In January 2014, Momastery posted a blog that generated a lot of buzz in the teaching and parenting world. In it, the author laid out what her son’s teacher did for the kids in her class every week.
In essence, it is this: each child takes a piece of paper and writes down four people they want to sit next to and one person who has been a good classroom citizen. The teacher collects all the papers, and looks at the results. She looks for patterns of behavior.
When it was published, I had just days earlier entered the world that is motherhood. Life was hectic, and I couldn’t imagine teaching again, never mind orchestrating what is essentially a classroom-based sociology study.
And then I walked through the door of my classroom to twenty-one (soon to be twenty-two) amazing, wonderful fourth graders. As I read their introductory letters and the student information forms submitted by parents, I realized that these kids, who I already loved so much, were strangers. I had no clue about their lives outside of our classroom.
I needed to do something that would give me insight into their social world, into the playground. I needed to build some sort of trust with my kiddos.
That night someone reposted the original Momastry article. I read it again with fresh eyes. I resolved that I would make this work for my classroom.
That second Friday of school, I passed out sticky notes. I laid down some ground rules:
- Pick people that will be good influences on you
- Pick people that you get along with
- Know that I read these, I take them seriously
- You may not get any or all of your seat partners
- Fair does not mean the same, it means you get what you need at this moment
Most of my kiddos did pretty ok. I had a few that had no clue what to write, and I realized that they needed more guidance. So I created a form.
Every Friday for the first few months of the year, I passed that form out to each child for their morning work. The kids loved it! They were allowed to have a say in whom they were sitting with, and they “got out of” actual academic work. After the first few months, it became more sporadic and less regimented.
What they couldn’t know is how much more valuable to me those forms were than any test or worksheet.
Every single week I got to see my class in terms of friendships. That was powerful. I could literally track, with data, how my new students were fitting in and making friends. I could see when a particular group was having issues. I could pick out which kids just weren’t making friends.
And then I could act. I could rig seating to place the children who needed a friend next to a more popular student, or a chatty student. I could separate students that weren’t getting along that week. I could pull kids aside and talk to them about their lives in a more deeper and meaningful way than I have ever been able to before. I could honestly say to parents: “I know exactly who your child’s best friend is, and who is picking on her. How can we solve this together?”
All of that because of five minutes in class once a week.
So, five minutes. That’s a lie. It took about fifteen to thirty minutes, total. Because I set up a spreadsheet and input every child’s name. I had two columns per Friday, one for seat requests and one for good citizen nominations. Every time a child received a request for either category, they got a tally mark. After all of the forms had been reviewed, I went through and changed the tallies to real numbers. From there I could input that data into graphs and literally see the social dynamics in my classroom.
This is the part I never told my students: I used the raw data to create my seating plans, not their specific requests. I used the rule about fairness. Based on legal documents and teaching observations, I placed some kids in the front all of the time. Based on personalities, I never sat some children together. For the rest, I used the data. I would put the kiddo who never got nominated in any category next to someone who had a high nomination count, hoping that they could help each other.
For the most part, it worked. Students who were shy, silent, and hesitant to speak up in September were leaders in the classroom in June. Students who maybe didn’t have a large circle of friends had found at least one best friend. I was able to take my data and anticipate a problem, or notice a trend and intervene sooner rather than later.
Best of all, my students trusted me. They knew that I would never reveal who they had requested. They knew that when they told me something in confidence, it would stay that way unless keeping the secret would cause more harm than good. We built a family.
I know assessments and testing and Common Core are the buzz words of modern education. To me, this lesson in family building, in trust, in community, in friendship was the most profound experience I have ever had in my teaching or learning career.