As we welcomed 45 (!!!) incredible new educators to ABRSD last week, I spent time reflecting back on what I affectionately call my “prior life” as an eighth grade teacher, when I was blessed to serve as the special educator who co-taught with a team of four content area teachers. Each year, the five of us would painstakingly plan classroom- and team-wide connecting activities for the first few weeks of school to welcome students and create a shared sense of community on our team.
While these inclusion activities were well-intentioned, and many students had fun and felt connected (as did the educators!), I realize now that there were so many things we could have done differently. One thing is certain- I no longer call these activities ‘icebreakers’ (which will garner a collective eyeroll from students and adults alike!); rather, I call them ‘connecting activities’, ‘inclusion activities’, or ‘connectors’. While I can’t go back in time and change how my teammates and I welcomed our eighth graders those years, I can see what I would do differently if I was still in the classroom like so many of you are. It’s like Maya Angelou wrote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Names that are unfamiliar to you aren’t ‘hard’, they’re ‘unpracticed.'”educator Dwayne Reed
My first “do-over” would be working much harder to pronounce student names- first and last, and give students opportunities to practice knowing each other’s names. Author Ralph Ellison, “It is through our names that we first place ourselves in the world. Our names, being the gift of others, must be made our own.” Teaching in East Lansing, a large university town (Go Spartans!), meant that we were gifted with the children of professors from all over the world who had names that were often difficult for my (white) teammates and I to pronounce. After a few unsuccessful attempts on our part, the student would often say, “Just call me _____”, an easier or Americanized version of their name. And at that time, not knowing any better, we did. I am sad to realize that while we thought we were saving the student from embarassment, it was much more our own pride that we were protecting, and worse, it was disrespectful to many students. As educator Dwayne Reed tweeted, “Names that are unfamiliar to you aren’t ‘hard’, they’re ‘unpracticed.'” If a few of our dedicated ABRHS teachers can pronounce 500 student names correctly at our annual high school graduation ceremony, then we most certainly can learn the names of the students who will spend the next 180 days with us!
Next, I would spend more time than just the first week at the start of the school year building a classroom community. As Dr. Justin Tarte, Executive Director of HR for Union Schools in Missouri, tweeted:
This message is certainly consistent with Superintentent Light’s four compass points that illustrate the hope that all of our students feel loved, valued, challenged, and supported during their time here with us. If I could go back to my prior life as a middle school educator, I would utilize these activities well into the first few months of school, while embedding my content area learning material in them. (I pulled together a few resources for you to get to know students and build community in one place here if it is helpful- link below, also.) I would most likely use the Teaching Tolerance (TT) curriculum to frame these connecting activities to a few key TT anchor standards, such as: “Students recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complext individuals,” and “Students respond to diversity by building empathy, respect, understanding, and connection.” I would also make sure that I was transparent with students and families about my goals around community building and knowing students.
Finally, I would show more of myself, or as James Lang writes in this article, I would humanize [myself] to students. At that time, my college professors taught us how important it was to “be hard on students right out of the gate so you command respect” (or something like that), advice that never really resonated with me. For those of you who have lived with or taught middle schoolers, you know how their moods can fluctuate wildly from moment to moment. If we don’t spend time engaging with them during those ups and downs (e.g. laughing and being silly, or empathizing with an angry outburst, etc.), then there is no way we can engage with them and know them. Looking back, I wish I had allowed myself to have more fun with those teens… I think it actually would have added to their level of respect for me in a way that being hard or strict can never do.
Link to a compilation of resources to get to know students and build community: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1N9QIvtc6ZXgqIKO2dFQ9n22u5LL-SsPNpqcCYDhv8dY/edit?usp=sharing