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Building better relationships and understanding at OWWMS

February 5, 2019

James Preller speaking at OWWMS.

At Oliver W. Winch Middle School, faculty, staff, teachers and students are working hard to build a community through what they’re learning in class.

With help from the book Bystander by James Preller (who visited OWWMS this fall), and a companion book for teachers Being the Change by Sara Ahmed, students and faculty are learning a new vocabulary and working on their relationships, an area where middle school students often struggle. The term for the concept the school is teaching is “social comprehension,” rather, the ability to understand, listen to one another, understand each other’s needs and then be able to build a respectful community.

“Our work on this topic is about students being better able to understand themselves, understand others, understand the world around them, and react better to each other in school and in relationships throughout their life,” said OWWMS Principal Ray Ruby. “Our goal is to address the root cause of poor relationships and poor social skills, and improve them. By improving those skills we hope to improve overall interaction among peers.”

How is the school doing this work in the classroom?

In Being the Change, Ahmed asserts, “If we want kids to attend to the multiple perspectives around them and listen actively and with empathy, we need to mentor them and show them how.” In the fall, all students in the middle school read Bystander. Through classroom activities, students analyzed the characters and examined their identities. Then students were able to build their own identity webs and share them with classmates, which helped them by providing a visual that helped them understand why their peers may speak or act the way they do.

“This process helped them understand that they have more in common than they realize,” Ruby said. “We’re working to build connections, and an activity like this was one way we could show students that they are often more alike than different.”

Part of student identity web.Seventh-grade ELA teacher Olivia Sutton was amazed to watch students connect as they built their identity webs.

“Creating identity webs was a great way for students to reflect on who they are as individuals while also being able to visually see how they are connected and alike to one another and helped us talk about being accepting of others,” Sutton said. “The key to all of this is having ongoing discussions and talking with students about how to handle social situations and then modeling that behavior.”

Vicki Leroux, who also teaches seventh-grade ELA, agreed. “Social comprehension in the classroom enables each student to gain a honest understanding of themselves as well as those around them; it ultimately allows for self-exploration and growth.”

Staff involvement

By reading the companion book Being the Change and participating in their own discussion groups, teachers are learning strategies to help build social comprehension. Administrators say they hope to expand the conversation about social comprehension to parents as well.

Teachers are now regularly connecting these concepts with community-building “circles,” which is part of the restorative justice philosophy, to help students learn better ways to agree, respectfully disagree, and debate. The root of this idea is that almost any problem can be solved, and even avoided, through effective communication.

Ruby decided to make social comprehension a focus at OWWMS as a way to help improve student relationships by focusing on positive interactions and similarities among peers instead of focusing on what students should or should not be saying. “When you think about the root cause of bullying, it is often simply poor relationship skills,” Ruby said. “Through these activities and classroom discussions, we want to teach students how to build good relationships and work together in a positive way.”

“It has been an amazing process to have ‘open conversations’ about the stressors that middle school students face on a daily basis,” said sixth-grade ELA teacher Tina Hayes. “Using the lessons, the text, and the conversations… this process was a game changer. Students were thinking deeply, problem-solving, making connections, and relating to each other with engagement at the heart of it all.”

Category: District News, Winch MS News