Putting the Child into Whole Child: Give Students Voice to Improve Your Practice
Recently I was having a discussion with a colleague who is new to the building. This teacher is confident, self-assured, and has decades of experience more than me. We teach the same children, so we meet frequently for RTI and team meetings. This is the type of teacher that takes pride in being "old school," which roughly translates to a no-nonsense, quiet-equals-learning, behavior-should-have-negative-consequences type of environment. It's the model that many of us grew up with. Although I was able to navigate through this system because I was a so-called "good student," many friends were not particularly successful, with the logical assumption that they were "bad students." This model puts the system itself as the driving force for success, which is disempowering both to educators and to the students alike.
Now, the conversation in question did not go smoothly, especially when I insensitively insisted that the teacher "would not be successful" using this old school approach. Realizing that I was working against my goal, I quickly concluded with a final statement that I paraphrased from a Maya Angelou quote: People don't remember what you say; they remember how you made them feel. It is a statement that I share with staff and students, and for me it is at the foundation of the type of teacher I strive to be. It is also at the core of the safe and supported tenets of the whole child approach.
ASCD's Whole Child Initiative offers a framework that does not consider students to be good or bad, but forces educators to consider students' needs. And what better way to find out than to ask the students themselves? Consider these two examples of how student voice and whole child thinking work together to show improvements on both the classroom and the individual level.
In the beginning of this school year, the majority of my 8th grade first period reading class was sitting with their heads down. There are two quick assumptions that a teacher can make: One is that the kids don't care about school; the other is that the teacher and/or content actually is that boring. The old school of thought would assume the first, placing the responsibility of learning on the learner. The second is something that many teachers don't want to admit, or that they convince themselves is all right because (true to old-school fashion) "it's school, we sat through boring classes too, but it's just something you have to do."
Using a whole child approach led me to consider a third option based on the healthy tenet. As I was about to address the class about having their heads down, a thought came to mind: "Raise your hand if you ate breakfast this morning." Few hands went in the air, and surely none of the droopy heads had their hands up. On the spot, the homework assignment for the next class was to eat breakfast in the morning (in hindsight, I should have made students report out and really build understanding by reading articles as well, but now I know for future reference). I checked up on the class the next day, and pointed out how different the dynamic in the class was when all or most ate breakfast. I also included this information in my weekly e-mail to parents with a link to an article about the importance of eating in the morning.
I started to think about my own practice and the assumptions teachers make everyday. How many students have been written off as not caring, when in fact they may have simply been hungry and unable to concentrate? The combination of awareness of the Whole Child Tenets and a discussion with the students led to a change and, hopefully, a lesson the students will never forget.
Had it not been for whole child thinking and a moment to talk with the students, I may have plugged forward with the lesson. Others might have fallen back on an "old school" management approach of consequences or phone calls home. The whole child approach opened my mind to other possibilities. I still get some heads down during class, but it is almost guaranteed that every time a student complains about a stomachache or being tired, they skipped breakfast; and we can fall back on that day and use their experience as evidence. On the flipside, I also have several students that tell me what they ate for breakfast regularly now (win!).
Having conversations with the students is essential in serving the whole child on the individual level as well. At a recent student conference, the teachers asked about being off-task in math class. The student said:
"When you tell everyone to pass the warm-up to the front, I haven't even done it yet because I don't know how. I'm still just trying to figure out what to do. Then I get so frustrated and upset because I don't understand what you guys are talking about, and it's not even worth trying after that."
The teachers asked him why he doesn't ask for help when he is confused, and he replied:
"I look around and see how much the other kids in the class need you and how you are trying to help them out, I just don't want to be bothering you. You already have your hands full."
Finally when we asked him about the classes he was doing well in, he shared that in those classes he felt the teachers explained things more clearly to him, and checked up with him to make sure he understood what he was doing.
Thinking about the Whole Child philosophy forces teachers to go back to the tenets. This student definitely did not feel supported in math, which caused him to disengage. Possibly the most disheartening aspect of this story is that the student felt like he was bothering the teachers to ask for help, or even worse, that he wasn't worth their time. Meanwhile, the teachers thought that he didn't care, that he was all over the place, too social, or just couldn't focus. In this case, trying to reach the whole child truly led to an improvement in instruction and learning by changing the thinking of both the teachers and the student.
From that meeting a direct plan came about to give the student extra time to complete his warm up, to assist with some guided notes and cloze steps for problem solving, and to find a peer tutor that can be trusted to assist during presentation and practice of new content. It was a powerful meeting and one that came about from allowing the student voice into the process to assist with figuring out the missing pieces of the puzzle. The student felt more supported, and would then presumably engage more in class. The teachers were forced to think outside of the "old school" model of learning and truly personalize learning for the student in front of them.
More of these conversations need to happen regularly if we are truly going to reach every child, every day—and we have to push our colleagues to have them. These conversations lead to greater understanding, but none if this understanding can happen without allowing the whole child to help you see the whole story. Not every child is so open and self-aware, and many children are not used to sharing their opinion about instruction. Some may not even know how to explain themselves, but they do know how you make them feel in class, and that discussion alone may be enough to help them help you.
Eric Russo is an 8th grade reading and special education Instructor at Drew-Freeman Middle School in Suitland, Md., a member of ASCD's Whole Child Network of Schools. He is dedicated to utilizing a combination of innovative and inclusive learning practices in service of the whole child by providing a healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged learning environment. He was a featured guest on the February 2014 episode of the Whole Child Podcast that discussed building school morale. Connect with Russo on Twitter @erusso78.