Fostering communication and creating connections
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Chapter 13 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians:
“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
And, if the opening of St. Paul’s letter isn’t enough to convince the listener of love’s importance, he makes sure to return to it at the end:
“So faith, hope and love remain, these three. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Most of us have considered these words in the context of romantic love. Some of us might even have had this Scripture read at our own weddings.
But do we stop to consider St. Paul’s words in light of the students we teach?
When we reach out in love by making school a place where our students feel safe and valued, we create an environment where they are free to explore. Creating connections allows us to nurture skills that bloom through interaction and modeling, such as executive function and a facility with language.
Language is a supremely interactive endeavor. Babies are born ready to learn any language we throw at them, mastering the nuances and complexities of verbal communication through exposure to words and sounds in their homes and communities. But while all children are born ready to develop this skill, exposure to language isn’t uniform across households. Studies have pointed to a “word gap,” with economically advantaged children being exposed to literally millions more words than their economically disadvantaged counterparts — before they even enter kindergarten.
To further complicate matters, this openness to language is a capability that decreases with age. By the time these babies become upper-elementary-school students, they’ve honed in on a dominant language, and their ability to acquire new languages has slowed tremendously. While we can’t single-handedly close the word gap, especially for older students, we can create language-rich environments in our classrooms, whether we’re teaching language arts, math, science, or a second language. Coupled with student-teacher and peer-to-peer connections, these language skills can build life skills, as well.
And the good news? We already do many things every day to make this happen. Every time we read, speak, or teach, we supply our students with information about communication skills. Every time we interact in a nurturing way, we model pragmatics and relationship skills. And every time we reach out in love, we send our students the message that our classroom is a safe place to explore all these things.
Here are a few simple ways to stretch these skills.
Build relationships to encourage risk. Greeting students with a smile, asking them about their day, and disciplining instead of punishing all model skills of human interaction. When we get to know our students by talking to them instead of merely at them, we build relationships, creating an environment where exploration and risk — and therefore learning — feel safe. Even simple classroom rhythms and activities we take for granted can provide comfort and predictability, especially for students whose world is unstable, either temporarily due to peer problems or parental issues or on a regular basis due to issues of a more permanent nature.
Read to them. Some of our students will experience the joy of being read to only in our classrooms. In homes where parents work two jobs or battle addiction, depression, or marital issues, bedtime stories fall by the wayside. Even in homes of privilege, this wonderful parent-child time can disappear when parents are busy, preoccupied, or unaware of the benefits children reap when adults read to them.
Older students can benefit, too. When we read aloud, we remove the pressure of lags in comprehension and vocabulary, making complex texts accessible and demonstrating the rhythmic rise and fall of both prose and poetry in a way students struggling to decipher complex texts might not be able to accomplish on their own. Perhaps best of all, we expose our students to worlds they might never have imagined, as well as creating a respite in the middle of a busy, achievement-driven day.
Build literacy. Since spoken language feeds language on the page and vice versa, a deficit in one area can contribute to children falling behind in the other areas, as well. Putting books into the hands of our students, whether print books, e-books, or audiobooks, can bridge this gap (and maybe even the word gap) as well as nurture a love of reading. Classroom lending libraries are a wonderful way to allow children and teens to sample a wide variety of authors and genres. In addition, access to age-appropriate books on a variety of reading levels can bring home the point that with so many books to choose from, there’s a book for every reader.
Make vocabulary visible. Whether it’s a labeled environment and a word wall in a first-grade classroom, a frequently misspelled words poster in a middle-school classroom, or a subject-specific terminology chart in a high-school classroom, providing visible evidence of vocabulary and words in general helps to literally surround students with words, making words a regular part of the students’ environment.
Create constant conversation. Okay, so you don’t want them talking while you’re talking, but you do want a mix of formal and informal conversation to be a part of your classroom climate. Discussions, both formal and informal, allow students to engage in different aspects of language and might even help shy or less socially adept students to improve pragmatics. In addition, class discussions keep students involved while creating an opportunity for them to practice gathering their thoughts before they speak. Informal small-group work and time to chat face-to-face can help students strengthen nuances of communication and, in an age where social media can make nuance seem unnecessary, afford the opportunity to refine the art of polite conversation.
Create a “no wrong answers” environment. Once you’ve got them talking, you don’t want to shut them down. While your class clown might shrug off a humorous or sarcastic response to a wrong answer, such a response might be enough to convince a tentative speaker not to take the risk. You might know that you’d respond differently to different students, but students don’t always know this. Introverts in particular often gather information about the environment by observing interactions; the observations they make can help them decide whether or not it’s safe to speak up.
Make it fun. Sure, we have vocabulary lists to work through, but what about putting students in charge of a “word of the day”? Set a few ground rules (for example, the person sharing the word must be able to pronounce it and spell it, and the contribution has to be school-appropriate), but aim to keep parameters to a minimum, with a goal of encouraging creativity and language exploration. Encourage slang, words in other languages, geographic words, and onomatopoeic words that are simply fun to say. Want to add a little structure?
Make every Wednesday alphabet day: Everyone has to come up with a word that begins with a particular letter of the alphabet. Or challenge students to find rhyming words as part of a poetry lesson. Create twists that connect with curriculum: when you’re discussing setting, have everyone share a setting word for a book they’re reading or a television show they’ve seen. Making language relevant by connecting it to what matters to students and their world helps them understand “why we have to do this,” and who knows? You might get a little peek into their world, as well.
Build related skills, such as executive functioning. Many of the skills we build over the course of a school year transcend academics and provide students with skills they can use across tasks and disciplines. Although maturation plays a big role in improved focus, attention, and memory, strategic listening and focusing help to develop these areas, as well. Teaching simple skills such as repeating directions, writing things down, and making eye contact with the speaker helps children to maximize language capabilities by building connections in the executive function areas of the brain that continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Explicitly teaching metacognition and divergent thinking by asking children to think about which strategies work best for them and offering opportunities to brainstorm creative solutions can strengthen these pathways, as well. Strong focusing, attention, and memory skills can help students make the most of their capabilities.
As teachers, we will have days when it’s all but impossible to “speak in the tongues of angels,” let alone expect our students to do so. But through instruction, modeling, and loving interaction, we can help our students refine their skills so that, in time, they’ll sound less like resounding gongs or clashing cymbals.
And in the process, they’ll learn to look to us for love.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.
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