At the beginning of this semester I was looking for ways to improve in my teaching practice. I had had a fairly successful experience with my previous class though I hadn't collected much feedback from the class except for at the very end. I was asking a colleague how to know that I was doing a good job throughout the semester. What were some small metrics that I could keep track of that would indicate whether or not I was facilitating a good experience for my students? Among the advice I received then, one nugget of knowledge stood out and I have been thinking about it ever since. They said "Make sure everyone feels like they can be heard."
To address this I set out to try a technique called the "whip around". It's pretty straightforward and will get every student to respond to a question and helps get thoughts moving.
What: Start with a question that can be answered with a brief 1 or 2 word answer. These can be answers on a scale or yes/no responses among others. In this case I asked everyone to rate their sense of preparedness for exhibition, from 1 to 10.
Why: When I learned about this technique it was justified as a way to give everyone space to have their voice heard in the classroom. It's a low stakes, short response, and nobody needs to fight for attention. When I used this I told the group that it was important for everyone to hear the range of answers in how prepared we were so that they wouldn't feel bad about feeling behind, since there are others in the same situation.
How: Set up here is easy. The whole class is present, distractions away, and ready to listen. Give them the prompt and the scale. Before they responded I asked them to turn to the person next to them and discuss what their number would be. This is just another way to help people who might not feel comfortable sharing aloud plan out their response. Once they have a chance to chat for a minute, start going around with everyone just giving their number without a justification or explanation.
The value of this technique for me was in the follow up. Leading a reflective discussion was a great time in both classes, and I noticed a higher participation rate in this discussion than previously. Because they had all discussed their answers previously they seemed to speak up more. I asked the group to estimate the average preparedness based off of everyone's answers. I asked if they were surprised by group's answers or not.
To help everyone feel like they are able to be heard is a challenge. As a teacher or facilitator it isn't enough to ask good questions or keep everyone on time. One needs also to build in places where everyone is given a space to speak and create a culture of inclusivity. Activities like the above are helping me develop in this part of my teaching career. Like other aspects of teaching I've come pretty far and still have a long ways to go.
I can't remember to whom it is attributed, but I heard a great quote recently. "The only teachers are models and reflection." This quote gave voice to my convictions about PBL education. Everything I ask students to do needs a model, and an effective way to measure their growth is through their reflection.
In terms of social emotional learning, reflection is useful for building a sense of self-awareness too. Leading students to be reflective and examine their work and motivations helps to foster presence of mind in the future. Reflection can become a frequent act, occurring throughout a project or experience, until it becomes something like consciousness and presence of mind.
Honestly this is a goal for myself. Last semester while working through student reflections, I commented to a colleague that the students were more reflective that I had been in college, and that I hadn't been reflective at all during high school. "I just wasn't a reflective person in high school" I said.
"That's because nobody asked you to be" they replied.
Social Emotional Learning for All
Earlier in the semester I presented my students with a list of behaviors of learners. The list included things like "uses materials appropriately", "follows schedules" and "problem solves". We reviewed and critiqued the list as a way to be reflective about the class.
In reflecting on that lesson I realized that a few of the behaviors listed had anything to do with Social Emotional Learning, but those not explicitly. I wondered if I was building a culture that promoted empathetic learning and emotional management, but more broadly whether or not our school held those values for both staff and students.
This week I had conversations with colleagues centered mostly around conflict resolution. I asked them who they spoke with on campus when they felt frustrated or proud or needed help developing a relationship with a colleague. Mostly I discovered an informal network of supportive coworkers and not someone with a specific role related to SEL development.
Our school environment is built around what I have recognized as some tenants of SEL, such as decision making and self-management, though I haven't found structures which emphasize or promote things like social awareness or relationship skills. As a result our staff and student body are well able to work unsupervised and manage their time, though there is inconsistency in self awareness and relationship. Before one can develop a skill it must be named, so perhaps there should be one within our community who makes those skills which we can improve obvious and clear.
As a staff we do not deliberately spend time developing SEL skills. Its hard to say how this effects us because I generally feel that our staff is amiable and cooperative, though SEL is more than that. If we were to model for our students what it is like to collaborate and work from a place of developed social emotional ability, I wonder what changes might happen in our student body.
Philip Estrada is a teacher at High Tech High Media Arts in San Diego California. He teaches Physics by having kids build things in a woodshop.