Wednesday, January 13, 2010


I've been heavily involved in a number of "professional development" endeavors this fall. Many of them focus on topics such as "enduring understandings," or "student engagement," or "deep learning." We've talked about "backwards design," "strategies for diverse learners," "ongoing assessment" and "evidence of learning."

About midway through the fall, it occurred to me that there is/was a key element that wasn't being mentioned in these discussions. I'm still not sure whether in our search for something that will work, it was overlooked entirely or it was an unarticulated assumption. I'm hoping it was the latter; I'm suspecting it was the former.

What AM I talking about?

The keystone we need to remember in working with learners of all ages is the importance of the personal relationship the teacher/facilitator must establish with each learner in his/her group, as well as the relationships the individual group members must establish with each other.

We often get so focused on our content that we lose sight of the individuals in front of us and who they are as people - not just in their role as learners.

We try to cram so much in that we neglect to take the time to establish a relationship.

My experience indicates that by trying to "save" time by jumping into content without building the relationship, the content remains disconnected from the lives of our students.

I've done a number of training sessions in the last six months - some have been part of a series, some were single-session events. In both cases, when I have compared notes with other presenters (at single-session events, for example), one thing stands out. In the groups where the presenters have taken the time to establish a sense of community and relationships, the quality of interactions and the quantity of knowledge (measured in depth instead of breadth) are increased markedly. This shows up in exit sheets or session evaluations.

In situations where the relationship is on-going (e.g., a class or series of workshops), establishing a relationship is the first critical piece in making the environment a safe one in which people can ask questions, express their own opinions, and be open to looking at information in a new way.

I'm teaching a class of madrichim - a great group of young people. After a three-week hiatus for winter break, I wanted to provide an opportunity for us to re-connect with each other. I introduced an activity I've used with other classes, which we've typically called "Roses and Thorns." Each participant shares one positive thing that happened since we've seen each other last - and one challenge or difficulty they're dealing with. My hesitation was that sometimes this exercise can expand to fill the entire class time. And we did have so much we needed to cover that day!

I decided to use visuals as a means of helping keep us focused. However, in my stash of materials, I couldn't find a fake rose. So I used an "apple" and a "lemon" - fake food items used in decorating my succah in years past - and renamed the activity "Apples and Lemons." Students were given an option to share their thoughts or to pass. Most chose to share.

It was a wonderful experience. Holding the objects seemed to keep us all focused and our comments relatively brief. We all learned more about what's going on with each other in our "real lives." Our subsequent discussions and learning also seemed to be better focused and less "frantic." We've spent time on previous occasions sharing information with each other - but this opportunity exceeded my expectations. We'll definitely do it again.

I also taught a group of a adult learners, about half of whom are beginning their Jewish teaching experiences. The remainder of the class has significant years of experience. The challenge was to establish a sense of community so that our learning experience together is enhanced and personal. As I searched for a new "ice breaker," I settled on a think-pair-share activity in which partners described both their favorite teacher ever - AND their least favorite teacher, providing reasons for each selection. Each person shared their partner's responses with the group.

This experience, too, was a profound one for the group. Individuals connected with each other and talked one-on-one about successes and failures they'd experienced in a classroom. Partners shared abridged information with the whole group, uniformly treading gently and respectfully as they shared about their partner's difficulties with their least favorite teacher. The class as a whole learned that they share a value for certain characteristics in educational leaders - and grimmaced in empathy as people discussed the characteristics of their least favorite teacher. Subsequent discussions reached an honest depth that often doesn't occur with a group that's just beginning its work together.

Taken together - what do these experiences reinforce for me? That it's critical to spend the time developing relationships with the individuals I teach.

The old adage rings true: They [students] don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Only after they know how much we care, can we help them "engage" in "enduring understandings" and "deep learning."

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