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September 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 1

Conversations That Matter

Through intentional, structured conversations, this teacher creates and maintains trusting classroom relationships.

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When it comes to creating a positive learning community, building trusting relationships is 90 percent of the job. Relationships are like breathing: They aren't the whole story, but without them, nothing else matters.
Authentic learning requires intellectual and emotional risk. But when students discover that meaningful learning entails discomfort, they may respond by resisting, either actively or passively. Many classroom-management problems are simply calculated distractions by students who want to avoid looking foolish or feeling powerless—to protect the status quo of an academically challenging classroom and thus maintain the illusion of safety. If we expect our students to break out of their terminal normality and achieve the extraordinary, we must implement a focused curriculum for generating relationships.
One way to create trusting two-way relationships is to use specific structures and set aside regular times to engage in intentional conversations. The following are three structures that I've used to model and practice such conversations in my 6th–12th grade English and social studies classes.

From Day One

1. What hasn't worked for you in the past?
When I ask students to list what hasn't worked for them in past classrooms with other teachers and classmates, the result is often a delightful or rancorous gripe session. Listing these old complaints allows us to address and resolve past issues. If a student has a gripe with last year's teacher—for example, if he was falsely accused of cheating—he may lug that baggage into my classroom. By unburdening himself of this grievance, he can become a more proactive, forward-looking class participant. In addition, this discussion generates ideas for students to use when they answer the next two questions.
2. What have you come to this class for?
When I ask students what they are in this class for, they offer such responses as "to earn credits for graduation," "to get a good grade," "to learn," and "to write better." I list whatever students say without comment, including responses like "because I have to be here," "to have fun," and "I don't know." When the students run out of ideas, I ask them to clarify some of their answers, for example, "To write better than what?" "What is a good grade?" "If you did know what you are here for, what might it be?" I also answer the question myself: "I'm here to earn my paycheck." "I'm here to teach English." "I'm here to have fun." "I'm here to make a difference, if I can, in your lives." "I'm here to grow and learn." Then I point out that no one answered the question by saying, "I'm here to fail." This observation leads to the third question.
3. What conditions are necessary for you to get what you came for?
Since we (note the shift to first-person plural) all came to succeed in something, what are the conditions necessary for us to get what we came for? I start by asking students what they want from me. Their answers often include "Be fair," "Don't give busy work," "Make it fun," "Do group work," and "Explain things well." Next, I ask students what they want from one another. Typical responses include "respect," "cooperation," "listen to each other," and "no put downs."
Then, I ask them what conditions they must individually create. They usually reply, "coming prepared," "arriving on time," "showing respect for others," and so on. Next, of course, I add my input under each category. Students seldom list "taking risks" as a condition for success, so I add that to the list and explain why. The same goes for "trusting me and one another," "participating fully," and "being willing to learn from mistakes and failure." After listing all the responses, I ask students to word each item in terms of what they do want, rather than what they don't want. Thus, "Don't give busy work" becomes "Give meaningful work." "No put downs" becomes "Talk to one another respectfully." Then I ask them to identify any item they are unwilling to support. I do the same. We work on the wording of each item until everyone reaches agreement.
This list becomes our Conditions for Success chart, which provides the foundation for relationships in the classroom. We all sign the chart and post it for future reference—and there are always plenty of occasions for that.

Envisioning Possibilities

Knowing that the voice of fear, the ultimate saboteur, lies in wait to destroy my fine, progressive work, I follow up on this activity by showing students how to develop a powerful alternative: the voice of possibility. I ask, "If we consistently uphold these Conditions for Success, what might be possible?" I sometimes need to start students off by reframing the question: "Can you imagine what this class might be like if you came here every day feeling safe, excited, and interested?" or "If everyone in here treated one another with kindness, understanding, and generosity, what kind of learning might occur?" Out of the conversation about possibility, we generate passion, enthusiasm, and a strong commitment to build trusting, compassionate relationships.
Like any fine-tuned stringed instrument, relationships easily slip out of tune. Thus, I immediately begin a program of preventive maintenance.

Throughout the Year

Of all the activities I do, the perspective check has the most powerful effects. The purpose of the perspective check, which can be conducted weekly or bimonthly, is to have both the students and the teacher maintain honest, forgiving, and respectful relationships.
I devote 30 minutes to this process each Friday. We push the desks aside and sit in a circle. To introduce the activity the first time, I tell the students that we are going to have a structured conversation that will help us know one another better. This conversation will also help them feel safer in the classroom so they will feel more comfortable being themselves and trying out new ideas.
"You may wonder what this has to do with English (or social sciences)," I continue. "We are in this class together, as a community, and only if we have healthy relationships with one another can I be a good teacher and can you succeed as students. So, let's try this for a couple of weeks and then we'll see if you want to continue."
  • Excitement. What are you excited about?
  • Amazements. What amazes you?
  • Inspirations. Who inspires you?
  • Concerns. What are you concerned, worried, stressed about? (No one comments on a student's concern unless the student asks for advice.)
  • Apologies. To whom in this room do you owe an apology, and for what?
  • Resentments, irritations, and requests: Who in this room do you resent or feel irritated with? For what? And what request do you have of this person? The intent of this category is to allow students to work through negative feelings safely. Students must own their own feelings, so "You make me feel…" needs to be replaced with "When you (state the behavior), I feel (one word describing emotions)." Example: When you interrupt me, I feel angry. I request that you wait until I finish talking. The facilitator must make sure that students are not attacked or judged. After the request, ask whether the student agrees. A reply of "No" must be acceptable.
  • Gratitudes: For what or to whom are you grateful?
  • Questions: What question do you have for anyone in the room? (The person may choose not to answer the question.)
  • Appreciations and acknowledgments: Who in this room do you appreciate, admire or respect, and for what? (Always end the Perspective Check with this category.)
Other possible categories include, What are you proud of? What do you want advice about, and from whom? What opportunity did you take advantage of or miss? What risk did you take this week, and what value did it have? What did you fail at this week, and what did you learn? When are you happiest?
As the discussion facilitator, I begin with the first category (always something positive). Students who want a turn to talk raise their hands and are give a number. They talk only when their number is called. Students are not allowed to make any comments about what others say or to have private conversations with the people around them.
Perspective checks take practice. Your students are likely to greet the first one with silence and strange looks. Don't allow sarcasm, jokes, or comments. Don't force anyone to participate.
After I conduct the first two perspective checks, I always ask the students whether they want to continue next week. Don't worry: If you have followed the guidelines, students will want more. Eventually, they will expect and then demand this activity.
Perspective checks enable students to know their teacher and one another as human beings, making it safer for students to take risks and express themselves. I've seen difficult classes evolve into healthy communities as a result of this one activity. One new science teacher who had been put on probation for lack of control in his class reported that after six weeks of doing perspective checks every Friday, discipline problems vanished.
As I mentioned before, relationships can disappear in an instant. In the world of adolescents, a word, a look, or a gesture can be misinterpreted. Because young people generally view themselves as the center of the universe, they take everything personally. Thus, breakdowns are guaranteed.

Resolving Breakdowns and Restoring Trust

When a problem shows up, welcome it as an opportunity. Our most profound learning can occur through mistakes or failure. The teacher's response is crucial.
"The first opportunity in every breakdown," I tell the class, "is choosing the path to take to resolve it. You can take the scenic path, or you can take the psycho path. On the psycho path we lay blame, engage in drama, and often give up. The psycho path leads to more problems, hurt feelings, and loss of opportunity." I invite them to join me on the scenic path. Before attempting to solve the problem, I ask students to acknowledge what has been working and to recognize the progress they've made so far. In any relationship, when a breakdown occurs, speaking positively by recognizing someone's accomplishments makes it easier to forgive that person's faults.
We start by acknowledging and describing the problem. What (not who) is not working? Which of our Conditions for Success did we forget about? For example, when two boys of different races argued over one interrupting the other—an argument that escalated to chest bumping and racial epithets, rather than engaging in a debate about blame, we followed the following protocol for a conversation:
Without drama, I ask students to talk about their feelings, again without blaming anyone else for how they feel. I acknowledge that our tendency is to place blame, and I point out that this choice would put us back on the psycho path.
I ask students to review the Conditions for Success and reaffirm their commitment to them. This conversation may take some time. To continue to move forward, it's essential to restore trust. If an individual has made a mistake, or if feelings have been hurt, students need to acknowledge the damage done, seek forgiveness, and reaffirm their commitment to the Conditions for Success. If I get stuck here, I go on to another conversation: "What might be possible if we were to work through this problem together?" "What is possible when you adhere to the Conditions for Success?" This discussion shifts gears from reverse to forward.
We end by talking about how this problem allowed us to learn and grow. We identify the new behaviors and ways of thinking, listening and speaking that came through the process, and acknowledge one another for taking the scenic path.

The Outcome: Joy in Learning

Within every student is an indestructible kernel of enthusiasm for learning. By nurturing and maintaining strong, trusting relationships in the classroom, we can help those seeds bloom into joy as students discover who they are and how much they matter in the world.

Stephen Myers teaches English in Colorado.

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