May 25, 2018
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Engaging with students: it’s elementary, expert says

By Tom Groening, BDN Staff

SEARSPORT, Maine — There’s a simple, maybe even universal, truth about human interaction, educational consultant Charlotte Stetson said Friday, that is especially critical for elementary school teachers to know.

“You come away from some [interactions] feeling built up and smarter, and you come away from some feeling deflated and dumb,” she said. In the early grades, the built-up and smarter outcome is vital, she said.

Stetson, a nationally recognized elementary education expert who has written the book Powerful Interactions, spoke at Searsport Elementary School to K-2 teachers in RSU 20, emphasizing the need for them to have “powerful interactions” with students.

She offered a real-life, anonymous example.

Wandering among the desks, a teacher approached a student who was writing a report on a recent class trip to the zoo. “How are you doing?” she asked.

The child “looks up and smiles, and tells the teacher, ‘I’m writing about the funny thing that happened when we were watching the monkeys.’ ”

The teacher then “glances at his work and comments. ‘I see quite a few spelling mistakes and some missing punctuation. Be sure to fix them before turning it in,’ “ she said. The student’s “smile disappears, he sighs, slumps in his chair and continues working.”

The 40 or so teachers attending the presentation discussed what the teacher intended to achieve, what the child’s experience was in the interaction and, as Stetson put it, “What went wrong.”

The teacher might have laughed with the child at the memory of the zoo visit. She might have complimented his use of descriptive words, or offered a few new ones. Instead, Stetson said, the teacher likely is focusing on curriculum and standards concerns.

“She’s got all this stuff yelling around in her head,” what Stetson called “static,” and is focusing on the mechanics of writing while forgetting about the ideas the child is expressing. Both are important, she said.

It’s not all about boosting self-esteem and making children feel good, Stetson stressed, citing the work of Lev Vygotsky, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta, researchers at the University of Virginia. The thrust of the research, Stetson said, is that there is a “vital connection between interactions and learning,” and that “relationships affect virtually all aspects of children’s development.”

And, from Hamre and Pianta: “The quality of classroom interactions moderates the risk of early school failure.”

Another real-life example was shown in a video clip.

A first-grade teacher in Maryland used to hold out the promise of “choice time,” when students could pick from among several activities, for the end of the day. The kids would behave and work hard for this “carrot,” Stetson explained.

But when the teacher switched choice time to the beginning of the day, she found a different dynamic.

In the video, the teacher lists the various “learning centers” from which the children can choose — a rock area, a building-block area, writing, plants and a food center. The teacher circulates, being sure to squat or bend down to be on the children’s eye level, and inquires about what a child is doing.

To a girl watering plants, the teacher warns her about the force of the water knocking over the fragile seedlings. She then reminds the child of the word for what happens to the water: “What was that word? Absorb! Right.”

Another child using a tracing pattern is asked for another word for the tool. When one student remembers the word “stencil,” another tells the teacher he almost remembered it. “That happens to me all the time,” the teacher says, “the word is on the tip of my tongue.”

If the teacher had sent the children to their choice activities “and went over to work at her desk, we would not have seen what we saw,” Stetson told the RSU 20 teachers. Yet, “A lot of people out in the world looking at that videotape would say, “Well, when is she going to teach?’ “

In fact, Stetson said, the kids are learning, and also “get their agendas addressed right at the start of the day.” The teacher can summon the memory of enjoyable play-learning as needed later in the day to get children back on track as needed.

The personal contact between teacher and student, even if it’s for 15 seconds, pays educational dividends, Stetson said. Effective interaction with students comes when teachers are “present,” as in the moment; work at connecting on a personal level; and look to extend the learning beyond the child’s initial discovery.

The morning-long workshop was part of a teacher in-service day in the district.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced a research group at Harvard University. The correct name is the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

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