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  • Writer's pictureJason Blair

2020 Remote Wonderings...

Remote Wonderings– Relationships

2020 will forever be known as the year of the global pandemic. It has been catastrophic on many fronts. Many lives have been lost, jobs have been lost, ways of living have been lost. Our education system came to a grinding halt, seemingly overnight and now educators, students, families and our communities are all disoriented. We have been forced to slow down and look around. We don’t recognize the place we are in. Our familiarity is gone, and our anxiety has caught up to us. What do we do? How do we move forward? What happens tomorrow? Where do I need to go? What if…? All the these questions have raced through my mind many times each day. As an educator, I am wondering how my students are doing? When will I see them again? What will school look like in the fall?

One common refrain I have heard throughout this altered education reality we are in, is how essential it is to maintain contact and connection with students. When we are in school buildings, we are able to make those connections, read the body language, share our supplies, say “hi” when we see someone passing in the hallways. Now, this has all changed. Relationships are being tested, connections are being challenged, and opportunities diminishing. Like my colleagues across the country and world who are wrestling with these new challenges and obstacles, I want to turn my attention back to being in the actual school buildings.

We will get through this and we will be back in school one day. What can we learn from this pandemic, that we can harness and bring back into the buildings we will teach in one day soon, to strengthen our school relationships?

Relationships are the driving force behind education. Having trusting relationships with faculty, students and parents is essential to the learning process. When we have solid, trusting, safe relationships, we are able to take risks, speak out, express ideas, develop our creativity and so much more. While I understand this is not a new concept, and teachers have been establishing relationships with students in their classrooms for a very long time, I want to turn our attention to the ways we build whole school, community relationships with the entire learning ecosystem. I am going to outline a few spaces where we might be able to focus our attention on building relationships in our school buildings. We must make sure that relationship building isn’t something confined to the first few weeks of school, or focused on only within the classroom walls and only with the small group of students we are responsible for on a daily basis.

What about the spaces in our school buildings where relationships can be strengthened or broken that are outside of our student’s classroom? How do these spaces impact relationships? When we get back to school, what if we reimagined the spaces and experiences that are not given as much thought or attention as say academic content or the individual classroom culture we all try and establish? What if we prioritized relationships above all else in all areas of our buildings? Here are a few areas where we might turn our attention and begin creating a school-wide culture of deep and meaningful relationships.

Recess– In most schools, recess is organized by grade level. It is one of the only times students get to interact with other students from different classes. What if, instead of organizing recess around grade levels, we organized them around families. A family might be composed of one class from all grade levels, that has recess together (and could do many other things in school together as well). So we might have 1st graders on the playground with 5th graders, 4th graders with kindergartners and so on. Imagine how beneficial it would be to have 1st graders learning from fifth graders, or to have 4th graders exercising empathy towards 2nd graders. Life is not organized by age, so neither should recess. I often hear kids say they can’t play with someone because they are in a younger grade or vice-versa. This is a learned response. If recess was mixed from the start, students would become accustomed to playing and interacting with multi-aged children. This approach would require proper conversations and preparation prior to its roll out. Talking with students about disagreements, sharing space, looking out for others, and so much more, would need to be discussed to ensure understanding and buy in from both students and faculty. Transitions such as this, would fall flat if we just release students, with no conversation or forum to discuss the change. The pandemic has forced a global reset, and has inspired us to slow down. Schools might capitalize on this. If we slow down to have a conversation with our students about changes and transitions, if we understand their perspective and are open to rethinking our own, we might begin to grow an open-minded community of learners, willing to take risks and try new things. It is something we would need to revisit consistently. We can’t have one conversation and done. We need to come back many times, to gain insight, thoughts, and feelings that begin to sprout from this new change. Perhaps a protocol could be developed by students to deal with instances that arise on the playground, so students are viewed as problem solvers, not rule reporters. Recess teachers would be from different grade levels as well, also contributing to a more familial approach to recess.

In addition to rethinking how grade levels can be split for recess, another refresh might be what students have to play with. While most schools have playgrounds and traditional sporting equipment, what about those students who don’t like these two options? How do students exercise their creativity and imagination at recess? This is where loose parts come in. Loose parts are random, safe objects and other loose parts that students can build and construct with. I believe one of the main reasons students climb up the slides, are because they are seeking something new. Kids like to challenge the status quo and a slide that is only for going down on, eventually gets old. Much to teachers chagrin, I believe kids should be allowed to run up the slide! Students want the opportunity to create play, not just consume it. Imagine if we had a bin of dress up clothes, or art supplies out on recess? What not have plastic barrels, flexible piping, cones, or loose netting to create new opportunities for play? Simple materials where kids can manipulate them to facilitate new experiences each day, and ones that can inspire new ideas everyday they go to recess. This is where the benefits of having multi-aged students on the playground comes in. Having older students help younger ones construct play forts, or having the younger students inspire the older ones to wonder and be more playful, can be such a powerful opportunity for all parties. What if we had more opportunities for students to interact with different students during the school day? Recess marks the first space where this can be done. With intention, purpose and support, playgrounds can be amazing spaces to nurture and grow empathy, wonder, exercise creativity and build strong school-community relationships.

Lunch– Building off of the family idea mentioned above, lunch could be a family style experience as well. Now, in the post pandemic world, perhaps serving family style might not be the best approach and some of these ideas may be tabled at this time. But, eventually when we go back to eating in a cafeteria, there are some steps we can take to create a more familial experience. Having students sit with multi-aged students, is such a great chance for students to mentor and model for other students. The biggest transition here, is actually on the part of the teacher. What if we, as teachers, sit with students and have a family meal together? We can begin this approach by talking about what it means to have conversations with each other and what this looks and sounds like. We can model the types of behaviors and dispositions we want from our students. Engaging with students in a way that demonstrates kindness and compassion, can make the lunch room a space for meaning making, connection and relationship strengthening, not just packing in food as fast as possible to get out to recess. What if there were more options for spaces to eat as well? Perhaps some students dread the loud, packed cafeteria and long for the weekends when they can eat at home with a small, quieter crowd. Why not offer more intimate dining options for students? Maybe once or twice a week, satellite cafes could open for students that wanted a calmer, quieter respite from the larger cafeteria? What about weekly student performances during lunch as well? These would represent opportunities for students to showcase talents, passions and curiosities in a community forum. The cafeteria is ripe with possibilities for fostering relationship building. We just need to take the first step and rethink what is possible.

Hallways– How might we view the hallways as spaces for relationship building? Most schools have hallway displays of class projects and student research. What if the spaces in the hallways were more interactive? What if each classroom had an interactive creation station-a space where students curated learning experiences for the passerby? Each might contain simple materials and concepts that students may be exploring in class, but redesigned in a way that could teach other students who walk by their room, providing spaces for students to sit down with other students, and explore and create together.

Imagine if once a month or so, classrooms held a learning hop. Similar to an art gallery hop, where patrons visit different galleries in one night and see new exhibitions of work, visit with the artists and enjoy refreshments while making new connections with other visitors. In a school setting, maybe this is an opportunity to have a few classes open their doors and show some of the amazing things they are learning. Inviting the school to wander the hallways (or streets), peruse the neighborhoods (or grade levels) and pop into a few learning galleries (or classrooms) to engage with the learners and partake in some learning challenges curated by the students themselves. The idea is that students from all grade levels and classes, would be forming new relationships with other learners, seeing the thinking and making of other students in the school. The learning hop is a chance for the students to lead and share their journey with others outside of their own classroom space.

Another opportunity that comes from making the hallways interactive spaces for learning and relationship building, is student-led noticing strolls. Students would walk the walls of the school building and see what they can learn independently through reading, reflecting and interacting with artifacts on exhibit. If a student is having a challenging time in the classroom, they could take a noticing stroll to get out and take a break, while also seeing the curiosity of their classmates. They could gather some recording materials (paper, pencil, camera, device, etc.) and see what learning is going on outside of their own classroom. The student could come back and share what they found and who some of the learners are that inspired them as they walked the hallways. The follow up could be a meeting, interview or impromptu learning partnership with some of those students in other classes that might develop into something deeper. Just from taking a noticing stroll to see the learning happening in the school and the learners behind the work, could build new relationships based on curiosity and interests, regardless of age, grade level or gender.

Classrooms– What about classroom locations? Could that have an impact on community relationships? I think so. I want to focus on elementary classrooms for this section, since that is what I am most familiar with. Typically, elementary school classrooms, if two story, are set up with primary classes on the first floor and secondary classrooms on the second floor. Then, within this set up, the classrooms are usually situated by grade level. All third grade in one cluster, fifth in another cluster and so on. Why though, is this the typical set up? Is it most convenient for adults? Is it shaped by adults perceptions of students? “Well, it’s just easier to walk next door to ask a grade level question,” or “little ones can’t go up and down the stairs during the day.” Sometimes we need to switch our mentality from “yes, but…” to more of a, “yes, and…” If we do this, we find new possibilities we missed in the past. Students of different ages being neighbors, opens the door to new possibilities for collaboration, mentorship and leadership. There is a greater chance of students being exposed to diversity of thinking and learning. Students can be inspired by those in the room next to them. It is an opportunity for students to make connections to content and students that might previously have been missed. If we keep segregating students based on age and grade level, the school building continues to be a space where relationships are valued based primarily on these two factors. We know students need to move around more in our schools. Thinking beyond “buddy classes” to family gatherings and celebrations to unite the school across all grade levels, can help build and sustain a strong sense of belonging and contribute to the lasting relationships amongst the entire school community.

These are just a few of the ways we might shift the focus from schools focused on content, compliance and conformity, to schools focused on relationships and dispositions.

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