Get on their Level

posted Jun 5, 2018, 9:10 AM by Kevin Roughton   [ updated Jun 5, 2018, 9:18 AM ]
I had an aide in my classroom this year who helped one of my students. The student wrote her a letter at the end of the year thanking her for the dedication. The aide remarked "It was touching but she made me sound so unprofessional!" I told her to treasure that compliment. Similarly, I had one of my students write on her end of year reflection: "Don't take this the wrong way Mr. Roughton but you're like a big kid." I always love this type of comment. I'll never forget when Desire Romero said "Mr. Roughton, you're such a dork!" to me. I love every time Raelene says "Mr. Roughton!" in her sing-songy "I can't believe you right now" tone. It takes quite a level of comfort to talk like that to your teacher! In each case it is done with love and respect reserved only for someone you count as family.

I've come across a story about Walt Disney three times now in the last couple months - which must mean it is worth reflecting on. The story goes that Walt was walking down Main Street during the initial construction phase of Disneyland. As he walked by the huge store display windows he'd get down on his knees and look up. Walt was placing himself in the shoes of his smallest guests - the children. He required the builders to remake the windows putting them down at eye level for kids - not for adults. Walt regularly walked the park interacting with cast members, riding the rides and sharing the experience of the guests was trying to engage. It shows.

How can we do more of this in our classrooms?

One thing I highly encourage every teacher to try at least once is a narrative observation. I had to do this for my Master's degree and it has proven incredibly value. In a narrative observation you choose one student and write everything you observe about them in a given lesson. I did mine on a mid-level EL student during one of my history mystery labs. She did not know I was watching and listening to her exclusively. I ended up writing nearly 4 pages. It showed me, more clearly than ever, where the hiccups in the lab were. I remember seeing her pick up one of the exhibits, a reading page, and put it back down immediately. She went to another exhibit instead. The station had no appeal at best and negative appeal at worth. It was simply too much boring text. That can't compete with a chalk outline of a body on the floor! I realized I had to spice that exhibit up.

This can, of course, be difficult to do in a classroom with 30+ kids. The history mystery lab was the perfect opportunity since it is largely independent. I don't know how one could do this on a more teacher-directed activity but it is well worth trying out.

A second thing I recommend, which I'm now realizing I did not do at all this year, is to literally become of your students. I'll never forget filling in for Daisy in a group assignment two years ago. I sat in her chair, did the worksheet along with her group, and even had fun mimicking her mannerisms. It was a late in the year dossiers assignment that the rest of the group could have done without me but Catherine asked me to fill in and I figured why not? This was like a narrative observation on steroids. Now I was not only a passive observer but an active participant. I got to be the one who felt the "I don't want to read another one of these sheets..." feeling. It was also unique to literally be on their level. I often stoop down when working with students because I am tall and don't like towering over them. Sitting there for an extended period of time really put me on par with the kids. I built more relational capacity with those three kids in that 25 minute activity than in the rest of the year.

I didn't even have to ignore the rest of the class while I was doing it. Since I worked more quickly than the group every few minutes I used the extra time to get up and check in on the rest of the students. The experience was so awesome that I made it one of the power ups in my class game. Students who reach the highest levels can use a power up to "force" me to be their partner on any group activity. None of this year's kids go that far in time to use it. I'll have to lower it a level or two to further encourage it next year.

Another thing I do to get on their level is to spend extra time with my students. My room is open early, during lunch and after school. Sometimes students use it to work. Sometimes they use it to talk. And often we use it to play board games together. (As my principal commented the other day "I can't ever tell if kids are working or playing in here..." There's something powerful about sitting with someone and sharing a board game experience. It lets me interact with my students as real people as Walt did with his employees. They are much more open and honest with you when in these types of settings.

Doing these things regularly will help you see your classroom from their level just as Walt did. It will help you better anticipate where certain students will disengage. Imagine the child walking hand in hand with their parents down Main Street. As their parents gawk and fawn over the beautiful window displays the child is starting at... a wall. Not only do they miss out on the spectacle they are left with the even worse feeling of "everyone else is enjoying this!" As we have more and more special ed kids in our classrooms we can be more sympathetic to their similar feelings. I don't know what it's like to read at a 1st grade level. I don't know what that does to a student who is given a history mystery with pages and pages of text. I have to imagine it is much like the child starring into the wall while everyone around them is enjoying themselves.

Can we lower our windows? Sure we can! We can alter our reading levels. We can chunk our passages. We can use more graphics.  At the very least we can show them that we value their input and position by spending time with them. Walt didn't need to ask his minimum-wage cast members their opinions but he did - all the time - and it made them better employees. He was accessible - we can be too. We just need to get on their level! 

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