"Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none." ~William Shakespeare
Start slowly. Ease into it. Take the time to let them trust you. Breathe. Relax. Make sure they know that more than anything they matter. I’ve told myself these things every August as the new school year starts, but I don’t listen. Ever. I am always in a rush. Jump in. Get them working. Show them who’s in control.
No wonder the past few years have been rough: I took too long to build relationships.
This week I’ve done it differently, and I can already tell a difference.
I have not done the get-to-know you bingo games, the list-your-favorite-things cards, the 2 true/1 lie, or the numerous other “relationship building” activities that rise in the back-to-school Google searches.
I have asked students to write. And I’ve written with them. And we’ve shared.
The first day of school I showed the beautiful video of Shane Koyczan’s poem “To This Day.” We didn’t talk; I simply asked students to respond. They wrote on note cards for five minutes and told me what they thought about name calling, bullying, loving the inner person. I then asked them to flip the card over and on the back tell me why they think I chose that poem, of all the millions of poems available, for the first day of school. They thought and wrote, and I set the expectation that we are a community of writers on the very first day.
I read their responses that evening, and I learned a few things, and a few things made me cry: the death of a father this summer, the loss of a brother, and the abuse experienced by not one but two of my girls when they were younger. The hurt is still raw. I felt it in their words, and I am honored. They trusted me with their hearts the very first day.
Every day this week I’ve read a poem or a quote or a story, and I’ve asked students to write their thoughts in their notebooks. I wrote along with them. I modeled re-reading and revision. I shared my thinking, and I shared my words on the page. Then I asked if students felt comfortable sharing. Many did.
Yesterday we read the poem “Days” by Billy Collins. I did a quick mini-lesson on imagery and personification, and then I asked students to think about a day in their lives that, if they could, they would live over. Sad day. Happy day. Any day. Just choose one and write. We wrote for five minutes.
I shared first. Or, I tried to. I wrote about my mother, and I got so choked up in first period I could not speak. My students saw me vulnerable. They saw my hurt, and they poured out their sympathy. If there’s anything magical about my mother’s illness, this was it. The bond of our relationship cemented with my tears.
During 5th period, one of my girls volunteered to read her response. She began with something like “It was the day I saw my mother for the first time in three years. We hugged and laughed and cried.” Then she began to sob. The class stilled. Silence. Silence. And then soft snickers. I know students were uncomfortable; they are freshmen after all. I cautioned them about respect, and reminded them of the safe place we are developing as readers and writers–the place where we take risks and trust others to understand. I spoke gently but sternly as I made my way to my sobbing young woman and rested my hand upon her back. “Be kind,” I said, “and please be patient. Let me tell you about my experience in first period. I cried . . . because I miss my mother.” My tears spilled over, and this group of 14-year-olds saw my hurt, too, and we all grew as a community.
It’s Friday afternoon, the end of the first week of school. My feet ache, but I am happy.
Students want simple things from teachers: kindness, patience, a listening ear. They want to share their hurts, fears, hopes, and dreams. They need to know we care enough to let them.
And, guess what? Students will WRITE when we give them the opportunity to write what they feel. I can do a lot of teaching with what they’ve started in their notebooks this week.
Best blessings all my teacher friends. I hope your school year looks to be as bright as mine.
If you have other ideas for relationship building, please share. I’d love to know what works for you.