George Lucas Educational Foundation
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New Class Roles: Building Environments of Cooperation

Dr. Lori Desautels

Assistant Professor in the College of Education Butler University
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We see students survive every day. We ourselves survive every day -- a class, a test, a conflict, a relationship, and a challenge. Yet surviving is very different than thriving! Many students that we see daily bring a degree of their stress into our classrooms. Thankfully, many of them also have supports in their lives that allow them to manage this stress in a productive manner.

Our most difficult students, however, are not as lucky. They live in a state of chronic toxic stress, which changes the brain, literally placing it in a survival mode. If the brain is in chronic toxic stress, its creative, resourceful, and cooperative higher-level thought processes are compromised because of emotions and thoughts that feel unsafe, unfamiliar, and threatening. We walk into our classrooms feeling disconnected from one another, the learning, and our purpose. When we feel shame, anger, sadness, or any negative emotion over an extended period, our brains begin creating neural pathways that ignite habits of feelings in response to the thoughts that call forth these emotions. This self-centered focus on survival greatly inhibits learning. Stressed brains resist new information.

Our classrooms can become "holding environments" where children and adolescents begin to feel good about themselves through serving one another, increasing their sense of purpose and capability, which increases self-esteem and positive emotion.

How do we establish bonds based on commonalities rather than differences in our schools and classrooms, places where feelings of mastery, autonomy, and purpose intimately impact the learning and instructional process? I suggest that we create classroom responsibilities, tangible roles, and cooperative tasks that position students and teachers for success.

6 Classroom Professions

Last week as I was driving to one of our large, diverse public elementary schools to speak with teachers about connection, my mind went to a different realm of classroom structure and function. I began to think differently about what bonding and empathy look like in our classrooms. Traditionally, we give students classroom responsibilities with different jobs (paper passer, line leader, errand runner, etc.), but what if we built relationships and trust through leadership and caregiving roles? These roles and responsibilities call us to explore an emotional climate in our classrooms that would breed service and compassion. When we engage with one another, feeling the power of our compassion and service, the neural circuitry in the brain shifts, and our "reward system" of dopamine and serotonin sharpens our focus, emotional regulation, and engagement. We prime our brains for deepened learning and social connection. 

The following "classroom professions" can change as needed and are presented as guidelines and ideas for exploring and adapting at all grade levels. These class responsibilities and roles are vitally important in secondary education as well, as we are providing opportunities for our students to experience co-leadership roles rather than being passive recipients of rules, lectures, and dispensed knowledge.

1. Giver

This student's responsibility is to give encouragement, affirmation, and acts of kindness throughout the day. The giver may use post-its, create signs, deliver spoken messages, or communicate hopefulness by any means.

2. Storyteller

Storytelling could take many forms, such as seeking books to share, or integrating vocabulary or content words into a story. Younger students might create a story with pictures. Older students could work with journal stories, writing, sharing, turning them into screenplays, or submitting them for publication. Your storyteller may develop an iMovie or blog for the class. He or she could create a class story with classmate's names and school projects, or weave any content into this context for learning standards or subject matter. The brain adheres to stories!

3. Noticer

This job is to notice what is going well and right. It is the antithesis to tattling or snitching.

4. Kindness Keeper

This student would record all of the kind acts performed throughout the day or week. The kindness keeper reflects on these kindnesses and shares with the class periodically.

5. Resource Manager

The resource manager suggests ideas, resources, or ways to solve a problem or locate information, either academically or behaviorally.

6. Collaborator

This is one role that could be assigned for acting outside the classroom. Maybe there is another teacher, staff member, or student in the school that needs an emotional, social, or cognitive boost? At department and all-staff meetings, the collaborator would share ideas that promote student-to-teacher or student-to-student relationships, or bridging in- and out-group biases that happen when we only perceive differences.

Enjoy these new roles while collecting the perceptual data through surveys, observations, and feedback from one another as the roles change and modify.

Understanding and Empathy

Creating emotional connections inspires a sense of belonging and service, elevating feelings of purpose, identity, and positive emotion. When we model for one another what we desire to see with regard to behavior and engagement, the social, emotional, and academic learning deepen and are remembered for the long term.

The Cleveland Clinic has produced a video on empathy which helps us to better understand the life and feelings of another. Our fifth grade students in Washington Township are creating a similar video in the school. They will record students in the halls, classrooms, and other areas, and place "thought bubbles" depicting what these children might be thinking or feeling. They will share their documentary with the school and create discussion groups in different grade levels.

  1. What roles could you develop in your classrooms that are MAPS for creating student mastery, autonomy, and purpose?
  2. How can we model service through our instruction, assessments, and the culture (emotional and physical design) in our classrooms and schools?
  3. What are some small "pay it forward" tasks or initiatives that our students could create for the entire school?
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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


They're still reading these dang essays today from behind The Lectern of Speaking because I told them to and they're still whining about it and then when they get to reading them the students seem to like being the center of attention after all. Go figure.

Hap's up there going to town on his essay this morning and doing a real good job and then there's Tempest on the front row and Petal's sitting in the second row right behind Tempest and for some unknown reason Tempest turns around and engages Petal in conversation and Petal engages Tempest in conversation right back.

So these two are just going to town.

Hap's up there also going to town reading his essay.

I'm sitting at the desk in the front watching and listening to Hap...and then I'm looking at Tempest and Petal...and then I'm watching and listening to Hap...and then my attention once again turns to Tempest and Petal. For all the wrong reasons.

It would have been okay if Tempest had turned around to tell Petal to go find a fire extinguisher because her Georgia history textbook was on fire. But that just wasn't the case as far as I could tell. Tempest just wanted to talk to Petal during Hap's fine reading of his essay so she starts talking to Petal. Petal was polite enough to talk right back to Tempest. Isn't that such a great moment for Tempest and Petal in the development of what Principal Lurlene would call a student's "social piece."

I went nuts. And when I go nuts, particular to a social situation like this, several unsociable things happen in real quick succession. Here they are:

* I yell real loudly what the heck are you doing while Hap's reading his essay.

* Then I sit up real high in my chair and say...time out...real loudly and frantically and then do the time-out sign with my hands as if the referee isn't paying attention to me and it's near the end of the Super Bowl and I think we have a chance to win.

* I watch everybody perk up real super-fast and shut up.

* I remind, real loudly, Tempest and Petal, that a fellow student is nervously doing his best to read his essay in front of a group of people and the teacher lives for these classroom moments very much.

* I look at Hap and say I'm sorry on behalf of these two atomic Butts County heads, Tempest and Petal.

* Tempest says she's not an atomic Butts County head.

* I make the atomic Butts County heads apologize to Hap and everybody else for wasting our time.

* The atomic Butts County heads apologize to Hap.

* Then I say to Hap that he all of a sudden has the atomic power to boot anybody out of class he feels is not paying attention to the reading of his essay...especially Tempest and Petal.

* Hap smiles and asks if I am totally kidding.

* Hap asks again if I am totally kidding.

* I put my feet up on the desk; I lightly grasped the chicken; and deeply enjoyed the rest of the reading of Hap's fine essay.

Abby Wills's picture
Abby Wills
Co-founder of Shanti Generation and mindfulness educator for 15+ years.

THIS is what matters: "what if we built relationships and trust through leadership and caregiving roles?"

Powerful, well-informed article. Will share accordingly.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

If you're working with young people, of course you want them to be happy. You want them to do well and achieve in life. But what about helping them become more caring for others, and why does this even matter? I encourage students to think about why certain words and actions can be hurtful. Do not just put values and expectations in the mission statement or on a poster -- talk about what they mean at school assemblies, expect school staff to model them, and incorporate them into their daily practice.

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