When I was co-teaching American Studies (U.S. history combined with 10th grade ELA) if you asked me what our “warmup” for class was, I probably would have said that we don’t do them. But that is not really true. We didn’t do an academic activity to review the previous day’s learning or to introduce new content ideas for today.
What we did do to launch class everyday was “highs and lows.” It was family time to share what was going on in students’ lives. It was informal. No one was forced to share. No one kept track of who shared and who didn’t. No one was shamed for sharing too often. It was a “warmup” of our community and caring for each other.
Originally this practice was called “good news” originating from Capturing Kids Hearts. The intent was to create a positive atmosphere at the beginning of class each day. Students shared about their sporting events, or music, art, and theatre performances. We learned about their hobbies and families. Students shared about birthday dinner celebrations, visiting relatives, or new pets. Sometimes the sharing was silly about movies (no spoilers!) or going to Starbucks. No good news was too trivial to be celebrated by all. It was truly culture building.
But then someone’s grandmother died, and she wanted to share it with the class. It certainly wasn’t good news, and it definitely wasn’t a celebration. But it was an important moment that she wanted to share. We realized that this wasn’t the first time that a student had started off with, “This isn’t good news, but …”
So we changed the name to “highs and lows”, meaning that anyone could share anything, even if it wasn’t positive. We created a safe place to share both joy and grief.
Sometimes this took a ton of class time, but we didn’t care. We always prioritized time for student sharing. Sometimes, I would take a student aside to talk more and check in on them if they shared something painful. And the students took care of each other emotionally too.
After our “warmup,” we always got into content. Since it was a PBL classroom, we used the Need to Know list of questions to reflect back on previous learning and to connect to what our next steps would be. So we ultimately met the goals of more traditional warmups.
Students sharing heartache greatly decreases students wanting to bully or make fun of each other. When someone opens up and shares pain or struggles, it is natural for humans to practice empathy and be considerate of them. It is unnatural to hate, taunt, and argue. When students see each others’ personal challenges, they are more willing to be patient and tolerant when they have different perspectives. It breaks down cliques and prevents “misfit” students from becoming targets as we got to know each other personally.
So during the coronavirus pandemic, as much of the world is forced into crisis distant learning, we see empathetic teachers checking in with students. Social media is full of all kinds of tweets, videos, and stories of teachers connecting with students in kind and creative ways. Everyone misses the face-to-face connections of the classroom and is trying to connect through screens or across 6 foot “barriers.”
Whether or not you have ever had an official checkin time in your in-person classroom, like our highs and lows, most teachers take their students’ mental health seriously and find ways to address it.
My own children’s school runs on trimesters. They had just started a new tri with brand new classes and teachers before school closed. They only had one week of class, so really no time to build any community or culture yet. I have noticed that my kids (high schoolers which may be part of it) are resistant to teachers reaching out to check on them. There is no relationship so the effort feels forced and fake to my kids.
So I leave you with two questions for reflection in light of the idea that this state of online learning may continue or resurface in the future:
- How do you build an online culture of community if you have not already established one face-to-face?
- Once this pandemic subsides and schools reopen, how will you intentionally check in on your students daily?
My favorite realization of this pandemic is for the public to be reminded of the personal side of teaching, beyond content (and especially testing). We need to leverage this in the future to continue a humane approach to education.