Just Like Starting Over: Umwelt, Part 1

This series is called “Just Like Starting Over” because there are points throughout the semester (breaks, starting new units, abandoning disaster situations, etc.) in which we are given the opportunity to start over. In this series I’ll be asking a few important questions of myself, and in turn, of you, dear reader: what if you could–blank slate–start over as a teacher? What would you keep? What would you change? Which lessons and systems would you, as Marie Kondo suggests, hold in your hands and thank for their service to you before sending them away?

Unit 2: A New Beginning

This year, I’m trying to capitalize on that microscopic gap between units to really reflect, treating it like an opportunity for a fresh start, but this time with some newly gained experience in my arsenal.

As I “start over” with this upcoming unit, I’m thinking hard about how, when it comes to helping students grow, too much of my teaching is built upon assumptions of where a student is. Even the best formative assessments can require some heavy inference-making on the teacher’s part.

At the beginning of this school year, Kevin O’Dea, the principal of Laramie Middle School (where I teach) did something really interesting.  He met with each teacher individually and asked a series of questions about our goals as teachers, conditions under which we do our best work, and what we need from our principals in order to grow.

I left this meeting with a sense of buy-in beyond anything I’d ever felt. I also left with a new idea for my classroom.

Umwelt (“oom-VELT”)

As we move into our second unit of the year, we’re reading aloud the young readers edition of Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. Early in the book, she describes something called “Umwelt”, which is basically an organism’s point of view along with all the things that it finds important. She provides the example of a tick: “The tick’s world, it’s umwelt, is different from ours in astonishing ways. All that matters to the tick is smell and warmth, and so those two things are what it notices. The wind that whisks through the grass? Doesn’t matter to the tick. The sound of a child’s birthday party? The tick doesn’t care…”

The point here is that, in order to understand a tick’s actions, we can’t think of it as a small bug-version of a person. If we do, we’ll draw some rather incorrect conclusions about why it does what it does. Instead, in order to understand what makes the tick…tick, we have to see things from it’s point of view, to understand what matters to it–and not project on the tick the things that only matter to us.

Here’s where I’d like to make a quantum leap–have you ever considered how students’ umwelts differ from teachers? Heather T. Forbes’s book on helping children with trauma, Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Challenging Children in the Classroom, opens by recommending that we “ask the experts.” In other words, who knows more about a student’s strengths and struggles than the student him or herself?

With animals, scientists have to study subjects tirelessly just to get a glimpse at an animal’s umwelt. With students, the process of understanding can be easier because, you know, we can talk to them!

Ask the Experts: Gaining Insights

So, back to when I left my beginning-of-the-year meeting with my principal. He left the meeting with a better sense of my teacher-umwelt. I left the meeting feeling the sense of connection one feels when they are really heard.

A few days into the school year (the beginning of a new unit is a great time to try this, too), I conferred with students while they read and wrote, but instead of reading or writing conferences, I held umwelt conferences. I asked students about their goals as learners, what good and helpful teachers do, what good teachers avoid doing, and what they wish more teachers knew. Here were some responses and some of my “Umwelt Insights”:

What Are Your Goals as a Reader/Writer?“I’d like to get better at handwriting.” “I want to be a better reader and try new books.” “Learn to read more for better understanding.” “I want to actually like reading.” “I’m not sure. No one’s ever asked me before.” “To improve at describing things”

Umwelt Insights: many students want to do better at things that teachers harp on them for–and some students even want to like it, but something gets in the way.

What Do Good and Helpful Teachers Do?“They are kind and funny.” “Give us candy” “Give feedback on what to fix.” “They give us the chance to share.” “They remember that some kids have disabilities–we’re not all the same.” “Be fair.” “Actually teach when a kid is confused.”

Umwelt Insights: Of course, kids want a nice teacher, but many want a teacher who gives individual attention and support.

What do Good Teachers Avoid?“Forgetting our names.” “Remember that you are teaching 6th graders–not 9th graders.” “Don’t keep repeating lessons.” “Don’t forget that you never know what happened at home.” “Don’t yell.” “Avoid homework.” “Don’t call me out.” “Forcing a lot of books on us.” “Don’t just give us work without helping us.”

Umwelt Insights: Surprisingly, most students did not just say to avoid being mean. Most kids want a teacher who will really teach them, and not just assign stuff to them. A lot of students also want teachers to have more empathy.

What I Wish More Teachers Knew: “I hate when teachers give a due date, or say there’s going to be a test and then change their minds.” “Sometimes I drift away during the directions.” “I don’t like to work in big groups.” “When you teach a thousand kids, you might forget someone’s birthday.” “I wish more teachers knew about me and what interests me.” “Not everyone likes reading.” “Sometimes, I get lost in thought, and I’m slow about completing my work.” “I don’t always get what a teacher is saying, so I wish they would check-in.” “What’s funny to kids makes adults mad.”

Umwelt Insights: This one struck me as the most umwelt-rich of all lines of thinking. Little things to us, like due dates, can be really big deals to kids. Sometimes, we forget that human beings space out sometimes. How many times to I space out during, say, a school meeting–but when I flip on my teacher umwelt, how often do I forget this part of the human condition? Once again, students want to be in a room where they know the teacher values them and makes an effort to know them. And that last one: “What’s funny to kids makes adults mad.” Has a more umwelt-y sentence ever been spoken?

I left these meetings more deeply connected to my students. Interestingly, students seemed to feel the same way. More students started actually saying “hi” to me in the hall–which is a HUGE deal, as anyone who works in a 6th-8th grade building knows.   Equally important, though, these students had gifted me with some important ideas and reminders. We all have blindspots as teachers, but now I felt like I was starting to have a wider field of view.

It all started with trying to understand my students’ worlds, and it didn’t stop there. Surveying students (and reviewing their responses from time to time) is now a part of my regular practice–and what better time to learn more about your students than the beginning of a new unit?

So, as you move into a part of the school year where you have a chance to start over, I hope you’ll consider digging into your students’ umwelts! Not only will you gain a better understanding of what they need from you, you might even build a few relationships along the way.

Stay tuned for “Umwelt, pt. II” on solving problems and figuring out the next step.

What kinds of strategies do you use to gain better understandings of your students? What do you do to forge strong and trusting relationships? Share your ideas with me on Twitter: @MrWteach or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

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