Sunday, December 16, 2012

Connected > Disconnected

Readers: we have the privilege to read another guest blog from my good friend, Ryan Jackson (@RyanBJackson1) - a high school teacher of journalism at an urban high school in Nashville, TN.






Although arguably different in terms of specific outputs and contributions to society, all of these groups share an indelible, human-hardwiring characteristic that simply cannot be denied: belonging.  

There is simply no escaping the fact that human beings need to belong. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow created, in this researcher’s opinion, one of the most recognized and respected hierarchies in history. Maslow’s 1943 paper, A Theory of Human Motivation, detailed a step-ladder of needs humans must meet before realizing their true potential, or what Maslow coined “self-actualization.” Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been criticized for being empirically light, yet few dare contest that our needs, as humans, most definitely must be met. This argument becomes invariably real in just a matter of scenarios. For example, ask a homeless person who is desperately seeking food and shelter what his or her concerns are for the day. Or, ask a foster child in need of a loving, caring family how things are going. Maybe the example does not have to be as drastic as the former two: Take, for instance, your typical middle-class, middle-aged employee, that person who dutifully and consistently does their job to the best of their ability, under a gambit of circumstances, with absolutely no complaints -- Maslow’s hierarchy applies to them, too. Self-esteem, achievement, respect by others, these are imperative needs humans must attain to successfully reach the next rung. 

However, whether you are a Maslow believer or detractor, the simple biological and socio-emotional fact remains: Humans, unlike all other mammals, do not have the ability to walk immediately after birth. In fact, most of us do not take those coveted first steps until around 18 months. Therefore, in order for humans to literally survive during this defenseless, all but immobile time of our development, we must belong to someone -- to be cared for by someone. And, thus, our imperative need to belong -- to be connected -- is spawned.  

Now that we have defined humans’ innate need to belong, let’s switch our focus to where young people spend the bulk of their time, school. As a sixth-year teacher (all six of them spent in an inner-city, high poverty high school) I have a little bit of experience with students and their perceived sense of belonging. I have heard it spun different ways: relationships & rapport, or more modern approaches like love & logic, and let’s not forget the granddaddy of them all, school spirit. We can call it what we want, but all these phrases and ideologies suggest the very same thing; students absolutely must perceive themselves as connected to some environment, some entity, in order to move forward. And, herein lies the rub -- left unmet, students will seek out their own group or ideology to belong to. 

Physiologically, humans are made-up of 70% water. Therefore, it is no stretch of the imagination that just like water, the majority of humans will take the path of least resistance. So, left to their own devices students will find a group or ideology that presents itself as low-hanging fruit, easily attainable yet ironically satisfying. By this time, parents, teachers, and counselors, along with the plethora of other authoritative adults, will work tirelessly and reactively to disconnect those students who have found -- on their own -- a place where they perceive themselves as belonging.  

Therein lies the challenge: How do educators effectively make students feel like they belong where they spend the bulk of their time, at school or in the classroom? Can it be as simple as harmoniously and consistently greeting students at the door? Or, do fist-bumps and high-fives, coupled with sincere compliments do the trick? I wish it was this simple. Instead, creating a perceived sense of belonging for a student who walks in the door with pre-conceived notions of animosity, irrelevancy, and fear is a complex logarithm with multiple paths to an unclear solution.  

For the past five years, I have been incorporating a competitive teaching model (CTM) in my classroom in order to help students meet this indispensable need to belong. Essentially, my classes compete against other classes on various common assessments, with the hopes that our classroom environment organically transitions into a team-like environment, where we are only as strong as our weakest link and everyone -- I mean everyone -- equally belongs. I have used this model because in terms of student achievement I have the data to back it up, but the psychologist in me uses this model because I believe it instills in a student a sense of connectivity, a firm albeit temporary grip on this coveted sense of belonging. 

How do you make students feel like they belong?

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