Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

The Difference a Word Can Make

November 6, 2015

by Edna Attias, 6th Grade Science Teacher and Advisor

It never fails to amaze me how some words can be taken so literally by middle school kids. Yet, as a teacher, I don’t always think of capitalizing on it. Each year, when I start a new advisory I wonder how am I going to get my students to bond and connect with one another. How am I going to build a community in which they learn to care about each other rather than a fragmented group of individuals who end up bickering and then paying lip service during advisory? I believe cultivating a community is essential to meeting my students’ needs for productive relationships. My hope is that they will be able to work together across genders, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds without the need for cliques and bullies, and that they will come to accept each other without categorizing or making judgments. In other words, they become like members of a family.

This year, I chose to tell my advisory just that—we were like a family. This was not to replace their primary families but to create a second one they could count on when they were in school. After all, they spend about eight hours each day in school and if they needed to talk to someone or wanted help with a problem, we would be there for them. I added that there were going to be times when they might have issues with their classmates, just like typical siblings. But they were going to share resources, collaborate, and sometimes even disagree. We would learn that despite disagreements, we still care, and we would move on. I figured that family-like relationships would simulate the social and emotional support that a family can provide, so why not try and create it in the classroom as a way to build a stronger and more tolerant community?

A little more than a month had passed since the beginning of the year, and I wanted to check the pulse of how the students felt about our advisory. Did they feel a sense of belonging? Purpose? Unity? I noticed that one of the students kept leaving all his things behind. His papers, books, and binders were all one big mess. One of the students, who sat next to him, noticed it and told him that she was going to help him organize himself. They started to go through his backpack and organize the papers, putting them in the right section of his binder. Watching this gave me a flashback to when I used to chase after my little brother and go through his backpack to see if he had any homework. I knew that if he didn’t do his homework my parents would get upset with him. I wanted to help him avoid the upset.

Seeing these two students in action made me wonder about the other students. Was I projecting my own childhood memory? So I asked the students to write about the advisory in their morning journals. One student wrote, “I feel that our advisory is like a family because when someone falls, one of us will always be there to pick him up.” Another student wrote, “I feel that we are a group of people who love and care about each other. We feel sad when someone is sick or has a problem. I speak for everyone when I say, we DO love each other like a family!” Lastly, but typical, “I think our advisory is my united extended family because we are always together. We greet each other every day, play games together, and we are not afraid to take risks.”

Reading these responses made me realize how the word family made a difference in the students’ perceptions of the type of community we were forming. I was not projecting. The students were relating to each other like siblings. Like everything in life, we tend to understand things better when we have a theoretical framework. When we look at a particular painting, for example, we process it differently if we know in advance whether it is a modern piece or one representing the Renaissance era. By drawing an analogy to the concept of family, I created a theoretical framework or a cognitive schema that helped my students understand the tone that I was setting for the advisory concept.

I also noticed that this was particularly useful for the students who came from other public schools and had never experienced a community like ours. Seeing how some students were willing to think beyond themselves or embrace others as an extension of themselves, made our newcomers want to reciprocate and do the same.

The American writer Richard Bach once said, “The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life.”

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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