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Reflection’s Reality: Relationships Are Not Accidents

Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series from the Project 180 Classroom

“Any success or failure I have experienced in the classroom has had everything to do with relationships.”

This is one of the first things I tell my young aspiring teacher candidates in my classroom management course at Eastern Washington University. I then go on to tell them, with that in mind, we will spend a lot of time talking about relationships, for they are the foundation for everything. And then I continue to tell them that when I was in their seats many years ago (literally, for the desks have not changed in the 25 years since I, too, was a young teacher candidate taking the same course at EWU) no one talked to me about relationships. No, instead I was led to believe that good management was keeping kids in their seats quietly–silently–working from bell-to-bell. I have since learned that management is not about management; it’s about culture. And really, it’s about relationships.

Recently, I had the honor of contributing a post to the  Teachers Going Gradeless  website, which highlighted the gradeless classroom as an ideal setting for creating  a culture of possibility.  The emphasis on culture stems from my belief that great teachers are not managers of classrooms but creators of culture. And from that place, I challenge my college students to capture their dreams of their ideal cultures, so we can then set to work on discovering and implementing the practices that will help make their ideals their realities. This approach gives them not only the opportunity to develop their talks but also check their walks. In the post, I went on to share how I keep my talk and walk in balance in the culture that I seek to create in my high school ELA classroom. And, of course, my first “talk and walk” addressed that which I sell as the key component in any classroom culture: relationships.

In the post I referenced an activity that I do with my high school students to make relationships an intentional part of my classroom culture. I call it Smiles and Frowns. But I did not discover it in the classroom. Before stepping down so I could focus on Project 180 last year, I was the ELA department chair at Cheney High School for 12 years, and one of my many responsibilities was to lead our weekly collaboration meetings. Of course, there was always an agenda–there’s always an agenda–but there were also eight other people sitting around the table, eight other people with whom I had to engage the important work that we do in the ELA department at CHS.  There was an agenda. There were people. The agenda could wait. People first.

So, one Friday morning on a whim, we started with a quick go-around, sharing something from our professional and/or personal lives. It took roughly five minutes. The next week, we did the same, but this time I placed it at the top of our agenda, calling it Smiles and Frowns. It remained at the top of our agenda from there on. Even now, after my stepping down, it’s still at the top of our agenda every time we meet. Last year, it made it into my classroom culture as an occasional but intentional activity to foster relationships. This year it will take center stage as the daily entry task, an intentional effort to make relationships the priority.

Smiles and Frowns

Here’s the basic approach.

  • I sit among the kids if there is an empty desk. If not, my default perch is a seat at the front of the room. I prefer to sit among the kids. My desks are generally arranged in two half circles. But arrangement varies, so we adapt accordingly. If the arrangement is not conducive to a good sharing-and-listening environment, we will all stand in a big circle around the room.
  • Each person has an opportunity to share a smile and/or frown from his/her school or personal life. This is the heart of the activity. This is such a great opportunity for us all to learn about each other as individuals, learning that transfers into so many other aspects of our culture over the course of the year.
  • Each person has the right to pass. No one is forced to share. Sadly some kids always pass. On occasion I will pass, too, to honor those kids who are exercising their rights.
  • Each person has the responsibility to listen. I don’t want my kids to be good listeners. I want them to be great listeners. And that takes practice. For us, it begins here. My rules for listening are pretty simple. No talking while others are sharing. Make an effort to make eye-contact with the speaker (which means one may have to turn around depending on seating arrangement).  Use non-verbal gestures to put the speaker at ease (nod, smile, etc.). Not much makes me grumpy as a teacher, but if kids aren’t working at being great listeners, I get grumpy.
  • We start at random places. Often, I will ask for volunteers to start us off. Sometimes, I will choose. Sometimes, I will begin.
  • It takes five minutes. Sometimes, it takes a little more, but I am the guard at that gate. If I find that there is something that the kids are excited about or have stuck in their craws, we will spend the extra time. My culture. My choice.

How I will introduce it to the kids.

We are going to learn a lot this year. A lot. I am going to push you to make the most of our opportunity together. And while the content of the course will occupy the majority of our learning experiences, it is not the most important thing we will learn together. Yes, syntax and rhetoric are important, and, yes, we will treat them as such, but they are secondary to what matters most: the people around us. Our worlds will always be full of important stuff, but they will also be full of people. And it is my belief that if we want to learn about the world and to learn about ourselves, we first have to focus on the people around us. So we, my young friends, will spend time each day learning about each other.

Relationships are key. They are not accidents. They require intention. I talk a lot about that. And I have found, that if my mouth is moving, my feet need to keep up. I have to walk my talk. And so, to that end, I make relationships a priority, and Smiles and Frowns is just one way that I am intentional about that. Yes, I have content to cover–there’s always content to cover–but at any given moment in my day, there are also thirty other bodies in the room with whom I engage the important work of learning the world. There is content. There are people. The content can wait. People first. Always first.


8 Replies to “Reflection’s Reality: Relationships Are Not Accidents”

  • This is great for this age group. They would be more likely to share a smile and a frown than a plus/delta or even a positive/negative. I am happy to see that you are making it a consistent, regular activity. A mere 5 minutes in the schedule can make a world of difference to our students.

  • I’m so glad that you’re doing this Sy. It’s so important for us teens, and for people in general to know that people will listen. And that people care enough about us to take the time to listen. In our world today, it feels like there is a lot of talking and not much listening. So thank you Sy for helping us remember to listen. You’re changing our worlds. You rock.

  • There was no subject during my University training called “Developing Classroom Culture” and maybe there should’ve been. I wish there had been.

    We do similar talks most weeks, although I usually prompt the question. Smiles and frowns sounds like another good opportunity for student voice. We use our community circle to share thoughts and opinions, life events, and sometimes even tough conversations to hold students accountable to their peers.

    We always go around the circle, and ask that everyone have a voice. We don’t have rules in the classroom, just 6 agreements that we aim to abide by. One of the agreements is the right to pass, but rarely is it used. Our best chats are usually based around reflections like:
    – What is your earliest memory?
    – What is Something that scares you?
    – Who or what do you miss?
    – What is Something or someone you are proud of?
    We spend this time exploring values and virtues, what makes a good friend, what makes a strong friend etc. Sometimes I’ll ask kids to look 5 people to their left and describe something they admire about that kid or to describe something that student does that makes our class/school a better place. No false praise. Comments must speak to who the student is. The little smile that spreads across the face of the student being talked about is gold. I’m sure some kids go days/weeks without being complimented.

    Kids that don’t normally converse or hang out in the same clique have the chance to gain an understanding, similarities or empathy for others. Sometimes the circle are pretty deep, sometimes they are fun, other times serious. Almost always worthwhile. Thanks for the share Monte.

    • Again, parallels. Our community circle sounds nearly identical. Great minds connecting halfway around the world.

    • Abe, Monte…

      If you’ve never read the work of William Glasser, you’ll find much to reinforce and strengthen what you are doing. Two of his books, “The Quality School” and “The Quality School Teacher” are indispensable and far under read by teachers. Glasser offers a version of his psychological theory of human action called “Choice Theory.” Essentially Glasser lays out an entire model for how we get students to do “Quality Work” (there are markers for what that is but the only one I can recall right now is “perseverance” (which, really, sounds like “Grit” decades before Duckworth and Dweck) and it’s all based on setting a culture founded upon 5 basic truths about human action/motivation: Love/Belonging, Power, Freedom, Fun, Survival (I remember these with the phrase, “Little People Find Fun in School” (not that that is inherently true, but rather it’s the result of implementing Glasser’s model).)

      Finally, this article/pdf is interesting and a solid introduction to, at least, the relational aspects of Glasser. Most important are the differently typefaced pages (14 on in the pdf pagination). He talks a lot about failure, both at the level of student and system.

      There’s a lot more I could go on about with Glasser. I used his work in my middle school class for years. When I switched to the High School after 23 years in middle, I lost my bearings (the culture is so utterly different). This year I might be going “back to the future” and revisit Glasser. You’ll note in his work a strong push for elimination of meaningless homework as well as a suggestion that grading needs to be substantially changed.

      Abe, here’s a Glasser Quality School in Australia:

      Maybe it would be good to write a post about Glasser on TG2…I’ve mentioned his work in our twitter chats….

      • Thanks, Garreth. I will take a look. Vaguely remember Glasser from undergrad. Sounds intriguing. Would love to see a post from you…

        • I’m working on it…It’s on the Editorial Work for the week, but I’m also attending a MakerSpace camp with a team of three of my students this week…’don’t think it’ll get done this week. But it’s incubating.

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