Relationships: Always More to Learn

Photograph by Jeff Woodward.I teach a class of fourth graders with a span of academic skills, developmental characteristics, and cultural and economic backgrounds. If I had to describe what makes such a diverse class work and learn together productively, I’d start with one word: Relationships.

The relationships we form with each other are the foundation for a strong learning community. People who know and care about each other are more likely to listen to each other with respect, to support each other in taking the risks inherent in learning, and to show compassion when mistakes are made.

I’m lucky to teach at a school where all the teachers invest time and energy in building relationships with and between students. As a result, by the time students reach fourth grade, they’ve been making meaningful connections for several years and many of them know each other quite well.

But there’s always more to learn. One of my challenges as an upper grade teacher is to help students who’ve spent a lot of time together see that everyone is always continuing to grow and change. I want students to move past opinions they may have already formed, and to be open to making new connections.

Making relationships matter

So I’ve made “learning about each other” an explicit focus in fourth grade. I build opportunities for students to share their interests, wonderings, and experiences into our school days. To encourage active listening, this sort of sharing usually concludes with a round or two of “Who Remembers?” in which I invite the group to recall “Who shared that their favorite food is a fruit?” or “How many of us shared about a nonfiction book today?”

I also use games and playful challenges to help students learn about each other. I give them conversation ideas for lunchtime, like talking about something they’re looking forward to this month. Or I tell them that they’re grouped together at lunch because of something they all have in common, and their job is to find out what that commonality is. All through the year we do activities such as Four Corners, Commonalities, and Human Treasure Hunts—sometimes as a way to form groups, sometimes as energizers, and sometimes just for the sake of learning more about each other.

What have we learned so far?

A few weeks into the year, we do an activity that has the students documenting what they’ve learned about each other so far. Each student puts out a sheet of paper on their desk, and everyone walks around adding facts they recall about a classmate to that person’s paper. Our aim is for each paper to have at least five facts. And our challenge, I explain, is to recall things the person has said, rather than writing opinions we’ve formed. We brainstorm a list of topics people have shared about to jog our memories.

As the students walk around adding comments to one another’s sheets, I watch to see whose sheets are filling up more slowly and add to those papers myself, using notes I’ve taken during sharing times. Here are examples of facts we’ve recalled when we’ve done this activity:

  • Haroon was born in Faisalabad, plays soccer, has two cats, loves Minecraft, and reads graphic novels.
  • Jenny loves her grandparents’ cabin, is going to be in a wedding, speaks two languages, loves sushi, and is learning to do a flip.
  • Amin has a dog, loves wrestling, loves building with Legos, wants to read more this year, and has a two-month-old baby brother.

At the end of the activity, we display all students’ sheets around the room, and throughout the year we add to them as we learn even more about each other.

This exercise can be quite powerful for students. Seeing how much their classmates know about them helps children feel significant, and seeing the types of things classmates wrote—sharings heard, not opinions formed—shows children that they’re safe in this classroom. The papers are real evidence that class members have been listening and that they take care of each other. As one student reflected, “I felt happy. At first I was nervous about what people would write, but I kept checking my sheet and it was all things I said.”

Deliberate laying of groundwork

As the year goes on we’ll continue to learn about each other—what we have in common, what makes us each unique—but it’s the deliberate relationship building at the beginning of the year that lays the groundwork for what lies ahead.


Michelle Gill teaches at Garfield Elementary School in Springfield, Virginia. She is a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher. 

Tags: Building Classroom Community, Conversation Skills, Listening Skills

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