I think early and often about relationships, classroom culture, and how both affect learning — and learning math in particular. Last year I wrote about how I try to resist the expectation that content must supersede humanness. I’m getting better, but I’m still prone to neglecting the social fabric of my classroom in favor of shoving content down the throats of students. I have seen and felt this from other teachers, too. But this content-vs-humanness predicament not entirely on us. The pressures from our district, our administration, and parents are real and seem to be getting worse. As more and more demands and expectations are placed on us, we’re faced with few alternatives other than to place a firm emphasis on content and move on.
On top of all that, learning is hard. It’s devilishly tricky to fuse new knowledge with old. And there’s a ton of hidden baggage that our kids carry, too. About math, about learning, about what kind of student they’ve been told they are. This only adds to the complexity of the work.
But neuroscience tells us that our brains need strong social connections in order to flourish. To help someone learn, to help them consolidate what they now know with what our curriculum says is important, requires a relationship. It calls for an honest, unconditional exchange of self on behalf of the student and teacher. Surely this involves sharing an understanding of math, but for me, our relationship must exist outside of math and outside of the curriculum. I work with my students to acknowledge the gravity of this and why I’m so serious about the bond we share. Our relationship is an intimate one and does its best work when deep, trusting bonds can be created and nurtured between teacher and student. That’s what I believe, at least.
Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier, though. My ambivalent struggle to balance the weightiness of content with authentic relationships is ongoing. In my wonderings, the opening of class has been a focal point. I view it as a critical time for my students, a moment of their physical, psychological, and emotional arrival. As such, I see value in engaging them as humans before I engage them as emerging mathematicians. It’s an opportunity to plug into one another again. The past 24 hours have chewed us up and spit us out and now we’re back here, together, hoping to be better than we were yesterday. Before our energies shift and get tangled in math, I’ve come to savor this magical reunion that I have with my students each day.
I show this by moving our opening conversation away from math. After the Bell Ringer, no matter what’s on the agenda, I deliberately pause, find eyes, and ask how everyone is feeling. We popcorn out about our lack of sleep or celebrate how someone caught the bus this morning by the narrowest of margins. We then fill the next few minutes with informal dialogue. House talk. It could be about a thought-provoking book, a funny moment from the hallway or cafeteria, or how someone’s new baby sister is doing. I will often ask students to share something kind they did for another person that day. Or something that has made them think. It’s can be a lot of things, but no matter what, it captures what we’re thinking or feeling at the moment. It’s a casual check-in with nothing on the line.
Unscripted, it lasts all of five minutes. Then we’re on to discussing homework or whatever else is on tap. I know some of my colleagues call for every second of every period of every day to be a one way street to math or whatever else is being taught. This is fair. But in a content-driven school system that, despite lionizing social-emotional well-being of students, still manages to exclude it from its bottom line, this is my push back.
Last year, I read Matthew R. Kay’s Not Light, But Fire, a book on a mission to help teachers bring meaningful race conversations into the classroom. One of his prerequisites is building conversational safe spaces with our students. Like me, he also uses the start of class to “Burn Five Minutes,” as he calls it, to reorient students to the space and connect with them as humans. His rationale is far more eloquent and polished than what I’ve done with this post, so I’ll close with an excerpt from chapter one:
[When I burn five minutes, I] acknowledge students are thinking people who hold opinions independent of my curriculum…I show them that I find them worthy enough to warrant five minutes speaking as equals. (At the beginning of class, no less. Consider the difference between an athlete being asked to start a game and being invited to play in “garbage time” at the end when the outcome is obvious. That’s the difference between starting class with informal conversation and mopping up extra minutes with it.)
This time commitment is minimal, until one steps back and considers that five minutes a day becomes nearly two hours of informal chatter over the course of a month. This banking of conversational democracy buttresses all other classroom dialogue — students can take more risks, and our classroom culture can survive more mistakes, because students are less likely to consider our respect for their opinions either disingenuous or capricious. We build with them every day, and not just about things that they will eventually be graded on.