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Category: Classroom Climate

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[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s teaching professors, we know first-hand how complex an endeavor teaching is. The sheer number of instructional interactions, decisions, and processes can be overwhelming to enact, much less to master. To streamline such complexity, I have adopted what I consider a beneficial perspective. In its essence, teaching consists primarily of making three types of connections—instructor-to-student (or “Me” connections), student-to-student (or “Thee” connections), and student-to-course content (or “CC” connections). Keeping in mind these three connections has aided my instructional decision making and teaching efficacy. Believing along with Parker Palmer (1998, p. 11) that “good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness,” let’s look at a few ways to expand our capacity for making connections in teaching. “Me” Connections: Be approachable & accessible. Creating connections between ourselves and our students can begin before the semester even starts. An introductory email is an easy, practical way to welcome students to the course, give a brief overview of the semester, and invite students to connect with us. In this email we can ask students to join Remind. (Visit remind.com to set up a free account that allows instructors to send text messages to students while safeguarding everyone’s cell phone number.)  I use Remind throughout the semester to send short messages to the class—e.g., “please bring your textbook to class tomorrow,” or “remember to study for the test,” or “check your email for important information.”  It’s a great tool for connecting with students. On the first day of class, we need to have purposefully planned a way for students to get to know us. This might be through a set of Teacher Trivia statements or perhaps a series of Fun Facts about us. Generally, I use statements like those I ask students.  For example, I might name my hometown, my favorite musical artist, and my hobbies.  I also show a picture of myself during my college days or during my early years as a high school Latin teacher.  Some teachers build a personal connection by providing students with their business cards.  Finally, I increase “Me” connections by taking students on a field trip at the end of class—to my office! This way students will know where they can find me when they need assistance outside of class. Arriving at my office, I like to take a “phone booth” style group selfie of all the students crammed inside my office. As the semester unfolds, we can continue to find ways to build “Me” connections through appropriate self-disclosure.  Whether talking with individuals or small groups before class or during class discussions we can share relevant stories that reveal things about us. Note: we are not trying to be “like” our students or even “liked” by them but rather be seen as fellow human beings who are approachable and accessible. The more students trust us and believe that we have their best interests at heart, the more comfortable they will feel in seeking our help. To strengthen “Me” connections that illustrate specific principles and practices within our disciplinary field, we can share tales of failure—our own—relative to the content. For instance, I often talk about difficult situations I faced in my early years of teaching, such as the first time I had a negative parent encounter or a time when I failed to understand an individual student’s dilemma.  Although this level of self-disclosure increases our vulnerability, the value comes from stronger connections with students, and those yield immeasurable dividends (Palmer, 1998). Deciding how best to strengthen “Me” connections is an individual matter that should be based on our teaching style, level of comfort, and professional judgment. However, as we think about impacting students, we might contemplate John Maxwell’s (2010, p. 3) view: “Connecting is the ability to identify with people and relate to them in a way that increases your influence with them.” Thus, the greater our connections to students, the more likely we will influence their behaviors, knowledge, and/or attitudes. And, attending to the emotional side of teaching is worth any extra investment of our time.  (For a wealth of research supporting this notion, take a look at Sarah Cavanagh’s book, The Spark of Learning). “Thee” Connections: Build common ground. Frequent, quality student-to-student connections create a better learning environment in our classes. For some students, the chance to interact with others in class serves as a strong motivation for their attendance.  Other students may be reluctant to connect with their peers because they lack the necessary skills, such as a lack of confidence or shyness perhaps due to limited opportunities to interact. As instructors, we need to use activities that foster interpersonal connections. To begin with, I require my students to exchange contact information with at least two classmates. I set aside time during the second-class meeting to permit them to do so.  I also use nameplates to facilitate not only my learning their names but also to assist them in learning and using each other’s names. The activity, “Stand on the Line,” quickly lets students see what they do and don’t have in common.  Borrowed from Erin Gruwell (author of Teach with Your Heart whose story is featured in the movie, “The Freedom Writers”), this activity only requires a long piece of brightly-colored duct tape placed on the floor at the front of the classroom.  Students line up on each side of the line; they will then stand on the line when any read-aloud statement is true of them. For example, “stand on the line if you live on campus,” or “stand on the line if you work part-time,” etc. I usually prepare 10-12 such statements for the activity. The actual line can be used at other points during the semester to gauge students’ response to assigned readings, e.g., “stand on the line if you agree with the author’s main point about X.” We’ve all had those teaching days when we thought: “These students just are not connecting with each other.” This self-message can be a signal to seek a different “Thee” connecting mechanism. Basically, we want to help students lean on each other for understanding and/or application of their learning. What kind of student-to-student interaction structures build connections that promote their understanding of the content? A popular one is Think-Pair-Share whereby students are asked first to think about a specific prompt or question—one that promotes higher order thinking. Then with a partner the students discuss the prompt before random student pairs are called upon to share with the whole group. Using this simple technique takes the spotlight off us (and our ability to explain) and shines it on students who demonstrate their understanding and mastery of content. Another “Thee” approach involves regularly planning for “Team Time” in class by giving small groups of students a brief task, i.e., to produce answers or some product in 10 minutes or less. Students could be given a few questions to discuss (one sheet per table group). Or, they could sort pieces of information into categories prior to a lecture that explains how the component parts fit or relate together. Students might also predict what will happen before seeing a demonstration, reading a passage, or watching a short videoclip. Whatever peer interaction we design, the intention is to get students talking with each other about some aspect of the content. We need to remember to mix up the groupings of students so that they are not always working with the same classmates. Sometimes implementing “Thee” connections meets with resistance. My advice is to keep persisting. Explain the value of what students are being asked to do—i.e., give a clear rationale. If possible, we should frame this reason within our discipline. For example, we could say, “successful business professionals collaborate with others” or “verbalizing or demonstrating understanding is the best way to practice learning Y.” “CC” (Course Content) Connections: Make learning relevant. A major key in helping students connect to course content resides in relevancy. The more relevant the learning is to students, the stronger the connections they will make. There are endless ways to make course content relevant. First, we can be explicit about what our instructional goals or expected outcomes are. I prefer to label these as “learning targets” and display them at the beginning of each class session. Written to give students a focus for their notetaking and participation, specific learning targets can strengthen students’ likelihood of finding relevance when they realize the ultimate purpose. Second, we can link our content to memorable or interesting dimensions of our subject matter. In The Spark of Learning, Cavanagh (2016) makes a strong case for linking emotions to learning. One possibility is to share with students “surprising” aspects of our subject (e.g., the number of school districts in two similarly sized states). I also like to show vintage photographs especially those from the early 1900’s taken on our campus. Most university libraries have digitized early images from school yearbooks (housed in the library’s archives department) which can be particularly engaging for students’ viewing. In addition, present-day connections between news items and course concepts can be meaningfully captivating. We should stay alert for possible current events that link to our disciplinary field and incorporate these into our presentations. A third way to build relevancy within our courses is to promote students’ connections outside the regular class period. I enjoy using Twitter to post insights or observations about my field as well as provide links to interesting information or relevant reports. In addition, I often record 15-minute “lecturettes” using educreations as a tool. This easy-to-use application modifies a mobile device’s screen to a marker board that permits the recording of verbal and visual explanations. More important than any particular technological tool, however, is the variety offered by using several. I have found that students connect more easily with our content when we use different delivery modes. Finally, role-playing and Kahoot! are two “Course Content” connection methods that my students respond to positively. If we can aid students in experiencing a dimension of our subject, they are more likely to identify with it. For instance, I will role-play classroom scenarios as students identify my effective and less effective behaviors.  Additionally, students really enjoy those days we do Kahoot! (go to getkahoot.com to set up a free account and create course-specific learning games). Using their cell phones, students compete by selecting answers to questions about recent content. An excellent device for reviewing content, Kahoot! works well throughout a unit of study as well as before a test. In sum, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind as we work to promote connections in our teaching:
  1. Be intentional in planning how to connect via all three ways. For each lesson, think about incorporating and strengthening the “Me,” “Thee,” and “CC” connections.
  2. Base the selection of a specific connection strategy upon an identified purpose or goal. What are we trying to achieve? Is there an appropriate match between this learning goal and the planned strategy?
  3. Available resources could be a factor when deciding on a connection tool. Do we have the needed materials, technology, space, etc.? If not, how could we obtain them?
Having examined and reflected upon these ideas, we may notice that one type of connection needs more attention than the others. Even if we’re committed to and making these connections, there’s always room for improvement and reasons for doing so. When it comes to learning, connections can make all the difference. References Cavanagh, S. (2016). The spark of learning. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press. Maxwell, J. (2010). Everyone communicates, few connect. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books. Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Patty Phelps is a professor at the University of Central Arkansas, College of Education.