom I’ve read. They’ve also informed my teaching because I want students to be enriched by reading in the same ways. I value reading aloud with high school students, especially short stories (see this blog) and plays (see this blog) 

If you’re looking for a different reading experience—whether because you love to read or because you haven’t yet found just the book that will ignite your latent reader—or if you’re feeling left out of the read aloud craze because you don’t have any young children around or because you’ll go stark raving mad if you have to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar aloud one more time—consider trying a read aloud just for fun, as a shared experience, with an adult friend or older child.

I recently read aloud another book to my oldest daughter. It was Fredrik Backman’s latest (if you’ve read My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, A Man Called Ove, or Beartown)—Things My Son Needs to Know about the World. Times have changed. I was reading on my Kindle from the free sample available on Amazon. My daughter was hemming curtains while her 2 children napped. But the experience of sharing reading was still the same.

Have you read aloud for fun with older children or adults? What book did you read and what did you learn from the experience? What book would you like to do this with? With whom?

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Effective Scaffolding Motivates

“We’re going to do pull-ups,” said the fitness instructor last week. I burst into a peal of laughter that momentarily echoed around the gym. I have never in my life been able to do a pull-up, so that wasn’t even on my radar of possibility at age 54. 

Then she led us to this weight machine that pushes up under my feet with the amount of weight I set it for to assist my effort. It turns out that I CAN do a pull-up—with 95 pounds of help. It was HARD, but I DID it! That felt great! And maybe, with persistence, I could do it with less and less help! However far I get toward doing a completely unassisted pull-up, working on it increases my strength, muscle tone, and bone density—my real health goals at this point in life.

That pull-up apparatus struck me as a great analogy for the scaffolding I need to provide for students as they learn. Everyone knows what the goal is, values it, knows that the scaffolded attempt isn’t the end goal, but IS an important step, both in providing the motivation of knowing what it feels like and in exercising all the muscles needed for the end goal at the level those muscles are currently capable of. And that working toward the goal is the real goal.

What does that kind of scaffolding look like in an English class? Here are a few ideas: Painting the goals of proficiency in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, listening to promote buy-in. Differentiating according to students’ readiness, interest, and learning needs. Providing a lot of time for practice along with targeted instruction and formative feedback. Setting high expectations, with sign-posts of progress along the way for encouragement. 

I still have vivid memories of the President’s Physical Fitness Test from elementary school. I was a tomboy who prided myself on competing with the boys in every way. I played basketball, mastered boys’ push-ups, and grabbed the frogs and bugs out of their hands when they shoved them in my face hoping to see me scream and run away. The only thing that totally defeated me was the pull-up. For the President’s Physical Fitness Test, I had to hang. It’s been this little sliver of hidden shame all these years, finally exorcised by those words, “We’re going to do pull-ups” and the apparatus to help me do it. I love practicing my pull-ups now!

How do you scaffold learning to help students discover joy and motivation in doing things that had seemed too hard?

Saturday, September 14, 2019

How Does Your Brain Grapple with Difficult Text?

Every once in a while I choose a hard book—often a canon classic. I do this for 2 reasons: (1) to continue to be a learner in my field of literature and (2) to understand what I’m asking students to do when I ask them to grapple with texts that are difficult for them. 

Because I love to read, and because I read a lot, I’m a pretty skilled reader. I don't even think about what my brain is doing to make meaning. But many students are not as skilled. So every once in a while it’s helpful to put myself in their shoes, so to speak. To read something that doesn’t naturally capture all of my attention and fully submerge me, until I emerge, blinking, into the real world again, 3 hours later—like the latest Inspector Gamache mystery or Blake Crouch sci-fi thriller. To read something where I need to think about monitoring my comprehension and making meaning from the text. To understand what I am asking my students to do when I ask them to read texts that are difficult for them.

My recent challenge was the Iliad. 

In my class, we talk about 7 strategies of effective readers. They (1) plan and monitor their comprehension, (2) determine importance, (3) ask questions, (4) visualize, (5) make connections, (6) make inferences, and (7) synthesize thinking. What did that look like as I read the Iliad?

(1) Plan and monitor comprehension: I wanted to understand why this text is considered a foundational work of literature to western culture, and to what extent, if any, that is still relevant today. And I want to think about the strategies I use when I encounter difficult text. There are 24 books in the Iliad, and I planned to read 1 per night. Sometimes I realized I’d read several pages and hadn’t really been paying attention. Sometimes I’d go back and re-read it. Sometimes I’d glance over it and decide it was not important to my plan, so I’d just move on. Sometimes (true confessions) I’d check Wikipedia. (Note: I do tell students to feel free to use resources to support your reading—but not to replace it. Decide for yourself whether you need the summary before to have a mental construct for what’s coming, or after to check your comprehension.)  
(2) Determine importance: There are so many characters and so many allusions to other Greek stories—sometimes I’d look them up (see next section) and sometimes I’d just decide all I really need to know about those pages is Hector fights and kills a bunch of Greek heroes—I don’t need to know all their back stories.

(3) Ask questions: There were factual questions for comprehension: Who are these various people and gods? How are they related? Which side are they on? Half the time, at first, I didn’t know whether I was reading about who I’ve traditionally thought of as the Greeks or the Trojans—Danaans, Argives, Achaeans are all synonyms for Greeks. Then there were the bigger questions: What is honor? What is worth fighting and dying for? What is winning? What are the women, the ordinary citizens of Troy, and the Greek families left behind for 10 years thinking? How much agency and responsibility do people actually have? How do humans and the divine interact?

(4) Visualize: The descriptions of armor, fighting, and killing are pretty vivid and pervasive. Sometimes I’d stop and search Google Images for things like “greaves.” This is going to lead right into connections….

(5) Make connections: After visualizing many Homeric battle scenes, I came in my daily Bible reading to the death of Saul, and suddenly I visualized that scene in a way I never had before. The Philistines even stripped him of his armor, just like the Trojans did Patroclus, though the Greeks finally reclaimed Patroclus’s body—as the people of Jabesh Gilead did with Saul’s (1 Samuel 31).  

(6) Make inferences: I really don't like Achilles. He has anger issues and no respect for women. (Not that any of them did--especially Agamemnon. Seriously--he offers to return #1 prize woman, plus the pick of the top 12 women of Troy when sacked, plus the hand of any 1 of his 4 daughters in marriage!)

(7) Synthesize: The gods make even the worst interpretations of the God of the Old Testament seem...trustworthy and comparison. They bicker, compete, play favorites, make intentionally misleading promises, and just plain manipulate people for the sake of their own Olympian politics.

All told, I'm just really glad I didn't live in that world--it wasn't much of a Golden Age for men or women. But I am glad I read the book. I felt immersed in the world, culture, and values distant from me in time and place for the month it took me to work my way through it. It has enriched the way I think about any related story, concept, or allusion.  

Plus, it feels really cool be able to say, “Yes, I’ve read the Iliad.”

How does your brain grapple with difficult text? Why is that important?

P.S. The last time I blogged on my reading of a difficult text was with One Hundred Years of Solitude. Here's what I learned then

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Sharing Faith-Full Living and Learning

Living the faith generationally: my sister, daughter, grandson, niece, and nephew

Don’t worry about writing about your faith. Live your faith, then write about life.

Gene Luen Yang, artist/author of American-Born Chinese, the first graphic novel nominated for the National Book Award, and of many other graphic novels since then, addressing the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in 2014, shared the wisdom one of his teachers had shared with him. That stuck with me, because I think it’s true of teaching as well. How do I share my faith with students? Live my faith, then teach about life. In fact, live my discipline, then teach life.

It’s the same good teaching strategies that engage students in deep learning about science, English, math, and music that engage them in deep learning about faith. 
If math and social studies are just school stuff that doesn’t connect to life outside the classroom, and if Bible is just another thing to learn at school, it will connect to life in exactly the same way. If, on the other hand, our subjects connect to life—how we communicate, make decisions about health and stewardship, evaluate the news, appreciate beauty and patterns around us, spend our leisure time, and use our knowledge and skills to love and serve our neighbors—then Bible class and the faith that it nourishes will also connect to life. 

Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful in making life connections for students with my subject area and, consequently, with my faith:

Stories: Stories engage many parts of our brains from the logic of cause and effect to the sensory experience of visualization and also stimulate emotional responses. As a result, stories result in durable learning. 

Heart: The stories that come from my heart show that I’m fully here, and invite students to explore the subject and their own hearts in the same way. I used to be afraid to show how much I cared—about students, about the subject, about faith—because it felt too vulnerable. If it were rejected, it would be a rejection of me. But the current phrase I’m seeing frequently really is true: “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I attend games and events to see students shine outside the classroom. I greet them before class. I share things just for fun, like pictures of my grandkids. I share books I’ve enjoyed. And I share how reading and writing help me process my struggles, like balancing the sadness of death with my hope in the resurrection (see my blog about my mother’s death, “Processing Death through Reading and Writing”).  

Application: Sometimes those heart applications just happen, and they happen more often when I plan for them. How do I plan for them?

Reflection: Applying learning to life takes deep thought and reflection, which takes time. How do I encourage reflection? 

  • I ask questions. Then I wait—my students need time to reflect. (Sometimes, waiting is a challenge!) Then I listen in order to understand my students—not primarily to respond to my students or as a platform to say something.
  • I structure my course around 4 essential questions (Who am I? Who is my neighbor? What’s wrong with the world? What is the significance of language?). And I structure each unit around essential questions: What is human dignity and why does it matter? What is the connection between the individual and the community? Why is empathy important?
  • I have students journal on an essential question at the beginning of a unit so they can compare their view at the end and see what they’ve learned.
  • I encourage students to come up with their own questions (see “Nurturing Questions”).
  • I give students time periodically to reflect on what they are learning in relation to schoolwide student objectives (see “Not ‘What Am I Teaching?’ but ‘What Are They Learning?’”)
  • I model my own reflection, sharing my journal, blogs, and other writing (like “Audience and Purpose in Writing: My Mom’s Eulogy”). I do this, in part, because I want to provide a classroom environment where the teacher (me) is the chief inquirer, modeling what it means to ask questions in subject area, in life, and in faith.
Keep on keeping on: tell your stories, share your heart, apply what you know, and reflect deeply. Live your faith and teach your life, wherever you are, and whoever you are with.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Relationships Aren't the Frosting on the Cake of Education

An infant possesses a tractor-beam gaze that finds your eyes and locks into them, compelling connection. I remember that with my first-born, hours after birth. And this summer I was reminded of it with my first born’s second born (see photo above). When the interactive smiles and cooing start, they only strengthen the attraction. Humans are hardwired for connection. 

For Christians, this comes as no surprise, knowing we are made in the image of a God whose very being is relationship among three persons: “Let us make mankind in our image” (NIV, Genesis 1:26). And after proclaiming each act of creation good and very good, that trinitarian God declares something in that beautiful paradise not good—a person alone (Genesis 2:18). When God became human and walked among us, Jesus focused his most powerful teaching on individuals in relationship (see "What Does It Mean to Teach Like a Disciple?"). 

The significance of relationship in teaching is corroborated by science. Jeff Myers summarized the findings in his book Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring (30-31): 

  • Students’ sense of being liked, respected and valued by a teacher predicted whether they would value the subject matter and expect success.
  • Students who believed their teacher cared for them believed they learned more.
  • Students’ feelings of being accepted by teachers were significantly related to emotional, cognitive and behavioral engagement in class.
  • Teachers who expressed greater warmth tended to develop greater confidence in students.
  • Teachers’ nurturing behaviors were related to students’ adoption and internalization of teachers’ goals and values.
  • Teachers’ interpersonal relationship skills were significantly associated with students’ achievement motivation and self-esteem.
If a warm relationship between students and their teacher is that significant, I cant ignore them. I can’t just say, “Well, some teachers are gifted interpersonally, but not me. My gift is intellectual grasp of my subject.” Or “I’m an introvert—relationships aren’t my thing.” (Seriously, this gets personal. My lowest rating on student surveys tends to be in the area of students not being fully persuaded that I care about them.) What, then, can I do to meet this student need for connection?

Current pedagogy recognizes the importance of knowing students as individuals in many topics including differentiation (knowing students’ interests and skill levels in order to better connect them to the learning that happens in the classroom), restorative discipline (based on the idea that the biggest issue with behavior is not that a rule has been broken but that relationships have been damaged), and social and emotional learning (where teachers are prime models as well as explicit instructors of relationship building). (See below for recommended books on these topics.)

In addition to reading up on the topics mentioned above, here are some things I have found helpful:

(1) Beginning of the year activities. Right now the my Pinterest and Twitter feeds are awash with such activities. Alternatively, I just Googled “get to know students” and came up with 2.6 billion results in 0.5 seconds, like “Getting to Know Your Students” (TeacherVision). In case you’ve missed the first day, you still have time: see “The First Six Weeks: Getting to Know Your Students” (TeachThought). Think this is just for elementary students? Here’s advice to college professors at Carnegie Mellon University: “Get to Know Your Students as Individuals.”

(2) Questioning and listening strategies that demonstrate my own curiosity about and value for students’ thinking, including open-ended questions, wait time, and follow-up exploration “What makes you say 
that? For more on positive questioning and listening, see “Weaving SEL into our Classroom Questioning” (MiddleWeb).

(3) Other good ideas? See “33 Ways to Build Better Relationships”  Here are my favorites:
  • Know your children well and allow them to know you well [see the following paragraph on Brene Brown]
  • Every child (and adult) needs a champion [see the final paragraph on Rita Pierson]
  • Healthy relationships are built on high challenge and high support 
  • Create a sense of belonging
  • Catch ‘em getting it right more than you catch ‘em getting it wrong
  • Magnify strengths rather weaknesses and focus on gifts rather than deficits
  • If you’re not modeling what you’re teaching, you’re teaching something different
  • Listening is what you do to understand, not time spent simply waiting to reply
(4) Learning how to be brave and vulnerable myself from reading Brene Brown’s books Now she has a free online resource to help teachers implement her principles for students. It's called Daring Classrooms. She says, “We must be guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious, and to explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. .... And what I know from the research is that we should never underestimate the benefit to a child of having a place to belong—even one—where they can take off their armor. It can and often does change the trajectory of their life.”

Educator Rita Pierson in her TED Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” says, “[O]ne of the things that we never discuss or we rarely discuss is the value and importance of human connection. Relationships.” What will I do today to cultivate relationship with the kids in my life—whether students or grandkids—who I want to become the confident, competent, curious, collaborative, creative divine image bearers they were created to be?