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Dec 04

Guest Post: Getting the Message

Posted by Valentine Burr in Fair Is Not Equal on Dec 04, 2012

This post comes to you from Bank Street graduate student and guest blogger, Kenzie Chin.

In my class of 27 third grade girls, it sometimes seems as though the feeling of the day depends on what social fever is currently striking the class. On days when social conflict peaks, students are constantly approaching my cooperating teacher and me with complaints about cliques, eye rolling, and tricky friendship triangles. Like all teachers, we acknowledge the challenge of learning to negotiate relationships, and when necessary, we are happy to step in and help scaffold this process.

But when my cooperating teacher realized that it was the same group of girls who approach us again and again: the ones with the combination of being the most vocal and the most prone to social conflict, she also realized that the students who were less outspoken were not getting the kind and quality of attention they deserved. She wanted a better monitor for the social and emotional health of our students than our most outspoken and most dramatic conflicts.

My cooperating teacher, inspired by others around the school, decided to start a message box—a line of direct communication between students and teachers that did not require students to discuss their feelings aloud. The advantages of the message box are two-fold. First, the less vocal students in the class are able to share their thoughts, not needing to discuss what might be an embarrassing issue aloud and in front of peers. Second, more socially sensitive students are able to report social issues while avoiding the escalation of conflict that sometimes happens when students “tattle” on one another.

Students are welcome to put anything in our message box: along with reporting a social problem, they’re also welcome to tell us jokes, tell us if they feel especially good about something, or discuss academic issues. Allowing all types of messages, from silly to serious, takes pressure off of the act of writing a message. Students do not feel as though they need to have a problem of a certain scale in order to qualify it as a valid message.

On the first day that the message box was introduced, among the jokes and nonsensical ramblings we found in the box (sometimes the mere act of writing a message is fun), two students immediately reported feeling left out. These two students are both children who tend to be withdrawn and mild-mannered, and who had never expressed to my cooperating teacher or me that they had felt excluded. Giving these students an alternative outlet to express their needs allowed my cooperating teacher and me to address these issues head on.

We immediately emailed their parents with lists of classmates that the two students were interested in so that they could schedule one-on-one play dates. We established peer mentorships and decided that these students would always be paired with a strong, socially open student mentor. We are now able to observe them more carefully and ensure that we are doing all that we can to scaffold their ability to build healthy relationships with peers. Without the message box, these issues would have lingered, unnoticed, and the students would have been experiencing social and emotional hardship longer than was necessary simply because they had no way to tell us what was going on.

The danger of the message box is that if a student reports an issue and we, as teachers, drop the ball and fail to address it, it sends a clear message that the issue is unimportant to us. If a student goes through the trouble of advocating for herself by writing down her problem in words and waiting for a response, those responsible for responding had better demonstrate to that student that her thoughts and feelings are valuable and worthy of response, lest we teach her that her self-advocacy is not worth the effort and the risk.

tagged message box, social conflict, strategies, third grade
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