Stronger Classroom Bonds

Within the last two years, I’ve started noticing something. More former students, many more, have been greeting me in the breezeways between classes at school, even at long distances, calling out “Hi Mr. Rosenkranz!” Added to that, the “high-five” quotient from adolescent male athletes has also skyrocketed. Of course there may be multiple explanations as to why this is happening.

Let me dismiss a couple of them.

  1. I’m not nicer than I used to be.  Ask any of my colleagues: I’m not uniquely empathetic. I don’t have an ebullient smile. Chipper? Extroverted? Gregarious? Nope. Not so much.
  1. Kids are not that much nicer than they used to be. I know that bullying has diminished since 2009, and thankfully so, but for high schoolers to go out of their way to call out to their former teacher at an age characterized by self-focus and peer-focus, well, I just don’t see how culture could change that dramatically. Public adoration is one of the perks of being a first grade teacher, not typically the experience of a 10th grade English teacher.

So, why do they greet me more? I’ve come to the undeniable conclusion that they  greet me more because they KNOW me more. In knowing me more they also LIKE me more. Why else would I notice this uptick in casual conversation?  As importantly, I know THEM more, and, for the most part, I also like them more too.

The practical question is this: how did we all come to know and like each other so much?

What has changed in the last few years is my approach to classroom instruction.

Believe it or not, I can look anyone in they eye today and tell them without blinking, that I engage every single one of my students in meaningful dialogue, consistently checking for understanding, and evaluating their work, giving relevant, “just in time” feedback as learning is taking place.

In short, I have become a remarkable teacher (Yes, I can feel the cynicism surging across cyberspace.).

A New Model of Student Engagement

A few years ago I started reflecting on my classroom dynamics. I had read a startling statistic from John Hattie’s Visible Learning. That in any given classroom 20% of students are well-behaved and completely disengaged. That bothered me. I started asking myself how could I engage all of my students? What bothered me more was how culpable I was for having not engaged them, for inevitably there was a sizable group of students in my class with whom I had brokered a silent covenant. “You avoid eye-contact, and I’ll avoid engaging you.”  Call it what you want, “the soft bigotry of low expectations” or the subconscious desire to avoid causing my students social anxiety, but I had a sinking feeling that these students were not learning, and I had few tools to determine whether or not this feeling was valid.

I started to get serious about tackling this problem, and after some weeks of mulling over this and several other of my teacherly shortcomings, I started to draw up a plan for a formative assessment app called Oncore, a tool that would ensure that I engaged all students while feeding me the data on past interactions, an app that would give me the ability to gives one-touch data on student performance.

To be clear, my initial goal with Oncore wasn’t to facilitate stronger relational bonds within my classroom, but, as it turns out, that’s exactly what the app achieved, and looking back, this might be its greatest achievement.

Here’s why:

Oncore’s student-selector feature favors the students I’ve interacted with the least. In other words, the app hacks my own human nature and “forces” me to work with all students. We think of student equity as equal access to resources, but for whatever reason, we don’t think of the teacher as a resource! Now I do. Each student gets my focused attention. And when I interact with them, they know I’m collecting performance data. They know that that data is going to inform my every interaction with them in the future. They know I care about every one of them. Not abstractly, but concretely.

Moreover, they know that I’m focused on their learning.  What Oncore has goaded me into doing is to design lessons that have clear goals.  If I’m evaluating them with an app daily, I better know the criteria on which I’m evaluating them in the first place.  In this way, my classroom has a mastery focus. So much more than in the past, I take the time to clarify the standard or the habits of mind necessary for growth.

I take control of collaborative grouping. In the past, I would number kids off or just say, “find a group.” Now, I can create mixed-performance level groups in 20 seconds.  This ensures that all groups have a mix of skill levels and abilities. Because I can assess groups or individuals within the group, or use Oncore’s grading feature in group mode, I’ve also been able to leverage accountability to make groups more fair and focused.  

I now realize that what began as a project to overcome my shortcomings has turned into an emergent system, a system that is greater than the sum of its features. And next to increased learning, what Oncore has created most is trust.  

I’m assessing learning all the time. I never use the data I’m collecting to shame students. Instead, I tell them that the data I collect is mostly about evaluating me. Oncore gives me feedback on how I’m managing the lesson and instruction (and groups and behaviors, and seating and a host of other discrete aspects of being a teacher) which, when done well, creates a trusting community: A whole classroom of students committed to growth, to mastering the content, to giving and receiving good feedback. And the unexpected outgrowth out of all of this is a surprise: my students say hi a lot more. They feel that someone on campus really knows them and really cares. And they are right. 

When I first developed Oncore I asked my class of 35 summer school kiddos (who had all previously failed English)for some feedback on Oncore.  They loved and hated the app for the right reasons, but three comments stuck out to me.

One student wrote the following: “I like the app because I always know the answer but just don’t volunteer in class. The app made me feel smarter.”

Another student wrote, “I like that you make the groups because I always get stuck with the losers.”

Finally one student wrote plainly, “I made a friend.”

Technology can have a tendency to depersonalize and to alienate, but sometimes it can be leveraged to do amazing things like fostering trust, friendship, and personal growth. And for me, technology continues to surprise me, doing amazing things like spinning data from the classroom into high-fives in the quad.
Image Credit: Frankie Le

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