For the past several years I have taught two sections of middle school math in addition to my work with the Center for Innovative Education. This year has offered a new challenge: I’m teaching one section of math and one section of literature. Literature has been a new window into the worlds of my students.
I’m lucky to be starting my second year with these sixth graders (what a gift to know nearly everyone on the first day of school!), but I know them from last year’s math classroom. While math is a creative, inspiring subject, it’s hard to get around the fact that there is, sometimes, a need for us all to arrive at a commonly accepted answer. We spend a lot of time on number sense and flexibility and exploring the different ways a problem can be solved, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for them to all make their way to thirteen fifteenths when calculating one and two thirds minus four fifths, however they might choose to travel there.
(I don’t want to undersell how math can be a powerful tool for understanding complex, abstract life questions – for an example of that, watch Eugenia Cheng’s TED Talk where she seamlessly illustrates how an examination of the factors of 30 can be the basis for understanding white privilege. Seriously. You have to watch it.)
Still, literature class has a different rhythm to it. We started the year discussing Maniac Magee and I have found it freeing to have no vested interest in everyone ever arriving at the exact same place. When I asked why they thought the author, Jerry Spinelli, might have made “Cobble’s knot” the contest in the story rather than something else, I was delighted when a student offered - with his eyes growing wide as it occurred to him - “I think the knot is a symbol because everything in the book is a big tangled mess!” But I also appreciated, from another student, “because something like a pie-eating contest wouldn’t be very original.” Both contributions led us in interesting directions as we thought about the craft of writing.
But what I am appreciating more than anything else is what I have learned about students from their five to ten minute free-write each morning. Over the summer, as I thought about how to structure our four fifty-minute classes per week, I worried about having enough time to make journaling a daily priority, but I wanted them to know that their ideas and the practice are important, and I wanted to have a predictable routine. I also knew that with twenty-six students, it can be hard to find the time for one-on-one conversations. Because I’m not in the building all day, I have even fewer opportunities to connect with them. I thought that if I provided a prompt each day (which they are free to ignore), they would strengthen their writing muscles and I would have a chance to learn more about them. And so today, on the eleventh day of class, students completed their eleventh free-write.
And on the eleventh day of class I know which student has chickens and her favorite ways to eat their eggs; I know which student lies on the floor with his aging dog as much as he can because he knows their time together is growing short; I know a new student’s old nickname and how it seems to have been lost in his family’s move from another state; I know that one student was the only one from her gymnastics team to make it to a meet in a blizzard last year and how it felt to compete without her team.
I know that another student said he tried to think about it, but feels he has no character strengths and yet
another who would never work in a group again ever(!) if given a choice. I know a student who says she shows her feelings in her artwork, and another who writes that his strength is reading others’ emotions and changing his own expressions if they are upset or sad. Some of the things they reveal are touching and profound and they are things I never would have known.
Sometimes I’ve just enjoyed their stories and the language they choose when they are encouraged to simply keep their pencils moving. No editing! No judgment! One student described a face-full of seawater like “drinking a sand smoothie.” Another wrote about a piece of toast that was so charred that by the time he scraped all the black bits off, the whole thing disappeared.
I read their journals with a packet of sticky notes because I don’t want to write on top of their pages. I told the boy who had recently moved about my own nomadic childhood (courtesy of the Air Force). I let the student with the aging dog know that I am loving my old dog in just the same way. I plan to tell the student “who has no character strengths” about everything I see: his humor, his kindness, his creativity when solving problems. Occasionally, I’ve asked a follow-up question and the answer has appeared in another entry. In a few cases, a student has written something back to me on my sticky note and it feels like we are having a one-on-one conversation after all.
Relationships with students have always been what I value most in the classroom, and this has been one of the most satisfying things I’ve done to know my students. If I could go back in time, I might just start my math classes, too, with a five-minute free write and a prompt they are encouraged to ignore.
We have been thinking a lot about relationships this year. We’d be happy to share more ideas with you, and would love it if you shared yours with us. What are your most successful ways to build relationships with your students, whatever subject you teach?
Images: Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli; notepad image by Kristin Blais