Just Like Starting Over: Umwelt, part II

Road Trip Mix Album Cover

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?

Wait, what is Umwelt Again?

In my last post, I described how teachers can learn from Alexandra Horowitz’s approach to understanding the mind of a dog.

TLDR: it all boils down to working to understand students “umwelts”, aka their points of view, as well as the things that matter and don’t matter to them.

In this post, I’m going to build on the idea of umwelt, especially in the moments when we need to start over with a student because of difficulties and in moments when we need to help students figure out their next steps as learners.

Umwelt to Solve Problems and Start Over

Heather T. Forbes’s book, Help for Billy, presents some practical and fascinating ideas on helping students with trauma. However, the book contains some universal ideas that can help us become better teachers to all our students. In chapter 2, Forbes presents the example of a crying baby and asks, “Is this baby being rude and disrespectful because the parent is on an important phone call…? Of course not. This baby is communicating that he is in a state of stress…He is unequipped to self-regulate…[and] is unaware of anybody else’s agenda.”

Of course, this kind of situation is not limited to babies. When we give students a hard time, to them, we might be like this crying baby. We weren’t crying to tick them off (usually), we were crying because we needed them to do something, and our agendas didn’t alignt. Likewise, when a student exhibits difficult behavior toward us, it may not be personal. It might be that they are struggling with something and they are struggling to regulate their behavior in a way that makes sense to us.

Here’s an example I worked through recently:

I noticed a student would use the pass to go to the bathroom (aka–wander the halls, probably) as soon as I ended my mini-lesson and students went off to work independently.

You’ve seen this one before, right?

What if, instead of calling the kid out (or whatever mean and godawful thing our instincts try to get us to do), we problem-solved, and then started over?

In Lost at School, Dr. Ross Greene outlines a model called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. There’s a lot to it, and you’d have to read the book to really do this work effectively, but basically you identify a student’s lagging skills and unsolved problems. Then, you have a conversation in which you listen and empathize with the child, reflecting back all the reasons they say (if the child says, “I dunno” when you ask what’s going on, you take guesses to start the conversation). This is the most important stage because it’s where children see that you hear and understand them. It’s also a chance for you to get a better idea of the child’s umwelt–their perspective on things, their reasons for behaving the way they do. From there, you ask the child to help brainstorm ideas that will work for both of you. When the child says an idea that won’t work for you, like, “You could just let me go and mind your own business,” you roll with the umwelt-punch and say something like, “That would be a perfect solution for you, but it won’t work on my end. Let’s try another one.”

After you have a list of possible solutions and strategies, you start over with the student with some proactive ideas in tow.

Umwelt to Figure out the Next Step

Yardsticks by Chip Wood might be the ultimate umwelt resource (for kids age 4-14). If you aren’t already familiar, Responsive Classroom describes it as, “Yardsticks is a comprehensive guide that helps educators better understand students’ social and academic behavior through a developmental lens.”

The book almost reads like a field guide to what it’s like to experience life as a child, and it’s broken down by age level. If you get a chance to read this before “starting over” next semester, or hopefully, earlier, I highly recommend doing so.

Using Yardsticks, I’ve been keeping two big ideas about kids’s (ages 11-12) umwelts in mind as I confer with students during writing workshop: (1) the kids I work with are now fully aware that adults aren’t always right and (2) their egos are more sensitive, with self-awareness at an all-time high.

This is likely why certain conferring strategies are so effective–and we can leverage these strategies to be even more effective when we better see the world through our students’ eyes. For example, if a child’s self-awareness and ego are at an age when they spike, it becomes even more important to notice what they are doing well in our conferences. Not just that, but because kids might be leary of adults’ ideas, we have to listen and read along with even more care to point out what they hope their readers will notice.

Moreover, when it comes to helping a student move on to the next level as a writer, if we work with kids who challenge adults’ assumptions, we might be smart to put the ball in their court. As often as possible, when delivering a teaching point toward the end of a conference, I’ll ask the student, “So, what do YOU think is your next step as a writer?”

Of course, this is nothing new. Don Graves was talking about having students take the lead in their learning decades ago. The new idea here is really working to see the work through your students’ eyes, and then employing the most effective possible strategy.

Inside of a Dog

Appropriately, we’ll come back to the author who sparked this line of thinking. In chapter two, she discusses an area where dog trainers often get it wrong: “If a dog trainer has an idea that a human-and-dog family is like a wolf pack, and that the alpha pair in the pack are strict enforcers of the rules, he’ll insist that a dog be punished for peeing on the rug–with a yell, forcing the dog down, a sharp word, a jerk on the collar.”

However, a trainer who understands a dog’s umwelt might respond differently, understanding what led to the accident and then teaching the dog in a way the dog can more happily respond to.

I won’t go down the rabbit hole about how current research indicates major flaws in the dominance theories of dog training, but I will say this: one method of teaching is grounded in bullying into submission, and the other is grounded in teaching with concern for another’s well-being.

Of course, dogs and humans are vastly different, and I do not mean to compare a child to a dog. However, I believe the premise holds up. We all want what’s best for our students, and we all choose methods that we think will achieve great results. No strategy is perfect, but I will say this the more I work with students, and the more I put myself in their shoes, the more peaceful, effective, and efficient my instruction becomes.

And it all starts with umwelt.

I’d love to know what strategies you use to better understand your students’ umwelts. How do you collaborate with students to solve problems and stretch learning?

Please leave us a comment below, find us on Facebook, or let me know on Twitter: @MrWteach!


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