Connection with Peers
“You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
Brené Brown has written and spoken at length about the importance of the feeling of belonging to all human beings. This sense of belonging is a need as deeply rooted in us as the need for food or shelter. The implications of this research for our work in the classroom suggest that our most important job may be to attend to the sense of community developing within our classrooms. I know that for authors to share ideas, they need to know that the community they are in is open, welcoming, and inclusive. For authors to feel safe to share their ideas, they need to know that this is a place where they belong.
This sense of belonging is something that is essential to Story Workshop, but not exclusive to this time of the day. We’re working to develop a culture of Story Workshop, even when it doesn’t say “Story Workshop” on our schedule. As children arrive, on the playground, during math, at lunch, while they’re reading, at the end of the day – we’re constantly working to foster this sense of belonging. And although our attention is heavily focused through this lens at the beginning of the school year, this focus is not something that goes away. We’ll be working to create a sense of belonging and connection up until the very last day of school.
One way I might foster this sense of belonging in the beginning of the year is by supporting students to find new connections with other students in the class who they don’t yet know well. One structure I’ve used to support this intentional seeking of new connections is called Partner Explore. In Partner Explore, children are intentionally paired with a peer and given an invitation to explore something together. The invitation could be to design or create something together, to explore a new studio material together, to solve some kind of challenge together, or something different.
An invitation to partner up and play with someone who you might not know very well, who you haven’t had a lot of chances to connect with yet, or who you want to get to know better encourages children to seek out new connections and to begin to develop trusting relationships with some of the other members of their community.
In 2017, I began the year working with a group of 20 children named the “Dogwood” community. Out of the 20, six children were together in one classroom last year, nine were together in a different classroom, and five were brand new to the school. There were plenty opportunities for new connections to be made and maybe even some old stories or habits among known peers to be rewritten.
On the third day of school, I invited the children to choose a partner they wanted to connect with, that they hadn’t had a chance to play with yet. My co-teacher and I had shared observations of the ways in which we’d seen children connecting with one another and made notes about a few children who we wanted to be sure to support further to find connections.
Mira, a brand new student to Opal, came to school on the first day nervous about being there. Separation from her mom was difficult on that first morning (and following mornings as well) and Mira showed us her uncertainty and anxiousness by sucking her thumb and crawling into a teacher’s lap. Although we’re happy to support her in whatever ways we can, we know that she’s not going to be able to join in in any meaningful way until she begins to feel safe and that she has connections to her peers.
We decided to let the children know that they would be choosing their partners by considering someone who they hadn’t had a chance to connect with or play with yet that they wanted to know more about. As children were choosing partners, teachers we were mindful about the conditions that would support children to feel seen. We knew we wanted to invite Mira to have the opportunity to feel really successful and we were sure to invite her to choose a partner early on.
As we offered her this invitation though, I realized that she was nervous and not really sure who she could reach out to to feel successful. In the moment, I decided to offer to help her find a connection. Rory had been sitting next to me and had been quietly pointing to Mira and one other girl new to Opal School and asking, “What’s her name? I want to work with her.” So I interrupted Mira’s turn to choose by sharing what I had heard Rory say and asked if Mira would like to join Rory, which was an invitation that she eagerly accepted.
They went to Partner Explore and chose to do some drawing together. They both seemed excited about their new connection and Mira relaxed into this play in what seemed to be a new way. As we came back to our meeting at the end of Partner Explore and asked the children to share something they had discovered about their partner, Rory said, “Before I didn’t even know her name, and now I know it and I know how to spell it! And later in the week, as the group was sharing their noticings about letters and words in a song we were reading together, Mira raised her hand and said, “That word starts with “r” and that’s the same as Rory.”
Based on this experience and these observations I’m wondering:
How might I continue to find and highlight moments like these for Mira as she builds trust within this brand new community? What will support her to ease the transition into school and away from her Mom in the morning? What images can I help her see of the ways she is connecting? How can I find out more about who she is still eager to connect with?
In what other ways can I support all the children to see the ways their peers are reaching out?
What other conditions might I create to get them really curious about one another? How will sharing stories play a role in this?
For reflection, in your journals:
- How are you fostering a sense of connectedness and belonging in your classroom community?
- What does this post inspire you to try in your setting?