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There isn’t much debate about the fact that teachers as a whole are struggling right now. Any education-focused site one views will likely be awash with articles about teachers leaving the profession, thinking about leaving the profession, or struggling in a multitude of ways. The same basic theme has saturated social media thus far this summer with a huge percentage of educator posts I’ve read boiling down to the message I’m struggling right now!

There are a number of teacher-specific reasons for these struggles (on top of the general reasons we all are struggling): increased workload during the pandemic, a generation of declining pay continuing to come how to roost, the rapid proliferation of attacks on teachers in many local and state politics, and safety concerns ranging from the fear of school shootings to the fact that over two years of an airborne pandemic, most American schools still haven’t bothered to install proper ventilation despite the availability government funds for that purpose. 

One other reason that I think should get more press or at least more consideration is the fact that teachers are also struggling because our students are struggling too. Any classroom educator will likely know that the well-being of our students can have a major effect on us. When we watch our students thrive, it can uplift like a permanent cup of espresso and when our students struggle, those struggles can come home with us too.  

After taking nearly a month away from all things education, I look back on last year and am struck by many things, but one of the most striking is how many of my students struggled in major ways during the year and how those struggles manifested in issues that were once rare (like students fighting or taking leaves from school for mental health) becoming a part of normal daily teaching. It wasn’t just me either; more and more data is coming out concerning just how bad the last two years have been for student mental health.

It is hard to predict if the same level of student struggles will meet educators in the fall or if things will improve as the pandemic continues to become more endemic. I hope the latter will be the case, but I also know that it is unlikely that all of the increased student struggles will instantly and magically dissipate, especially because student struggles were already spiking pre-pandemic. 

Whatever we teachers find as we begin the 2022 school year, I want to be prepared, and one of the best ways to prepare that I keep coming back to in my reading and thinking is the necessity of building a classroom community that is as vibrant as possible. I know from both experience and research that a classroom community can act as a powerful support system both for the students and the teacher, plus when it is strong, it can aid in many of the other things that often drain teachers, ranging from stopping classroom misbehaviors before they start to acting as a strong motivator for students to do work well and on time. 

I also want to focus on classroom community because last year I didn’t give it the attention I should have. When we first returned to full in-person classes, I quietly assumed that students would throw themselves into being together again after being deprived of a physical classroom community for so long, and so I inadvertently put community building on the back burner while I focused on things like helping students with anything missed the year before.

At the start of the year it quickly became apparent that this was a rather significant misstep though. In those first weeks, instead of finding classrooms filled with the wonderful buzz of 30 teens catching up after an extended break, my room was strangely silent and class discussions were stilted and performative. Right away it was apparent that while we were no longer on Zoom, students had brought the dreaded silent Zoom room dynamic back to school with them.

When I talked to students about being back at school, they voiced a lot of factors that contributed to their increased reticence to connect and collaborate. Part of it was simply that they were out of practice with being part of a community and what that means. They were also used to having more individual autonomy and acting as free agents in a way that isn’t possible in a class that is working together. But what was (and remains) maybe the most worrying for me was that I also heard a strong undercurrent of students being disinterested in learning from each other. Having been on their own for so long, many seemed to have forgotten what can be gained from each other.

All of this is to say that I can’t even begin to predict what challenges will be coming this year, but I will still wager that focusing on building connections and community will be a critical part of the answer to those challenges. Here is how I plan to do that: 

Students Need to Have Fun with Each Other

In Matthew Kay’s Not Light, But Fire, he tells the story of the Olympia Academy, Albert Einstein’s small group of friends who came over to his apartment at first for physics tutoring and later for some physics alongside drinks, cigars, and discussions of philosophy and literature. The name, Olympia Academy, was one of many inside jokes and silly ideas that went along with the deeper debates about the physical and metaphysical properties of the universe.

The Olympia Academy meetings all directly predated Einstein’s “Miracle Year,” where he introduced so many of his famous theories and equations, and he often pointed to the discussions there—and especially the ones not about physics—as catalysts for many of his innovations. A moral of the story? Having fun together isn’t always a trivial matter. Laughing and playing can be powerful glue for a group of people and can unlock creative thinking that can remain hidden when everything is about work. According to Einstein, a group of friends having fun with each other changed the science world forever, and I have definitely found that it can change one’s classroom too.

This last spring, feeling that my classes needed a boost of community before we embarked on semi-autonomous literature circle units, I took this Olympia Academy idea and launched a series of weekly challenges for the literature circle groups, ranging from answering riddles to constructing spaghetti towers, that were meant to get the groups having fun (see below), and the results were even better at building group cohesion than I’d hoped.

Of course, one’s fun doesn’t have to be so structured. Some other options for group fun include:

  • Debating silly topics as preparation for debates on more serious ones.
  • Doing a regular Wordle. I do this with my academic support classes, and it is both a wonderful team-builder and helps to reframe what language and vocabulary mean to students whose relationships with language and vocabulary within school are often not great.
  • Having students share their work around a mock campfire. Liz Prather mentions that this is the favorite thing she does in her class in her new book The Confidence to Write.
  • Having students use each other’s words for creative work. My student teacher last year used a New York Times Learning Network list of student created words to create an assignment where students invented words, put them into a Google spreadsheet, and we then used them to write short creative pieces. The results had us in stitches and taught valuable lessons about being mindful about word choice and the role young people play in constantly reinventing language!

They Need to Hear Each Other’s Stories

Mr. Rogers is often quoted as saying, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.” And from a classroom experience, I have found this to be nearly always true. Students in particular often respond to the stories of others with a kindness and openness that regularly takes my breath away.

The hard part of sharing stories is that constant teacher issue of finding time, with a close second being the fact that many students feel reticent about sharing their true selves and stories with the class. This year I plan to navigate both these issues by doing the following: 

  • Regular use of micro-shares, where students share small pieces of their work and stories. Here is a post with some of my favorites, but the idea is to make sharing so regular and quick that it becomes a normal, don’t-think-twice part of class. I think so much of what makes sharing scary for students is how rarely it happens, and micro-shares have been really useful for lowering those fears in my class. 
  • Thoughtful use of peer response, which, if done well, can also get students sharing with each other in meaningful ways. See here for how I make peer response work.
  • Creating peer table groups that stay together for at least a month and regularly share and work together, so they can build trust to share at a deeper level.  
  • This year, I also plan to do something I’ve read, thought, and written about, but never done fully, which is to have students write narrative pieces that they all share with the class. Some of my teaching mentors like Linda Christensen have done this, and I have long loved the idea but struggled with the time investment to do it. This year, given everything, I feel like the potential return is worth the time investment, so I am going to give it a go according to how Linda Christensen does it (see post linked above). I will let you know how it goes (and if you’ve done this, let me know what tips you have)!

They Need Direct Instruction

It is worth thinking about why many students don’t see much value in classroom interactions and community. For many this stance comes from experience, with far too many class discussions, group projects, turn-and-talks, and peer reviews not leading to enough gains to make them feel worth the time investment. 

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For these (and all) students, it can pay great dividends to offer instruction about why we connect, collaborate, and build community and how these things can benefit everyone. One of the great joys in working on the new book Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA with value/motivation expert Dave Stuart Jr. and classroom-community expert Matt Kay was that I learned a great deal about how to actively instruct around community-building and collaboration, with some of the biggest lessons being the following:

  • Explain Everything: To understand how humans feel about having their time wasted, try sitting at a green light for ten seconds or looking at the line behind you as you pay with pennies at the store. Or you don’t want to get honked/yelled at, you can just look around at the faces of your colleagues during a mandated PD that isn’t particularly relevant. The point is that we as humans generally cannot stand even having a few seconds wasted, and many students see community-focused moments as a waste of time compared to getting down to “the work” of class. And while telling students why something like peer response is valuable won’t necessarily sway all doubters, when a teacher explains how being a peer reviewer will help both the recipient, who will get more feedback, and the reviewer, whose own writing and understanding of writing will grow through the act of reading and responding to the writing of another, many students will often approach it differently afterwards. 
  • Teach Everything: Over my career I have found that many of the things I assumed students knew how to do, they didn’t (or needed a reminder). Something as seemingly simple in the eyes of a teacher as participating in a discussion can be both difficult and scary for many students. Taking a few minutes to teach students what good conversation looks like, what to do if they are bothered by something in the conversation, when to raise their hand, how to respond to a classmate, and the importance of taking notes can dramatically shift how those conversations go. For an example of this, here are a couple resources from Answers to Your Biggest Questions About Teaching Middle and High School ELA that we use to teach discussion skills: 
This is my short argument for taking notes during discussions.
These are stems Matt Kay uses for students to compliment each other after a discussion.

For another example of this idea of teaching everything, here is a post I wrote last summer on how I teach students to listen to each other in my classes.

  • Model Everything: It is one thing to tell students of something’s value. It is another to show it. That is why I try to model all of the community building things we do every day. Some ways I do that include:
    • I try to sit with everything said by students for a second longer than expected to model active absorption of the ideas and stories of others.
    • I engage in the same behaviors that I ask of them (taking notes during discussions and using them later, offering praise after collaborating and pointing out the ways that the collaboration improved my thinking, telling parts of my story when appropriate).
    • I tell students when their contributions shifted how the class runs. When a student suggests a great theme for a book or a smoother way to do peer response, I will take note of it and give credit where credit is due.
    • I do occasional cogens, a Chris Emdin-created dialogue structure where teachers formally meet with students to discuss the class and its community. KQED’s Mind/Shift recently ran a great piece explaining them

_______

In the end, the theme that I hope stitches all of this together is how much we can get from each other. I try to remember and remind my classes that every single person we meet can teach us something meaningful, if we are open to it. Students are primed to learn that lesson better than most, and when they do, the result can be a classroom community like the one that they and we will need this year!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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