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How Prioritizing Inclusive Learning Communities Saved My School Year

  • 5 Min Read

Early on in my teaching career, I got that homeroom class. The one where you better have eyes in the back of your head, or risk utter chaos unfolding behind your back. The one where if you are going to be sick, you better be prepared for a note from the substitute teacher explaining just how poorly the day before had gone. The one where you will learn the most in your career only if you are open.

On the first day with that class, I had the students complete a survey for me. It was something I did every year to gauge students’ different likes, dislikes and anxieties about school—basically my diagnostic for the affective and conative parts of the learning triangle—and to augment the academic diagnostics they would also complete. Reviewing their responses later that night, I was surprised. Not a single student reported liking school. Even the students who said they loved certain subjects or were strong academically had no desire to enter the school building. I had never come across such universal disdain for school in my career. What could be going on?

Quickly, I began to notice other things. When a student made a mistake—a natural part of learning—their peers were more likely to jeer than to coach. In group work, no matter how carefully I tried to form our groups, fights would break out. At the end of the day, the classroom would be a pigsty, and we’d have to end our final lesson early in order to get things back into order. I wasted hours of teaching time managing behavior, and instead of providing feedback during lessons, I was offering rebukes. Something had to change.

If you were to say to someone outside education that teachers can become overfocused on the academics, they might be confused. But as teachers, we know it’s true. If you don’t spend time consistently supporting well-being and social emotional learning (SEL), you will never help your students succeed academically. You just can’t. Classroom management aside, students can’t learn if they aren’t in an inclusive environment that encourages learning. The science tells us this, so why do we sometimes forget?

With this particular class, I did something that my administration wasn’t particularly happy about—at least not at first. I started dedicating 20 minutes of instructional time each day to working on social learning skills. Keep in mind that this was in the days before SEL was particularly trendy. I devoted entire lessons to exploring the concept of respect, attentive listening and self-regulation, and would provide opportunities for students to observe, practice and make real-life connections. Inspired by Jeanne Gibb’s work on Tribes, I decided that making an inclusive learning community was my No. 1 priority—it was even more important than test scores. Results weren’t immediate, but soon enough I saw an increase in collaboration and a decrease in the need for behavior management. But we still weren’t functioning as a classroom unit.

“If a person does not feel included, he will create his own inclusion by grabbing influence, attracting attention, creating a controversy, demanding power, or withdrawing into passive belligerence.” — Jeanne Gibbs, Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities

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Talking circles are a core component of Indigenous pedagogy. The idea is to create a model for respectful dialogue that gives everyone the space to share their ideas and listen to their peers. I decided that every Friday afternoon I would take 40 minutes from our ELA block and make it community talking circle time. The talking circle would have three main requirements:

  1. The dialogue was driven equally by every participant of the circle. As their teacher, I would not dictate the focus of conversation or jump in. I would participate when it was my turn, the same as everyone else.
  2. The talking circle wasn’t necessarily going to be academic. I framed it to my students as a place to raise concerns, to share things they were excited about, or just to chat. Every individual would have an opportunity to speak. No individual would be forced to speak. We used a soft bouncy ball as the “talking ball.” If you didn’t have that, it was not your opportunity to speak (myself included).
  3. We had to have trust. I had to trust my students were going to listen respectfully and share respectfully. If I didn’t want to break requirements one or two of the talking circle, I couldn’t be jumping in every time the conversation went off the rails. I would have to trust that we wouldn’t do that.

“When everyone has their turn to speak, when all voices are heard in a respectful and attentive way, the learning atmosphere becomes a rich source of information, identity, and interaction” — First Nations Pedagogy

I was surprised how quickly these talking circles began to work. Students who would once yell out “You’re stupid!” at a classmate for giving an incorrect answer became students who would share advice with a peer who felt anxious about an upcoming math assignment or didn’t understand a concept. Coaching became a regular part of the classroom, and peer assessments were happening organically and regularly. By giving up academic time to prioritize affective time, we ended up seeing more academic success and happier learners than before.

Every one of us builds our classroom communities differently, but after that school year, I never again started a semester without focusing on the affective domain first. Even when teaching virtually, finding ways to bring in talking circles and SEL skills was priority No. 1. At the end of the day, we want our students to succeed. And if they don’t feel supported, they never will.

How to Implement Social Emotional Learning in the K-12 Classroom

We know that social emotional learning is critical for academic success, but applying it in the classroom can be challenging.

Join our free Master Class for practical ideas on implementing SEL tactics in your K-12 classroom

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