Sunday, May 7, 2017

Tips for Building a Compassionate Classroom

Whenever something horrifying happens, like the events in Orlando over the weekend, I tend to go into a temporary tailspin.  My religious and political convictions are best summed up as “Get off Facebook and make somebody a sandwich.”  I immediately look for something I can do, some concrete action I can take that will counteract the evil in the world.

This summer, I signed myself and my son up to volunteer at a shelter for LGBT teens. But during the school year, things are both harder and easier. Harder, because there are more obligations and less time to fulfill them. Easier, because I get to spend my entire day doing what I believe is the most important work I can find; helping to produce more compassionate, open-minded people who can heal a broken world.

There are a lot of ways to encourage compassion in kids, and a lot of people can provide way better-documented research than I can.  But here are some methods I’ve tried over the past ten years in the middle school classroom that have helped develop kinder, more empathetic students.

1. Choose books carefully.  There are so many great books for young readers that encourage the development of a social conscience.  I mean, really any book can facilitate conversations about relationships and bullying and empathy, but some novels make it incredibly easy. I especially like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Crossing the Wire, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, since they all include themes of both personal isolation and systemic oppression. It gives the kids a chance to consider things from new perspectives, and all those novels have characters that are exceptionally relatable. It’s like the folks who hate gay people until a friend comes out of the closet; really good novels give you friends—albeit fictional ones—who come from different walks of life and expose you to a wider reality.  Kids desperately need that, and they love it. I’ve never had a class be less than enthusiastic about any of those books.

2. Talk about real problems…and possible solutions. This can be tricky, and requires an awareness of your students and their cultures. I’m not advocating letting your sixth graders read first person accounts of human trafficking victims; the goal is to raise awareness, not provide the counselor with more job security. But kids can often handle more than we give them credit for. One of my favorite class discussions this year centered around transgender bathrooms and same-sex marriage. The kids brought it up, and I was hesitant to allow the discussion to continue, but they were amazing.

Last year, after we read about undocumented immigrants and watched a documentary, the kids found a school nearby for newly arrived immigrants and got a bunch of school supplies donated. Another group in that class wrote a grant for technology that would allow deported parents to Skype with their children who remained in the United States. Although they didn’t get the funding, it was an incredibly meaningful experience, and one they still talked about after they left my class.

3. Practice perspective-taking. This one’s easy, because it hits tons of standards while also building some social awareness.  Also, the kids tend to enjoy it. Assignments like writing a journal from the perspective of a character in a novel or creating a social media page for a character forces kids to consider things from an alternative point of view. For middle schoolers, who tend to be positioned firmly at the center of their own universe, this is a priceless skill that helps them relate to their classmates and understand their own thought processes and motivations.

4. Provide opportunities for awesomeness. For the past three years, the seventh grade team at my school has run a Kindness Ninja program. There are three or four teachers involved, and once a month each teacher takes a group of 10-15 kids to volunteer in the community. We’ve worked at a women and children’s homeless shelter, socialized feral cats, played with low-income daycare kids, and spent time with the elderly in a retirement home.

My kids are all poor and come from disadvantaged communities, and this chance to be the giver rather than the recipient is unbelievably powerful. We generally have about 45 kids involved, but every year at least 70 kids apply. One hour a month changes how these kids see themselves. I won’t lie; it’s a pain. I dread my trip to the retirement home on the second Wednesday of every month, because it means I have to stay late and make sure my own kid is looked after and drive the rickety, terrifying school van through rush hour traffic filled with smelly kids. And it is always, always worth it.

Everybody has both the power and the responsibility to make the world better, but teachers are uniquely positioned to do so. We get to reach out to hundreds of kids and empower them to make a difference…surely at least a little of that will sink in and bear some fruit somewhere down the road! Unfortunately, we don’t have a set of national standards for empathy or compassion or kindness.  But until we do, we have to keep working that into the curriculum and raising Kindness Ninjas who will gradually overtake our schools, our communities, and our institutions. How about you? How do you raise awareness and compassion in your classroom?

The 4 Things You Need to Cultivate Student Character


How is character cultivated? Think about your answer to that question. Was the first answer that came to mind, “Students improve character through worksheets”? Was it, “Students improve character through webinars”? Seeing these answers written highlights how silly it is to think that character can be changed solely using a curriculum.

Character is caught, not taught. It is cultivated in our culture not lifted through lectures. So, if we want our students to develop strength of character, we need a holistic approach, one that is intentional, pervasive, and persistent.

How do we do it? Approach cultivating character the way we would approach cultivating a tree, giving it the right soil, the right water, the right sunlight, and the right seed to grow in even the most challenging climates. Here are the four factors affecting your fields.

1. The Soil: The emotional atmosphere
What happens when a student takes a risk and fails? How do you respond when a student makes a mistake – especially a character mistake like lying? Do you punish and push kids out of your room for poor character? Or, do you coach them to critically analyze their actions?
Without a safe, supportive emotional climate, students will not be able to learn from mistakes or take risks. We cannot get authentic growth unless students feel safe being authentic.

Your Move: Model the good, the bad, and the ugly

Be authentic and reveal your own mistakes – even in-the-moment – and model what it looks like to show integrity, grit, and ownership. Lesson didn’t go well because you didn’t spend much time planning it? Own it. Made a grading error? Own it. Acted like a fire-breathing dragon to your 5th hour? Own it.

This modeling is crucial for many reasons. First, it provides examples of character for students who may not have great role-models. Second, it establishes trust by showing that we are all human. Third, in trusting that our students will understand and forgive our mistakes, we create a culture of accountability.

2. The Seed: Macro-structures
Consider the macro-structure to be the intentional character lesson. This is where videos, curriculum, mini-lessons, and stories come into play. Lessons provide common language, common experience, and modeling. We are planting a seed each time we make character overt and clear in our classrooms. We can’t coach students be to more respectful if we haven’t clearly defined, demonstrated, and explored what “respect” looks, sounds, and feels like.

Your Move: Common Language
Develop or use a common set of character traits that your class will strengthen. Students can help design this list or you can utilize programs already researched, such as the VIA Character Strengths or the 8 Keys of Excellence.
Whatever list you use, make them overt. Hang the list in the room. Focus on a “trait of the week” and review them often. Connect them to your content by having students apply the character traits to books, famous figures, or lessons you are teaching. You wouldn’t expect your students to master the quadratic formula after one lesson – why expect character to change with one exposure?

3. The Water: Micro-structures
Whereas macro-structures are intentional lessons to plant seeds, micro-structures are in-the-moment coaching opportunities. They help students connect the “content” of a character lesson to the real-world experience of being human. They can happen whole-group or individually. The more frequent, the better.

Your Move: ACTknowledgment
Use an ACTknowledgment, a simple verbal strategy introduced to me by Mark Reardon, of The Quantum Learning Network. An ACTknowledgment consists of:
Action – Identify the objective action that has taken place
Character Trait – Identify the character trait demonstrated by the action
Target – Identify the targeted outcome of the action
Example: “Can we pause for a moment and acknowledge Kaysi for how often she contributes ideas to class discussion? (Action) This is a great example of curiousity and commitment. (Character) This is the type of curiosity and commitment that will help her not only learn this content, but the type that will become a habit and help her thrive in her career.” (Target)

ACTknowledgments can be used reflectively to coach character as well. For example:
Davis, I noticed that you’ve been late to class three days this week. (Action) What do you think people – like a future boss – might say about your character if that became a habit? (Character) [Allow student response] What character trait might you need to strengthen in order to build a habit of being punctual? (Character) [Allow student response] Tell me what you gain by making it to class on time. (Target) [Student response] Great. So let’s walk through what your plan will be to make it on time next week. (Target)”

4. The Sunlight: Positive Praise
Sadly, so much of character conversation is punitive or condemning. Students are often only reminded of character when it is found to be lacking. By doing so, students learn to hide their mistakes, blame others, or justify their behavior in order to avoid negative consequences.
We know that affirmation increases a desired behavior, so make a specific plan for praising good character. ACTknowledgment is one way. And, I’ve posted in the past about ideas and traditions for increasing a positive culture. But here are a couple more ideas:

Your Move: One-a-Day
Grab a sticky note. Once a day, write a positive affirmation to a specific student. During silent work time, testing, or another discreet moment, place the sticky note on the students desk as you walk away. By not making it a big deal, you make it more authentic. Some students have seen teachers use whole-group praise as a classroom management move rather than a genuine expression of praise, so use the power of subtlety.

Bonus Move: Pre-brief
We don’t always have great examples of character each day. So, rather than have a corrective debrief of moments when character was lacking, coach success by pre-briefing. Pull a student aside before class and give them a specific challenge.

Megan, I’ve noticed in the past couple days that you’ve been making faces across the room at Maria, which has been distracting some learning. I know you care about doing well, so today I’ll be holding you accountable to keeping your eyes on the board, your work, or whomever is speaking. We’ll talk after class and see how it went.”

A pre-brief doesn’t guarantee success, but it gives students specific success criteria so they have one thing to try to improve. It also sends the message that we believe in their ability to do well. If they succeed, praise them. If they don’t, discuss it.

So, check in on your character farm: Which component needs more attention this year? The soil? The seeds? The sunlight? Or, the water? Post your thoughts below and continue sharing your strategies.  
Chase Mielke is a learning junkie who happens to have a love affair with teaching. A book addict by night and a teacher and instructional coach by day, he fantasizes about old libraries and fresh Expo Markers. His obsessions with psychology, well-being and cognition often live on his blog, Follow him on Twitter @chasemielke.

Cultivating Student Character