“I am a survivor of a concentration camp…. My request is: Help your students become human through teaching humanity…. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more humane.”
This is an excerpt from a memo I received in my school mailbox many years ago. It strongly resonated with me because I do believe that developing our students’ humanity should be our ultimate goal in education. But when we are expected to teach so much in terms of content and skills, how do we have time, space or energy for worrying about developing our students’ humanity?
With some of my fourth graders I am doing a new weaving project and I have encountered some challenges. In order to maintain my own sanity, after the first week of this project I had a talk with all the groups of 4th graders. Many teachers have the “ask 3 before me” rule and there is a really good reason for that. My talk ran along those lines. I encouraged students who are experiencing trouble to first take a deep breath and see if they can figure it out themselves. If that doesn’t work, I directed them to ask for help from a classmate who seemed confident in the process.
I also directed students to look around and offer help to anyone who looked stumped. After that little talk, I noticed an energy shift. I noticed that the classes were calmer and more productive and I was able to help many more students. I also observed students being mindful of one another and helping one another.
When I reflected on this, I realized something. Earlier in the year I had introduced Acting Right to these students. One of the theatre games in that behavioral literacy program involves students working together as a team to meet certain challenges. If some groups meet the challenge but others do not, the whole class goes to the “observation deck” to work out what broke down in terms of their cooperation. Often times it is because those groups who met the challenge didn’t look around and make sure the other groups had also met the challenge and/or that students who didn’t make it into a group didn’t advocate for themselves.
How could I have missed that connection? Acting Right helps students develop an awareness of their responsibility as part of a community of learners – that no one wins if we don’t all win together. Encouraging the students who need help to ask for it and encouraging those students who feel confident in the process to offer help to those in need is not just good for my sanity, it empowers the students to be more self-sufficient and it reminds us all that we are a team, that we need to help one another succeed. And when we do that, we are all better for it in the end.
So if you couple your “ask 3 before me” rule with encouraging students to keep an eye out for others who may be struggling, you are helping them develop empathy, a realization that people need one another and the understanding that we have a responsibility to help others when we can. No matter what you teach, you can cover the content and the skills and still help your students become more human.