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For the second year, my Adventure Co-op class is studying the idea of happiness in the English language arts component of the course.  The inquiry question that is guiding this process is, “What does it take to live a happy life?”  I’ve seen students’ lives changed in the process of better understanding this question because everyone is pursuing happiness in one way or another.  It’s perhaps the most relevant idea to study in school, especially as my students are currently laying foundations of being that will shape their decisions and interactions as they move from their high school context into other realms of life.  We started out by looking at some of the science and research that’s been done on happiness as well as some of the big ideas that contribute to a person’s level of happiness.  We are now starting to dig a little deeper.

Yesterday we delved into the importance that relationship has on a person’s happiness.  To do this, I started off by showing my students the final scene of the movie “Into the Wild” – a true story about a young man who starts a three year journey from America’s east coast to Alaska in order to fulfill his fanatic idealism.  Along the way, he cuts every meaningful relationship out of his life, including his parents who don’t hear from him for two years.  Unfortunately, when he arrives in Alaska he experiences a series of events that ultimately leads to his death, but not before he has a profound insight into what it means to be happy.

After watching the clip and having a short discussion on the connection between relationships and happiness, I got my students to record their thoughts in a journal reflection.  What I thought would take maybe ten minutes took forty.  What I thought might be a paragraph for most, turned into a page for many.  For young adults who are in a very visceral process of identity building, understanding who their friends are and the impact they have on their lives is a very real process.  One student wrote:

Even though I only watched a short part of the video, it hit me like a ton of bricks… the relevance of this story to my own life, today and in the past week has been on my mind for a while now.

Another wrote:

I’ve never had an opportunity to open my fun side and didnt get an opportunity to connect with people the way i do now, its like a whole new me i can now do things that i couldnt do before.  I make my own choices, i do whatever i want, because i found a set of friends that know what the meaning of life means, the friends that i had before didnt care about school…

It was made very clear to me in the all of the journal reflections I got that my students are very much thinking about their relationships and understanding what they mean.  They know and are surprisingly articulate about how much their friends influence their level of happiness.  For some of my students, having the opportunity to think and process some of these ideas may lead to real change.

I had a crazy experience today.

It happened as I walked into a store with my one year old son and immediately recognized the store clerk as she was helping some customers.  Although I had no idea where I recognized her from, as I was squeezing the stroller around her customers she noticed me and stopped what she was doing.

“Hey!  I know you from somewhere,” she said.  “I know!  I had you as a teacher; you’re Mr. Rempel!”  At this point I felt a little bit awkward because I couldn’t tell you the first thing about this young woman and a little bit embarrassed because of the attention I was getting and because her customers were now also scrutinizing me.  However, I was also amazed because I knew that I didn’t recognize her from my time working in the learning centres which meant that I must have taught her when I was working as a substitute teacher eight years ago.

She enthusiastically continues, “I remember you because you made an impact on my life!”

“Thank you” I say in appreciation, “but I’m sorry, I don’t remember which school you went to.” She told me which school it was and after a bit more friendly chit chat and not finding what I wanted at the store, I left.  As I walked home with son, who was making loud exclamations at every car that passed by, I suddenly remembered when I taught her – it wasn’t when I was substitute teacher, it was when I was doing my student teaching nine years ago!  At the very most, I would have been her teacher for six weeks, and let me tell you, I really struggled in my curriculum development and delivery during my practicum.  Yet somehow, despite all my inadequacies as a beginning teacher, I made an impact on this young woman – enough for her to remember my name nine years later.

I don’t know about other teachers, but it’s rare for me to run into former students.  Sometimes, at random moments on any given day, I’ll think about past students and wonder what they’re doing in life – about whether anything I taught them made a difference.  It’s comforting to know that it’s not only about the quality of my lessons or my use of technology that has an impact on students, but in the genuine care and belief we as teachers have in who our students are as individuals.

I floated through the rest of the evening.

 

There is something distressing about having a student who is simply not interested.  To see a student sit poker-faced or wearing that defiant, make-me-care-I-dare-you expression in my class goes against everything I feel about teaching English.  I don’t care if my students don’t particularly love my course (although I would prefer if they did!) – I want my students to engage.  English is a course that, if taught correctly, should reach out and touch our humanity and desire for meaning.  It should be a place to explore and create.  So when I have a student seemingly indifferent about what they’re learning, it causes some personal and professional distress.

Well, I have discovered the first crucial step towards engaging the disengaged.  I have discovered the solution.  And now, I will make it known to you…(but lean closer, because it’s a secret) – the answer is…

relationship.

Well duh.  There are only about a million resources out there affirming the importance professional student-teacher relationships have on learning.  Bruce Beairsto in his article “Engagement in Learning: Finding the Depth Beyond Diligence” accurately writes, “[Engagement] is only achieved when there is a partnership with the student…so that learning is co-constructed.”  As a teacher, I known this to be true.  It is because relationship is so ordinary and widely known that I seem to sometimes forget about it.  I’ll have a student who is struggling or giving me the blank-stare-of-death treatment so I’ll try a hundred different pedagogical strategies in an effort to valiantly win him or her over to the side of education.  Only to see the blank-stare-death become the frustrated-blank-stare-of-death.

A couple of weeks ago a student came into my class who really dislikes English.  I know this because it’s one of the first things he said when he walked through the door.  And he wasn’t joking.  No matter what I said or how I modified the assignments to correspond to his particular learning style, he simply wasn’t buying in.  So early this week I decided to talk to him and (literally) within ten minutes he was passionately talking about an issue, had found an article to back up his arguments, and offered to write a summary about it!  Over the course of several more conversations with this student I discovered a number of key frustrations he has with English and a whole host of unspoken issues he is subconsciously bringing into my course.  As a result of these conversations, I realized that I need to fundamentally change the way I teach him if he is to be successful in my course.  Although he still dislikes English and struggles to see the relevance of what he’s doing, he is slowly beginning to engage because of our talks.

Relationship is a key step towards engagement.  New strategies and philosophies for learning and teaching will emerge, but relationship is constant.

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