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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Four R's: Relationships in Twenty-First-Century Schools

Bob Lenz

Founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA

What structures and systems does Envision Schools use to prepare students for success in college and their futures in the twenty-first century? We focus on four guiding principles, and the second concerns relationships and how we build them among students and educators. Read a previous post of mine that defines the principles and reflects on the first one, rigor.

Our schools are small, personalized learning environments. Class sizes are also small, and teams of teachers and peers provide students with academic and social guidance.

Remember the coach that spurred you on to athletic achievement that you never thought you could attain by yourself, or the teacher for whom you would do anything because he or she understood you so well? We believe schools need to be designed to intentionally create more of these experiences for kids -- school must be be a nurturing, caring, high-expectation place where students feel well known, well supported, and well connected to their peers as a community of learners.

We employ the following structures and strategies to achieve this goal:

  • Our multigrade, interdisciplinary teams of teachers have planning time together.
  • We have an academic advisory program for students.
  • We hold biannual student- and parent-advisory conferences.
  • We hold community meetings.
  • Academic and emotional-support programs are a part of our Response to Intervention Program.

Teams of core subject-area teachers, including instructors in art and digital media, share the same group of students for two years. In the lower house -- grades 9-10 -- the classes are blended. In the upper house -- grades 11-12 -- the team of teachers loop with the same students through a Junior and Senior Institute.

By teaching the same students for two years, teachers get the opportunity to know their students well. This approach is especially helpful in jumping off to a fast start in the second year. The teachers also have common planning time, which they use to plan projects, coordinate their curriculum, look at student work together, and discuss the learning and engagement of individual students. (A teacher leader plans and facilitates this effort.) Teachers can then collectively target students for more support within the classroom and possibly plan for other interventions outside of the classroom experience (such as tutoring or counseling).

In addition, the teacher team helps students build their own learning-community teams, each of which has a name. For instance, one school has four teams: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The students take courses, work on projects, go on field studies, visit colleges, and solve problems together. Many of the students describe their school friends and teachers as family. One student explained to me, "It is not as if we always get along. We are like a family. We might have disagreements, but we know that we will always be there for one another."

We believe that being in a safe learning community, where students are known and supported as learners and people, allows students to reach for and achieve more academically rigorous learning. Students will strive for excellence because they do not want to let down their teachers or peers. It is a cultural shift.

Having students feel supported is a good outcome, but we don't think it is enough. If we don't use these strategies and structures to increase student learning, we have just made kids feel better without preparing them for the twenty-first century.

In my next blog entry, I'll provide more on building relationships through the academic advisory program, but please share your thoughts about this post.

Comments (45)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Elizabeth Soules's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, am a elementary math support teacher. I teach in a building of 750-800 students. Most of the third and fourth grade classes in my school are now looping. This has been a growing parental request.
Over the last four years, my responsibilites have centered around the third graders in our building (256-265 third graders). My school provides a math support class during our assigned math blocks. We service ten of the neediest students not receiving special eduation. Working with classroom teachers and parents, students transition to their assigned math class when ready. This does not happen too often. This model has been very successful. Given the educational research, our third grade math program will be transitioning to a "looping model" this year. I will establish my case load and stay with these students for a two years, as long as they continue to qualify for services. I look forward to the challlenges and benifits of keeping my students for a two year cycle. I see the benefits of knowing my students'abilities and personalities when starting my second year with them. I appreciated your frankness with students with behavior problems and the benefits of having long term relationships.

valerie Jerzak's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our high school has just began team teaching in the nineth and tenth grade. The team does not get common planning time together, but but they do take time after to school to share ideas. My school is a small school and being only one of four math teachers I do end up getting some students two and three times while they are in high school. I do enjoy etting he chance to get to know some of these studetns. There is not alot of time in class to build these relationships.

Kimmi Strabley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your staff seems very committed to providing students with a sense of community. I believe that establishing relationships is necessary for the success of both teachers and students. Students not only need to feel safe at school, they must also feel as if they are genuinely cared for. Unfortunately, for many of them, school is the only place they receive support. Teachers must be aware of and sensitive to the needs of each child. Because it often takes time to build trusting relationships, looping seems like a logical solution. We do not currently loop with students at our school, although some high school teachers and intervention specialists work with the same students for several years. Do you know of any research that has been conducted on the effectiveness of looping? I am interested in learning more about it.

Kimmi Strabley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I reflect on my school career, it is not the content that I immediately recall. Rather, it is the special moments and connections that come to mind. Your willingness to share information about yourself shows students that it is okay for them to open up in your class. As a result, you will build many strong relationships with your students. You seem very passionate; your students are lucky to have you!

Derek's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am a Special Education teacher and I have the privlege of working with my students for up to 4 years, sometimes even more. Looking back at the relationships that I had when my current students were Freshmen and the relationship we have now, it is truly amazing to see the transformation. I work with students who have emotional and behavioral disorders and being that one person who they know will never give up on them is so beneficial. I whole heartedly believe that the relationships we develop with our students are the foundation of the learning environment. If hadn't taken the time with each of my students to show them that I was interested in their life in and out of school, I would have never seen the success stories. I set high expectations for each of my students and by the time they reach their Junior and Senior years of high school, they know what they need to do and they do it because they know they can and because they don't want to let me down. So many of my kids play off this hard-nose attitude around their peers but when they are with me they open up and we share experiences and talk about our lives. It is a great feeling to know kids can be themselves around you and that they trust in you. When interactions are authnetic and genuine, trust is reciprocated.

Marci Reeves's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that sharing stories about yourself are helpful in building connections with students. In the book, On Being A Teacher, it is mentioned that student learning is easier in a safe environment.(Kottler, Zehm, Kottler, 2005). By building relationships it helps children to feel safe. This can give children a better learning experience.

Marci, K-3 Reading Intervention, Rainsboro, OH

Paulette Palmer-Stevenson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Building Relationships
It is extremely important that teachers build a positive and trusting relationship with students. This will encourage students to work hard and also help to eliminate undesireable behaviors. It is true that school is the place where some students get the most support. When they know their teachers care they tend to be more cooperative.Having a safe learning environment should never be overlooked as students will feel more relaxed and willing to share.
I have never been lucky to have the same set of students for two years. This is something I wish for a number of times.

Sarah Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the concept of the importance of building connections with students. During my second year of teaching, I came across a student who seem very disengaged in school, and was constantly "off-task". At first, I thought that isolating this student would be beneficial to the class, and it was. However, this student started to fall further and further behind the rest of the class. Shortly after placing him on his own, I moved him back with the rest of the class, and positioned his desk near mine. I was able to keep a closer eye on him and keep him on task. After trying this method for a few weeks, I started to see an improvement in this student. It wasn't until a month or so later that I realized the need to build a relationship with this student. I started to ask him questions about things he did outside of school, and after engaging him in a few converstations, he seemed to open up to me and trust me. By the end of the year, this child had grown into a mature eight year old who was prepared for third grade and didn't need the hand holding he required at the beginning of the year. I owe it all to the relationship we formed. Because of that wonderful learning experience, that is usually the first thing I try with a student who is showing resistence.

Samantha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also a middle school teacher and find building relationships with my students to be key in the role of learning. Students need to feel as if they are accepted in the classroom, not only by their peers, but by their teacher as well if they are truly going to open their minds and accept learning. Mutual respect in a cycle between the student, teacher, peers, school and community that allows for students to embrace their learning and apply to become a life-longer learner and contribute to society.

Thanks for caring so much about your students!

Thom Schnellinger, HS Principal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've played around with the idea of looping in my high school. I would like to find out if anyone knows of two schools (MS and HS) that loop between 8th and 9th grade. In my youth, I had experience with a teacher who followed us across that transition. This ws a very important teacher to our class. It was great!

I'm thinking that it would take some very dynamic teachers that could move from one building then the other and make it work. Any examples?

All the best,

Thom. Schnellinger

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