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September 1, 2016
Vol. 74
No. 1

What to Do in Week One?

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How to open the door to a successful teaching-learning dynamic.

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Social-emotional learning
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Credit: ©Stefanie Felix
In the school district where I taught for many years, school always began on the Tuesday after Labor Day. Our middle school teaching team, which served 185 students, competed every year to see who could learn every student's name by Friday. Most years, I won.
While students worked in my class, I used memory techniques to review their names. After school, I studied pictures of them. I asked students to switch their seats each day, sometimes even in the middle of class, and then I identified each one of them anew. I practiced naming them as they entered my room and in the cafeteria during lunch. I dared students to try to trick me into associating them with an incorrect name; I bungled a few, and there were a lot of laughs. But by the end of the fourth day of school, I knew all 185 students' names.
It was the first leg of the year's journey in relationship building. Parents wrote notes and e-mails marveling that I knew their child so well so quickly and predicting that this was going to be a great school year for their child. Of course, I didn't really know their children yet. But all of us feel honored when others whom we respect think our names are worth remembering. In that simple act, we make a connection.
It's like the Na'vi expression of deep respect in the movie Avatar: "I see you." When we affirm to each student, "Yes, you exist; I accept all that you are, and I value time in your company," it opens the door to the successful teaching-learning dynamic so important to academic success.
For many of us, the daily connections we make with colleagues and students have become routine. But these connections can make all the difference for our students. That moment at the end of lunch with 13-year-old Owen, in which the two of us wondered how Doctor Who could travel back and forth through time and space in his TARDIS without causing time paradoxes, may have been the first time Owen had a conversation with an adult who accepted him as an equal partner in the discussion. It was fresh and exciting for Owen, and his limbic system and autonomic nervous system surged with well-being. Now he wants more connections like this. And the more such positive connections he makes, the more personally and academically resilient he'll be.

Yes, It

Although we can build positive relationships throughout the school year, the first weeks are crucial. They set the tone and conditions for the year ahead, creating a more effective teaching and learning enterprise for everyone. James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, often declares, "No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship." This connection is especially powerful for students who struggle. As Rabbi Harold Kushner said in an interview with Educational Leadership,
Often I will read about someone from the most unpromising circumstances—inner-city ghetto, drug family, single-parent home, abandoned by father, abandoned by both parents sometimes—and the child will have grown up to be a star athlete, a successful politician, or a doctor. The reporter will ask, "How did you get to be who you are?" And the answer will always begin with the same four words: "There was this teacher." (Scherer, 1998, p. 22)
For all humans—and especially teens and young teens—whatever enters our brains as we learn activates emotional responses, even before we process it cognitively. Even if teachers deliver curriculum content with an inert, unemotional lens, our students' internal monologue takes it to an emotional level—"This is so tight/wrong/bad/cool/radical/wild/dope/stupid/GOAT (Greatest of All Time)!"
Research by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang demonstrates that students need to feel a meaningful emotional connection to the material to learn. In an interview, she asserted,
People think of emotion as getting in the way of cognition, but it doesn't. Emotion steers our thinking; it's the rudder that directs our mind and organizes what we need to do. (Sparks, 2016)
Positive teacher-student relationships build on this connection to promote learning. An extensive research base shows that
improving students' relationships with teachers has important, positive and long-lasting implications for both students' academic and social development. (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2016)
In sum, students' learning is markedly influenced by their connectedness with the adults in charge, classmates, and the larger community. How can we take advantage of this dynamic to support learning, especially in the first weeks of school?

Make Sure Students Feel Safe

The most urgent questions students ask as they begin a new school year are, Am I safe? and, Do I belong? Once students feel sure these needs are met, they'll dive into learning. We can't take successful communication of these assurances for granted, though. We have to prove them to students every day. What can teachers do?
First, let's laugh at our own mistakes, and model what it looks like to acknowledge our blunders publicly and handle them constructively. Let's not ridicule students' questions ("Why can't we see latitude/longitude lines from the air?" "Seriously, Mr. Wormeli, did we land on the moon?" "Why are women always naked in Renaissance paintings?"). Let's remove all sarcasm from our comments, realizing that the sting of even a small, tossed-away remark can leave a lasting scar.
Let's not assume that students understand the idioms and references we use; let's accept instead that we have to make the implicit explicit: "When I refer to syntax or describe sentences as being parallel, I'm referring to the repetition among the phrases used to improve flow and clarity for the reader. Here, let's line up these three sentences to see how they're parallel."
And let's not take students' inappropriate comments or reactions to our teaching personally. Instead, let's respond with concern: "That doesn't sound like you, Matthew. What's really going on?"
We can withhold judgment when giving descriptive feedback. Instead of writing, "This is incoherent—rewrite!" in the margin of the student's paper, we might write, "I see you've included five arguments in this paragraph, but I don't see how they're connected. Can you suggest a way to make your point more clearly?" Instead of, "Excellent math work!" we might write, "You isolated the variable to one side of the equation sign. What does that enable you to do now?" Instead of pronouncing a grade on a small project immediately, we might ask students to write a letter analyzing how their effort does or does not match the exemplar provided, and if it doesn't match, what they'd need to change to achieve a full match between the two—then give them time to make those changes.
Judgment on the quality of work distances students from us; it creates the need to save face, and it seems adversarial. In contrast, thoughtful, specific feedback positions us as a personal advocate. Students are willing to connect with an advocate.
In class discussions, students will offer something incorrect from time to time. We need to correct the statements without rejecting the students and stalling their participation. Here are some suggestions for responding in a way that respects a student's dignity.
Affirm risk-taking. "You know, Carl, that answer is actually incorrect, but thank you for taking the chance and getting it out there as something for the rest of us to consider. That's what scholars do!"
Ask the student to explain more about his thinking. When students explain further, they often discover their errors. If we identify the errors for them, it raises defensive walls and causes embarrassment.
Be empathetic to their thinking. We can tell a student that we used to think this way (even if we didn't), but we changed our mind when we read the information at the bottom of page 89 (the page intended for last night's reading that this student failed to do). "Let's see whether reading that section changes your thinking, too."
Change the current reality. Sophia needs a win today. So after she responds to a question with the incorrect answer, we respond with, "That's the answer to the question I was about to ask," even if it wasn't. It is now, though, and we go on to ask it so that Sophia can offer her answer again and experience being correct.
If a student indicates that she doesn't know the answer to our question, we can ask, "Pretend that you did know the answer—what words would come out of your mouth?" A teacher in Naples, Maine, taught me this, and, gosh, it works. Students answer every time, and most often, they're good answers. The student didn't trust herself, so I had to provide her with a different reality.
Affirm the portions that are correct and invite focus on the incorrect portions. "Your claims are based on the author's perspective, Leila. Thank you for making that so important. I'm having trouble, however, finding the specific evidence you're using to make the claims. Can you help me find it?"
One last note about trust: We can never forget that we are under scrutiny. Students notice how we interact with their classmates and our colleagues. If we're curt, insincere, unfair, indifferent, or less than supportive with others, they'll assume that we might be that way with them, despite any previous positive experiences.
Students detest duplicity in their teachers. The first few weeks should provide consistent proof of personal authenticity. So the words we use with parents are the same ones we use with students. We follow up on our promises. We don't use sarcasm with our colleagues if we don't allow it in the classroom (the same goes with chewing gum). We are sad at sad moments and happy at happy moments. We don't always embrace students' cultural likes and dislikes just to be more accepted by them. We share our unique interests—a favorite sport or book; how much we liked Legos as a child; our dream of going into space someday; our fondness for summer camp, bike touring, and pecan pie; and a little about our families and our deep commitments to them. In short, we're our real selves.

Know Your Students Well

We can't connect with students we don't know. To provide them with meaningful learning experiences and to construct a supportive classroom community, we need to know them.
"Selected Things to Know About Your Students" (p. 15) lists just some of the areas that can affect learning. A single teacher won't be able to gather data in all these areas, of course, so we should make information gathering a full-year process, and consider dividing it up among departments in the school and posting it to a secure, confidential profile system maintained by the guidance department. In addition, many teachers find it helpful to include the following activities in the first weeks of school.
Invite parents to comment. In 2003, Deb Bova shared a simple strategy on the MiddleWeb listserv that exploded worldwide—sending home an open-ended invitation on the first day of school that says, "In a million words or less, tell me about your child." In my own experience and that of other teachers who have tried it, this strategy garners insights regarding students that conventional parent surveys don't often provide. Parents find the prompt engaging; many comment that they've never been asked to write something like this before.
Invite students to write—as their parents. Tell students, "Write a letter from your parent to the teacher describing you." When people write under a pseudonym, it's often freeing. We include things we might normally filter. In the years I used this activity, students made statements like, "If it's important to remember, please write it on the board or screen. Otherwise, Jerry doesn't think it's important." "Micah has Hebrew school on Sundays and Wednesdays, so he probably won't do homework on those days." "It drives Carla crazy when there's nothing creative, so don't be boring." and, "Lena finds sweat stains under teachers' armpits revolting, so please keep them dry or don't raise your arms."
Caution students when writing such letters to stick to factors that affect their classroom learning. They should not reveal anything too confidential or personal. If they want to share personal information, they should first get their parents' permission or maybe even ask the parents to share it themselves.
Offer "Best Way for Me to Learn" cards. Students fill out an index card with their name and everything they can think of that helps them learn. Using these cards over the years, I learned that students wanted me to use high-contrast colors on dry erase boards, to provide more than two examples when explaining something, to speak more slowly, to allow students to drink water or juice in class, to switch who was doing the teaching sometimes (resulting in more student-led instruction), to identify online tutorials covering the same material I was teaching, and to make sure my homework wasn't busy work "just to look like a tough teacher." I also learned that many students get frustrated with group projects. All helpful to know.
Spend time in shared efforts. One of the best ways to get to know students and build strong connections is to share time in complex or work-intensive activities. Spending a full day early in the school year hiking a mountain with students, for example, forges strong teacher-student relationships, especially as you help one another navigate narrow boulder passes at higher altitudes. Witnessing our students outside normal classroom and school contexts reveals something closer to their true selves. It's gold.
Sponsoring a student club, sport, or extracurricular activity (school newspaper, TV station, or literary magazine) or joining students in a small on-stage or behind-the-scenes role in the school musical are excellent ways to create esprit de corps. In such experiences, we recognize the value in one another and in working together. We can't help but be loyal to one another and invested in one another's success. For students—and for teachers—this is often a pleasant surprise.

Practice Empathy

Students feel connected to teachers whom they perceive as understanding them. To inhabit another, however, we must inhibit ourselves—subordinating our own knowledge and perspectives for a moment and embracing the other's world. This takes practice. We can begin the school year focusing on these few empathy-building steps:
  • Make home visits and observe students' roles in the family and who they are at home.
  • Sit in students' desks and see the room from their point of view, and adjust lessons and visuals accordingly.
  • Ask students to explain their thinking verbally, in writing, or as they teach a classmate. Understanding, or lack thereof, is quickly revealed in these processes.
  • Recognize our own intellectual bias. "It's so clear in my own head; why isn't it clear in Kiki's head?" we reason. "Everyone else learned it this way, so it must be something wrong with Kiki. She's not trying hard enough." Effective teachers look through the first-timer's eyes as they plan and deliver instruction. They catch misconceptions before they fester, perceive helpful connections and clarifications for students, and avoid teaching today's lessons through automated verbal memory from their years of expertise in the topic.
  • Attend to students' essential human needs. Indifference to basic health does not engender goodwill. So be attentive: Are students hydrated, well-fed, and rested? Are they moving enough to get oxygen to the brain? Do we need more lighting, fresh air, or different seats? Can everyone see the display area? Do all students have equal access to the tools this lesson requires?
  • Avoid over-generalizing about students. English language learners, for instance, vary widely in language proficiencies, educational background, need for support, creativity, and more; treating them all the same undermines teacher-student relationships and students' learning. Affirm students as the individuals they are, not the limited stereotypes invoked by our limited experience. The Thai student in 5th period is not the official spokesperson for everyone from Thailand. The student with ear buds seemingly fused into his ears may not be trying to block out the world by listening to his favorite hip-hop artists, but instead listening to thoughtful podcasts of great poetry, gaming strategies, or speeches from his religious leaders. The student with purple hair may be a happy, well-adjusted rule follower who just happens to like purple hair.

We're In This Together

Face it: We can only do our jobs as teachers if students do what we ask of them. On any day, students can refuse to participate or can even get up and walk out. In some classrooms, cooperation is tenuous at best, but in successful classrooms it's on solid ground. Teaching is done with students, not to them.
To create that mutual ethos, teachers and students employ civil discourse that honors what each group brings to the table. When disagreeing, we demonstrate that we've heard and understood the other's point of view. We don't diminish one another with derision. We assume that at any given moment in the lesson, both of us—teacher and student—are probably doing the best we can. If we wrong each other in some manner, we apologize and try to make amends.
Both of us want respect for our efforts and our individual natures; we want to be accepted and to matter to others. As teachers, we show respect by being knowledgeable in our fields and in how to teach them, by following through on our promises, and by finding ways to make curriculum content meaningful to students. To show respect to us, students do the class activities and assignments, follow our classroom rules, and make sincere efforts to learn course content without complaint.
Mutuality is not just helpful to students; it's also invigorating to teachers. We are more willing to invest in students when we feel connected to them. We get excited as we plan lessons for particular individuals, take satisfaction in responding to student work and providing helpful feedback, and enjoy students' "aha!" moments when we've really made the connection. This is why we went into teaching in the first place; it's where we find the strength to work hard all day and late into the evening and then get up the next morning and do it all over again.
Yes, student, you exist. I accept all that you are, and I value time in your company. You will commit to being the best version of your maturing self, just as I will commit to being the best version of my maturing self for you. We'll achieve our goals together. Now, I see that your name is "Ellie." Is it short for something? Tell me more. You are a person worth knowing.

Selected Things to Know About Your Students

  • Socioeconomic status

  • Family dynamics

  • Nationality

  • Student's transience rate

  • Parents' jobs

  • Home responsibilities

  • After-school work schedule

  • Previous school experiences

  • Religious affiliation

  • English language learner status

  • Technology access and proficiency

  • Personal interests (sports, music, television, movies, books, hobbies, other)

  • Physical health/maturity

  • Behavior/discipline concerns

  • Social-emotional learning strengths and challenges

  • Existence of Individualized Education Plan

  • Challenges such as Tourette syndrome, Asperger syndrome, ADHD

  • Vision or hearing problems

  • Gifted/advanced learner

  • LGBT identity and transitions

  • Leadership qualities

  • Multiple intelligences

  • Myers-Briggs personality profile


Rimm-Kaufmann, S., & Sandilos, L. (2016). Improving students' relationships with teachers to provide essential supports for learning. Retrieved from American Psychological Association website

Scherer, M. (1998, December). Is school the place for spirituality? A conversation with Rabbi Harold Kushner. Educational Leadership, 56(4), 18–22.

Sparks, S. D. (2016, April 26). Emotions help steer students' learning, studies find. Education Week, 35(29). Retrieved from www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/04/27/emotions-help-steer-students-learning-studies-find.html

Rick Wormeli, one of the first National Board–certified teachers in America, brings innovation, energy, validity, and high standards to both his presentations and his instructional practice, which includes 38 years of teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history and of coaching teachers and principals.

Wormeli's work has been reported in numerous media, including ABC's Good Morning America, MSNBC's Hardball with Chris MatthewsNational Geographic and Good Housekeeping magazines, What Matters Most: Teaching for the 21st Century, and The Washington Post. He is a columnist for AMLE Magazine and a frequent contributor to ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. His classroom practice is one of the showcases for ASCD's best-selling series, "At Work in the Differentiated Classroom."

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