by Harmony Button
As we welcome in a new year and welcome our students back into our same old classrooms, we often feel a kind of tension between a desire to refresh and a need to maintain our classroom habits. We all know what this looks like: the middle school students who seem to have forgotten, over the past two weeks, how to raise a hand or sit in a chair; the upper schooler who acts surprised that an assignment that was due before break will actually be marked late. Student re-enter the school paradigm and it takes them a minute to readjust to the established world order.
There is, however, a certain kind of energy to these first days back from break that can be quite exciting. Whatever the status quo might have been before break, it feels as if you have a window of opportunity in which you could shake it up: maybe now, that one student might start keeping a planner, or that other one might resolve to stop chatting in class.
It is with a healthy degree of salt that I offer this email about lists and resolutions, because we know that it only takes a day or two (or sometimes, a matter of hours) for that squeaky-new feeling to wear off. But if you’re interested in taking advantage of this window to encourage your students to change some of their ways, here are a few suggestions.
List making is most often used as a way of declaring priorities — an end result of the thought process — but it can also be an incredibly useful tool for generating ideas. Asking students to make lists requires them to exhaust the old, tired, trite answers before they begin to dig up productive material. If you ask a student to list three ways that they want to improve their learning in the new year, they are likely to give you generic answers such as “study harder” or “stay organized.” These are functionally useless resolutions because they don’t address the situations or habits that might lead to these outcomes.
If you ask a student to continue listing, however, they run out of big-picture generalities and eventually get into what they think of as “lesser” answers, such as “always hold a pen during class” or “put my cell phone in another room when I’m doing math.” These are actually the kinds of resolutions that have a fighting chance of surviving in the real world, because they end up subtly changing the situation in which a student works.
As it turns out, our intentions (how we want to act) are incredibly weak in the face of situational habits. We are trained by our contexts, more than our intentions: once we re-enter a familiar situation, it is incredibly difficult to shift habitual behaviors inside that context. The good news is, it doesn’t take all that much to trick your mind into seeing the situation as different, in some way: this is why smokers chew gum when they leave the car and walk through the parking lot (a place where they usually smoke), or dieters eat with their non-dominant hand. For more information on situational habits, addition, and maintaining resolutions, check out this fantastic piece on NPR: What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits.
Resolution making and self reflection are not really effective when they are practiced as a one-time event. Think about asking students to write a series of lists, with increasingly focused topics. Focus on goals that are action or situation based, instead of driven by intention or desire. You can spread your list-making prompts over a few days, or dedicate a few minutes a week. Encourage students to pick a few manageable goals, and to keep them in mind throughout the day. Begin a class by asking students to pair-share one of their goals. End a class by asking students to reflect on how one of their goals influenced their class experience that day. Have a discussion on how goal-setting translates between classes: are their goals class-specific? How so? Have their been unexpected effects on their other classes? Pause mid-class to remind students to recall their goals (pick up the pen to take more notes, make more eye-contact, etc). Create a Canvas assignment to ask students to share their goals, and to discuss why they have picked those particular goals. Ask them to identify situations that trigger the old habits: does the hallway outside of the dance room have too many memories of chatting with friends, so it is hard to focus on work there? Do they try to read in bed (and fall asleep)? Identifying the habits that are associated with their particular situations will help students to think of alternatives, or ways of altering those situations significantly enough to give a new habit a fighting chance of taking hold.
As teachers, we know this, intuitively — this is why we swap up the seating chart, or rearrange the furniture. We do what we can to create a sense of a situation being “new” — but then, we have to make sure that the changes in habit are positive ones. New is not always better… but if you need to lay the groundwork for a change in atmosphere or habit, a change in the feeling of a space can lead to a shift in how people behave inside of it.
List making and goal setting are habits of productive people, but they end up feeling trite or ineffective when we just go through the motions. We need to see list making as the beginning of a longer process: refining, rehearsing, and reflecting on those lists is actually the work that ends up paying off. Making lists is an act of brainstorming, and not everything on the list can or should be a lasting goal. Sometimes, the list is just the vehicle for change: a small shift in situation creates a new opportunity for a student (or, gosh, teachers) to develop new habits and practices. We can’t berate ourselves for reverting back to established behaviors if we don’t make the effort to alter the situations in which those behaviors were learned.