Hardwired for Connection

It’s the start of a new school year and this is my fourth year at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. And yes, it is ridiculously hot right now…I get a facial every time I walk outside. For the 2019-20 year I am teaching 2 Language and Literature Year 2’s (new prep), 1 AP Literature and Composition (also a new prep), and 2 grade 10’s (thankfully not new).

This year I want my beat to be about “connection” and how finding ways to nurture connections empowers students to engage in their writing process. And I will explore early connections into students lives to foster early writing habits in this post.

Rewind… In the last few months of last school year I read Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly...and then I went and watched her TedTalk and a few other talks on YouTube, then I listened to the interview she did with Oprah, and then I dove back into her books and read both Rising Strong and Dare to Lead in the summer. You could say I am a little obsessed. But who wouldn’t be? She is inspiring and she is real and she has changed the language I use with students. The critical point that she reminded me of was that we are all hardwired for connection…that we all want to feel that we belong. 

So throughout the summer I thought of how I could start out this year differently than previous…how I could find a way to establish strong connections to students earlier in the year? How could I get them to feel a sense of belonging in my class.

The answer: Writing, of course. 

image via quotefancy

The Writer’s Notebook (WNB).

I can’t say enough about this bunch of papers that we scribble squiggly lines into and meaning emerges. It is truly magical—and I love it when students start to see its magic. And the earlier we can get them to believe in its power, the better.

My first unit in all of my classes involves A LOT of notebook writing: quick writes, free writes, brainstorming, scribbling, doodling. Words on the page is the key…and lots of them. Their WNB is a place where they can write stress-free as I never take it in to be assessed. And it is this low risk context that allows writing to flourish. It is also where I first go to make connections with them as individuals and on a personal level. A connection that says: “You belong. I see you.”

Within the first two weeks of school I make sure that I talk to each student individually about something they have written in their book. Usually it is after a quick write or free write, but sometimes it is when they come in a couple of minutes early or when they are the last to pack up to leave my room. It is within these conversations about their writing that I plant a seed, and that seeds starts to produce immediate results:

  1. Volume of writing—when I say “finish your thought” during a quick write, they keep writing for almost another minute
  2. Initiative—they start coming up to me on their own to have me read what they have written
  3. Pride—I start to hear things such as, “I really like what I wrote this time” before sharing with a friend (comments like these make my heart smile).

The Workshop Model. 

Using the workshop model also allows for the time to have one-on-one conversations throughout a class while they are in any stage of their process. The questions I ask as I walk around the room are specific, positive, and probing. I want them to feel that their words, their choices, their ideas have weight.

  • How do you connect to your topic?
  • What choice have you made so far today that you are proud of?
  • What is something you are trying to do or want to try to do?
  • Why does this piece of writing matter to you?

A conversation I had this week stands out:

A student asked me to read her current draft of a poem as she was worried that it was difficult to understand. I read the words she had carefully chosen (as was clear from the previous pages of revisions) and I commented that even though I might not know exactly what she is talking about, I could feel the anxiety and fear through her beautiful word choice (and I pointed to a few places specifically). Her reply: “No one has ever told me I wrote beautiful words before.” And then a smile took over her face. She is working on her next poem and ferociously looking up new beautiful words as she revises.

And this is only weeks 3 in. As more connections are made, engagement will increase. There is limitless potential.

And there is also limited time. Establishing these connections does take time—a lot of it. My introverted self is on overdrive in the first couple months of school as I make room for connections in every spare moment. But I know that a 30 second conversation about something they wrote during a free write, could make all the difference. Thus making time the most valuable currency.

Side note…

In Stefanie Jochman’s recent blog post titled “Stop What You’re Doing and Confer“, she discusses how she uses initial conferences at the beginning of the year to connect to her students writing lives—read her blog for some tips and questions to ask students.

How do you establish connections with students early on? What are you showing that matters? What other ways do you empower students writing lives at the start of the year? Share your ideas with me on Twitter @readwritemore

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