In an earlier post, I wrote about planning for a trip, and the three ingredients that seemed important to help the trip be successful. In today’s writing, I’ve tried to connect those previous ideas to the classroom. I’ve made several attempts to explain some concepts I value for the classroom, for achieving success with any group or activity. At first, it was difficult for me to be specific without just diverging into examples of activities. I’ve written several drafts, and never found a definite way to say what I wanted until last weekend, I saw the documentary Buck, the story of the man called ‘the horse whisperer’. Some of his words can be found on his website: I’ve started horses since I was 12 years old and have been bit, kicked, bucked off and run over. I’ve tried every physical means to contain my horse in an effort to keep from getting myself killed. I started to realize that things would come much easier for me once I learned why a horse does what it does. This method works well for me because of the kinship that develops between horse and rider.
As I read these words by Mr. Buck Brannaman, and the three points I made earlier in order to create success for any experience, all seemed so connected to one another that when I tried to write about one separately, the other kept popping up, too. Here they are again:
1. Trust within the group so that everyone feels fully open to a new experience.
2. Allow everyone to anticipate what is needed and participate in the planning.
3. Build in time for flexible thinking, in case something wonderful presents itself that supplants other plans.
These connect to the expectation at my school that we work to help students take risks, to experiment with new ideas of learning. The school offers much choice in both the learning as well as the communication of that learning. For example, a student might do quite good research to answer a particular question of personal interest, but choose to stay with the (for him or her) comfortable communication device of a report. Some of my students were able to dash these pages off with ease, yet became reluctant when asked to create some other kind of product to communicate the findings, like a newspaper, a video, or a multi-media presentation. My responsibility for each, and for the whole class, was to create that atmosphere of trust within the group so that each felt safer trying on a new kind of learning, a new experience. In the movie, Buck showed how he waved a flag on the end of a stick to tell the horse which way to move around him. He waved it often, to show the horse that it was not scary, was a safe thing, and used only for communication.
I could give numerous ideas for lessons in how to build that trust (and wave the flag), and I’m sure many of you have great ideas too, but I will focus on the basic philosophy instead. In order to build trust (point number one), I have to do points two and three, consistently. An underlying concept of this for a teacher is to “say what you mean, and do what you say”. For example, on the first day, if I say that building a community means that everyone has a voice, not just the teachers, I must start by insuring that everyone is allowed to participate in any sharing that occurs. And, considering Buck’s words, I must be attuned to why students act the way they do, this time, what might be reasons they become reluctant to share? Is it fear of exclusion, fear of being wrong, and being embarrassed? Are the behaviors learned in order to get attention, both good and bad? Do they miss the comfort of the previous classroom? I need to intuit the answers as well as I can, and fast. In lieu of using old lessons that I know are helpful, I must be willing to accept new ideas for reaching our community goals. I can be a part of the discussion, but not the only part.
As for point number three, I must be patient, looking for an opportunity to invite or accept changes when serendipitous opportunities arise. One example of this happened when we had a tornado warning one day. We had been planning to write, and I had a lesson all ready, but the experience of staying in a safe part of our building, and inner hall, gave me an insight to my big, most-of-the-time brave, almost-adult middle-schoolers. Many showed they were more than a little scared, so when it was over, we wrote about fears, what scared us, and maybe why, if we knew why. It was a satisfying time for the group that brought us all together to some common ground.
Building trust from the first minutes of the first day of school makes us teachers happy and the students happy. As I watched the movie, Buck, I realized that the trust building in school is exactly like gentling a horse.
I wonder what everyone does to create trust in the classroom, or to help those you work with to create the trust?