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Students Talk About What Makes School 'My Place'

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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

 

A few years ago, I asked a group of students in a new and uncertain environment -- a New York City public middle school -- to tell me what might have led them to think of their school as "my place."

I was after some firsthand insight on what engenders the sense of belonging in a learning community -- which many researchers consider the sine qua non for all kinds of desirable personal and academic behaviors.

First, the students told me their "not belonging" stories. Some were classic middle-school nightmares. A boy remembered a rainy day when "some ignorant 8th graders came over, hit me, [and] tried taking away my umbrella." A girl spoke of her shame in gym class, when she confused the rules of the game.

Others were nightmares that can recur through graduate school. "In the beginning of the year I didn't raise my hand or anything," said one girl. "That voice always comes into my head: Will I be able to do the work? . . . What happens if I get something wrong? I'm scared if I get one question wrong that everyone's gonna laugh at me and that for some reason he's gonna lower my grade 'cause I don't understand."

And then they told me what turned the emotional tide.

"The teachers [here] will not give you a zero and they will not fail you, because they want to see you succeed," said a seventh grader. "They really make sure that you're doing the work and understanding the work, so you do much better than you were in the past."

Another student said she had never volunteered an opinion in class, "because that was never important at my old school." When she first tried it, the teacher's response shocked her: "I didn't add enough of my opinion!" Realizing that "they care what I think," she said, helped her learn "to be more open with my opinions and my thoughts of different things."

 

 

 

Safety 'with the knowledge of others'

"My teachers would trust me to be the captain" in group work, ventured a boy with a retiring manner. "I'd have to help my group figure out what to do . . . not push them too hard, like being pushy, but actually helping them as well. So that made me feel more responsible for what I had to do. Because that's what leaders do--they help when other people can't do what they have to do."

The same girl who had at first been afraid to raise her hand in class recalled her favorite class assignment: "to type up an essay, like your own personal draft of what you think this school is like. And I did that. I felt, like, important in this school, not just another student. And that made me feel very happy."

And the boy who survived the attack of the umbrella bandits waxed philosophical one year later.

"The teachers and the students, they really do make you feel like it's home. Everyone has a voice in my school . . . if we wanted to open our mind and do something, we can. The more you know, the better it is. And that's how you create safety. With the knowledge of others."

He summed up the academic effects of that social and emotional groundwork: "It made me feel like I could do so much more now. And I belonged here. This is my place."

In my next post--through the words of older adolescents--we'll hear about other structures and practices that support that crucial sense of belonging in school.

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