I'm beyond excited to post this first blog of the 2018/2019 school year from Dr. Denise Levine,one of our newest literacy specialists. At READ East Harlem we pride ourselves on the relationships we've developed with teachers, principals, staff, and students in District 4. In fact, so much of what we do rests on a foundation of respect and trust from which we build and sustain these relationships. Denise, who was my first principal, lives this practice in all that she does—so it's not surprising that she wrote about the importance of relationships in her first blog post. Even though this post is not about her work as a READ East Harlem specialist, the tenants of the work are completely aligned with what we strive for.
Remember the old book by Herb Kohl, I Won't Learn From You? I have been thinking a lot about it lately.
Over a period of three years, I had the privilege of working on an action research project with a talented, smart group of teachers at MS 88 in Brooklyn. Action Research, which I define as a classroom-based research study in which the question under investigation grows out of teaching practice, and feeds back into that practice, is a passion of mine.
My journey began with the observation
that in this school of 1300+ early adolescents you could eat off the floor in the corridors and classrooms at 3:00…nary a gum or candy wrapper in sight! I wondered how this happened in such a large middle school, and what made these otherwise typical tweens take such care of their environment.
I was there to work on talk, but I noticed that there was already lots of talk going on, some whole class, some with partners or in small groups, and management did not seem to be an issue in any of the classrooms. Students were not roaming the hallways either.
Whether instruction was "state of the art", or more traditional, did not seem to matter in these classrooms. Whole class novels or literature circles made no difference. Students, for the most part, were respectful and engaged. It got me to wondering what was going on here, and why this school with such a multicultural, struggling population, was so successful by so many measures.
I had been at the work of educating for over 40 years, and had also begun to wonder why my colleagues and I, who knew so much less about teaching, learning, cognition, and instructional methodology when we started out in the 1970s, had been as successful as we were.
As the questions began piling up, my project was underway. I began to notice the little interactions laced with respect. Sure there were bulletin boards and posters touting how we work together respectfully, but those exist in many less successful school environments. Here, teachers were readily available to their students, before school, after school, during lunch, to address questions and concerns, both academic and personal, to help with an assignment, or re-teach a concept that was confusing.
I also noticed that in this large school, collaboration and joint responsibility, were the heart of instruction. At the forefront of that collaboration and joint responsibility, lay two big, intertwined ideas: respect and relationships. They undergirded the ways in which teachers worked together. From grade meetings to content area meetings, everyone was on the same page, and everyone helped each other out, sharing plans, ideas, and resources. The ways in which teachers built respectful relationships among students in their classroom by applauding one another for creative thinking and building on one another’s ideas, for
example; or the ways in which the principal and administrators built and supported respectful relationships with, and among, teachers and students by giving everyone a voice and sharing decision-making, were critical aspects in improving education and achieving successful outcomes for students. Even the custodial staff was involved. Mopping up spills immediately, and maintaining neat, clean, well-stocked bathrooms, for example, helped to ensure students and staff would do their part as well.
Throughout my investigation, I came to understand more deeply than ever that even before building collaborative communities of learning, my lifelong goal, we must create, nurture, and sustain respectful relationships, and “develop strategies of empowerment,” to borrow Herb Kohl’s phrase, across the board. Without them, learning cannot thrive, regardless of the “state-of-the-art” methodology we employ. And this is especially critical when students are struggling to find their place in school, and to define their roles, both among peers, and with the adults who lead them. Understanding the value of each individual student in our midst, and what he or she brings to the learning environment, is key to establishing respectful relationships and building a community of inclusiveness, in schools, and in the world at large.
Students want to learn from adults and peers who know and respect them for who they are and what they bring to school. When respectful relationships are the heart of a learning community, adults and children are ready to learn from one another and we can get down to the business of improving teaching and helping students grow because, then, will they want to learn from us!
We hope everyone has a school year full of respectful relationships.
Let us know how you try to develop respectful relationships in your classroom or school by commenting below.