Asking a Question and (For Once) Taking Time to Listen

Since coming back from break, I've been working with my students to create a class charter. The idea comes from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence's RULER approach to classroom and school community building.

At the end of day two, I was feeling pretty proud of the results. The kids worked in small groups to brainstorm completions for the following prompts:

  • In this classroom we want to feel...
  • In order to feel this way, we will...
  • If there is a conflict we will...
I was excited by the array and honesty of the feelings shared: happy, thankful, appreciated, safe, like we're in a second home. I appreciated the ideas for rules or commitments that would lead to these feelings. Many focused on helping others who were sad, angry, or struggling academically. The solutions for conflict also reflected my students' burgeoning maturity. They suggested calming down, and listening to one another fully.

After each group shared their work, I asked the kids to show me via a thumbs up, thumbs sideways, or thumbs down, if they felt confident that we could create a class charter from their ideas that would achieve our goals of a fun, safe, respectful classroom. I was surprised to see a number of thumbs down. I wanted to know why, so when we lined up to leave for the day, I asked the thumbs down kids to form a separate line. As they did I found there were even more thumbs down than I originally observed.

Once we got downstairs, I asked them why they didn't think we could create a class charter that would work for our community. Although they chose different words, each kid essentially said the same thing. They didn't think other kids would stick to the commitments we decide upon as a class.

I asked them to think about the possibility for change and improvement (for themselves and for others). I asked them to think about ideas for keeping us accountable to our commitments. I left the conversation somewhat unfinished.

When I initially saw the thumbs down I felt a mixture of surprise and frustration. I felt like it was an affront to the good work we'd accomplished over the past two days. I'm so glad I was able to find time to listen to where the kids were coming from. 

In a lot of ways I have the same fears as them. We already have a set of class norms that are straightforward, inclusive of many behaviors, and positively framed. And yet, we are struggling with them, especially with respecting one another and doing our best work every day. I worry that our new charter will have the right words, but will not be backed up by action. However, I also think this kind of fear is common for kids and adults when undertaking a new initiative or challenge.

As we complete our charter in the coming days, I want to be honest about my own fears. I also won't promise perfection. As a community we must prepare to mess up. And we must prepare to recover and resolve to do better. Having had the opportunity to hear my kids' doubts I feel better prepared to take them through this process. 

Looking back on today, I wonder how many times I do this as a teacher: Ask a question, but only expect one or two responses? How often do I get responses (expected or otherwise), but don't take the time to interrogate them and really listen? Today felt like a good day, not only because of the work we did on our charter, but also because my kids took a chance by being completely honest about their feelings. 


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