Answering the Call: Building Relationships

Turning the emphasis from rules to relationships

By Amber Chandler

Now that the first few weeks of school have passed, I can admit it. I was really nervous that this year just might be the one to bring me to tears. The first few weeks of school always make me a little anxious. I don’t know names, family dynamics, or ability levels. This year, I had a whole other level of stress because I implemented flexible seating. I’ve had a philosophy of differentiation, individualized learning, and supporting the social and emotional needs of my students, but put those gangly, nervous, and excitable teenagers in a bungee chair or sprawled on a bean bag, and I was downright frightened of this room of people who were looking expectantly at me.

Luckily, I had planned my first few days before my nerves set in. The first day required lots of protocols about flexible seating. The second day though, I knew I needed to turn the emphasis from rules to relationships. I used a tower-building activity to help students find their footing in a new environment.

I’ve done a marshmallow tower before with students, but frankly the humidity, marshmallows, and sweaty hands created a mess, and now, with half my quadrants without a table at all, I had to adjust. Turns out, it was an awesome improvement. I first participated in this activity at a session on Project Based Learning at the American Federation of Teachers TEACH annual conference. As I worked with a group of strangers, I was taken with the 21st-century angle that this activity added to the task.

Students have 20 minutes to build the highest freestanding tower made of only pipe cleaners. What was new to this type of activity for me was throwing challenges at each group and seeing how they adapted. They are interrupted with being “short-staffed” (two participants have to sit out for five minutes), having to work in silence for three minutes because of a language barrier, and finally having to work with only one hand when there is a “machinery breakdown.” See the slideshow in my blog about flexible seating. Feel free to use it to build relationships with your students and let me know if you loved it as much as I do.

"Answering the Call: Building Relationships" by Amber Chandler (

Copyright 2017 Amber Chandler. All rights reserved.

Throughout the day I watched students react to the challenges sent their way and scribbled notes on my clipboard, trying to gather some background information on my students based on their behaviors. It was a really engaging activity, but it was also an excellent formative assessment of my students’ soft skills. How well do they work in groups? Who steps up to lead? Who quits? Who doesn’t want to do this activity at all? That information provided me with next steps for coming lessons and conversations.

CASEL (Collaborative of Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) describes relationship building this way:

“The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.”

"Answering the Call: Building Relationships" by Amber Chandler (

Copyright 2017 Amber Chandler. All rights reserved.

This activity allowed me to make observations about my new students, and I already have found that some of my students are amazing with these skills, but others are really struggling. Unfortunately, unless there are deliberate, consistent interventions, the students who don’t do well with communication, social engagement, and teamwork will have a difficult time competing for jobs that will require these skills.

Some teachers–including me years ago–think that activities like this should be relegated to the first days of school. However, students need this type of engagement and “rehearsal” for future opportunities. Will students have to build a tower? Probably not, but they will have to work on projects, as the necessity for collaboration in the face of globalization and automatization looks towards a knowledge based economy. Building relationships with our students and facilitating learning experiences that prepare them for their future is a valuable use of time all year long.

I’d love to hear about relationship building activities that you do throughout the year! Leave a message in the comments.

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified ELA teacher and the author of The Flexible ELA Classroom: Practical Tools for Differentiated Instruction in Grades 4-8.