Teaching the Whole Child: It’s the Little Things

I got the awesome opportunity last year to accompany our graduating seniors on their senior trip to Florida. We got to spend a week visiting the beach, going to water parks, and, of course, going to Walt Disney World. They have a saying for the Disney parks, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I can’t say for certain if they’ve actually achieved that goal, but they certainly pull out all the stops to try and live up to that high standard. My co-teacher and I started thinking: what if our classroom could be the happiest place in our school? In planning together, we had agreed that we wanted to really focus in on the whole child and how a child feels each day is part of that. Expecting a student to function, to learn, while also ignoring their social and emotional health is counterproductive. In that respect, we felt that if we could figure out what made a child happy, we might also figure out how to attend to the whole child. But how do you figure out what makes a student happy or feel any emotion? We did not want to leave it to assumptions or guessing. We wanted to learn about each student, each day. As I stood in a line, waiting for a ride, I noticed that people we were talking and having some pretty interesting conversations.  That’s when it hit me. We had to get our students to have genuine, real, non-schooly conversations with us.

Where Do Conversations Start?

We started taking notes at the park. We took pictures of things that we felt we could incorporate into our classroom and that would help us have genuine conversations. Were we planning on installing roller coasters and having Disney characters walk around the classroom? No, but if you pay attention to the cool places you go, there are applicable ideas everywhere.  One thing we noticed at Disney were the lines. When people have to wait, they tend to chat, especially if the line is leading up to something that elicits emotions, something exciting perhaps. So, as silly as it sounds, for the first day of school, we had a line to get into class, complete with ropes and switchbacks. Our classroom has windows that allow people in the hall to see in, so as our students waited in line, we could tell they were curious as they watched us set things up. We played some music as well (another idea we got from Disney as there is always music somewhere).

We saw plenty of smiles as they waited in line and they were chatting and getting to know each other because, well, what else are you going to do as you wait in line? Were they getting practice in having genuine conversations? Were they starting to build relationships that could prove supportive later? We’d like to think so. My co-teacher and I were a part of a training with the Capturing Kids Hearts program prior to the first day of school, so we more than borrowed a few ideas from that as well. One idea was to greet each child at the door with a smile and a handshake. As we opened the doors to finally let the kids in, we greeted them warmly and shook hands and asked a few questions. We do this now at the beginning of every class, not just the first day. We learn more and more about them each day. They have jobs. They have weird families (their words not ours). They have expectations for themselves and they know they need help to reach them.

What do We Converse About?

Since that first day, we’ve installed a few routines to help our classroom continue to be a place where genuine conversations happen. Each and every Monday is called “Good Times Monday.”

In the Capturing Kids Hearts training, we were introduced to the idea of spending class time talking about good things happening in their lives. This time isn’t just about sharing out good things, it’s about taking interest in the good things as well. This practice helps to show students how to not just listen but to take interest in the lives of others.

Here’s how it might go:

Sarah: My good thing is that my grandma is coming to see us!

Me: That’s great!  How long has it been since you’ve seen her?

Sarah: Well, she lives on the east coast, so it’s been at least a year.

Me: Wow, that is a long time.  How long will she get to stay?

Sarah: She’ll be here through Thanksgiving.

Me: Oh, is she a good cook?

Sarah: The best!

Me: That’s awesome, Sarah.  Thanks for sharing your good thing!

And that’s all there is to it. In the future, we plan on having students run our “Good Times Monday” and see how well they take an interest in their peers when they share out their good things. This small bit of time has already paid big dividends. Students realize that we care about what’s going on outside of school and they are more willing to share their struggles so that we can help them be more successful. They understand that their emotions matter to us and this has reduced the anxiety many students may feel when they perceive that all their teachers care about is getting assignments done. Doing “Good Times Monday” also helps us teach students to not dwell on the negative but to maximize and share the positive. This activity helps them to develop those crucial social and emotional skills that complete them as an entire student and aid them in the pursuits that matter to them.  All of that from having simple, consistent, genuine conversations.

One other lesson we learned from touring Disney was that Disney really does try and make you feel like you’re part of the family and part of the Disney world. Inspired by that attitude, we incorporated a rather small idea that we felt would lead to more genuine conversations. At Disney, if it’s your birthday, you get a button and you get to wear that button all day long. As you walk around the park with that button on, employees wish you a happy birthday and people waiting in line with you start asking you questions about your birthday, which leads to other conversations. In our classroom, we want to treat our students like family and so we do just the same. We give out birthdays buttons that the birthday student gets to wear all day.  At the end of the day, when the student brings back the button, we use the same questioning method from “Good Times Monday” and have, you guessed it, a conversation!

Me:  Thanks for bringing the birthday button back, Sam.  How as your day?

Sam:  Pretty good.  Got lots of birthday wishes.  I’ve been sung to in every class today!

Me:  How cool!  Any plans for birthday celebrations?

Sam:  My family is taking me out to dinner and this weekend my dad is taking me camping and fishing.

Me:  Is that a birthday tradition?

Sam: For the last few years, yes. I recently got my own fishing pole and now we plan a big fishing trip for my birthday every year.

Me:  Well I hope you catch a big one!  Happy birthday, Sam.

Sam:  Thanks, Mrs. Durfee!  See you tomorrow!

The birthday button is just a button. It has no special powers. But it’s another small thing that leads to big things. It leads to more genuine conversations that help my students know that I care. It leads me to understand my students better, which leads to better decisions about how to help them in the future. It leads to better conversations among my students as they learn to appreciate others and take an interest. It leads to more relationships and that means more support for each and every student’s unique needs. It also leads to understanding the whole child, and that’s the goal. Some conversations are short, some longer. It all depends on the student.

Why Do We Have Conversations?

The last small thing we’ve added (for now), is our Instagram wall. Social media is huge and especially huge at Disney. People are sharing their experiences all the time and having fun conversations as they look at moments from rides or other experiences they’ve had at the park.  So, we put a twist on social media and got a Polaroid camera. We try and take shots of important/fun/meaningful moments in class. We put a caption on each one, just like you would for an Instagram post and we add them to our wall. We’ll put more up each day and at the end of the year, our students can take whatever moments they want with them. Our students will wander over to the wall at times and reminisce, talking about those moments and laughing about others. It sends the message, once again, that we see them as family and what happens in class is important, important enough to revisit and talk about. After all, these moments we have in class together will continue to develop each student and it will be an important part of the whole child moving forward.

Who Do We Want to Have Conversations With?

If you want to teach the whole child, then you have to speak with the whole child, not just the academic child. We are all made up of different things. We are made up of our family relationships, our past experiences, our talents and passions, our failures and disappointments, and our choices about every little aspect of life. No new instructional strategy will reach the whole child any better if we don’t know the whole child. And by showing our students how we get to know them, they can, in turn, learn how to have meaningful conversations with others and grow the ability to manage their social and emotional lives. Having genuine, non-schooly conversations are sometimes hard to have in school. We have to focus so much on the content and the standards because of time constraints that many of us just plow into our school day with the first lesson, unfortunately not realizing that the whole child may not be with us as we go.

Find small structures, protocols, or experiences your students can have each day that will lead to consistent, genuine, non-schooly conversations. Find inspiration from any place you go. We found our ideas from a vacation. Additionally, we found ideas and inspiration from a timely training, Capturing Kids Hearts. See how real conversations happen in your own life that helps you to get to know others and then bring those experiences into your classroom. I can promise you that with each conversation, ideas for better instruction aimed at the whole child will flood your mind.

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Anna Durfee

Anna Durfee is an English Facilitator at Compass Academy, a magnet high school that is part of the New Tech Network.

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