A Witness to the Good

My colleague and friend Devona Dunekack has a Christmas cactus that sits prominently in a window in her living room. The plant thrives in the sunlight coming in through the window and over the days, its leaves turn slowly toward the sun. In fact, after a few weeks, Devona has to turn the plant around because every leaf on the plant turns and almost none of the beauty of the plant is visible inside.

In the classroom, a teacher’s attention affects children very much the way the sunshine affects Devona’s plant. Children adjust their behavior to get the warm sunshine of their teacher’s attention. And if a teacher only attends to students who misbehave, then more and more children will start to misbehave to get that attention. If a teacher is a witness to the good, recognizing students when they are actively engaged in meaningful work or when they treat each other respectfully, for example, more and more students will engage in meaningful work and treat each other respectfully.

In the classroom, we must strive to be witnesses to the good. By this I mean we must be attentive and intentional about noticing all that our students do, not just the misbehavior, and especially when our students are making the best of learning opportunities. And this is not always easy to do.

Winifred Gallagher, in her book about attention, Rapt, describes two types of attention that we may bring to experiences. Bottom-up attention is what we use when we notice something we can’t help noticing. For example, if I catch the scent of fresh-baked cookies, that scent is going to get my attention. I can’t help but notice that sweet aroma. Sometimes what our bottom-up attention notices is pleasant, like the cookies, sometimes unpleasant, like a crying baby. What defines bottom-up attention is that it is something we can’t avoid.

Top-down attention occurs only when we prompt ourselves to look for something we might not otherwise notice. For example, we might be driving and watching for a sign that marks where we need to turn off a highway. If we aren’t vigilant, we might miss our turn, and go out of our way. What defines top-down attention is that we must make an effort to notice what we notice. If we don’t tell ourselves to notice what ever we are looking for, we will miss it.

In the classroom, I believe, students who are off task or misbehaving catch our bottom-up attention. If you are looking at 32 students and one is out of line, so to speak, which student will you notice? Chances are your bottom up attention will notice the student who is out of line. We can’t help but notice those students who blow off the learning. To truly be witnesses to the good, we need to teach ourselves to see all that is going well and not just the aberrations.

If our attention is like sunshine, then we need to make sure that bottom-up attention doesn’t dominate our way of watching our kids. Indeed, we need to make sure we give way more attention to the good than the not so good. Some researchers say 9-1 times as much, others say 5-1, others say 3-1. Whatever numbers we like, the majority of our attention needs to encourage learning. And since we probably do not fully understand how we spend our attention, we can learn a lot by video or audio recording a class and counting how many times we attend to the positive or correct students (individually or as a group) in our class.

One way to do this is to set up a Flip camera, iPhone, or some other digital camera behind us as we teach. Just before the class begins, push record, and while the video won’t capture your face, it will show you how your students respond to you.

After the class, when you watch the video, if you have a seating chart, you can put a plus underneath each student when you are a witness to the good, and a negative when you correct a student. If you give the entire class positive or negative attention, you can write a plus or minus on the side of the chart.

Of course, you could simply keep track of pluses and minuses, or your could record how often you praise boys compared with how often you praise girls, or review whatever other data you think it might be fruitful to notice.

In one school district, we visited over one hundred classes and we found that on average the ratio of interaction was that for each positive statement there were 6 negatives. What would be the impact on learning and classroom and school culture if that ratio was reversed? What if you have a 1-6 ratio in your class? What would be the impact if you turned that around?

What you’ll find, I should warn you, will likely surprise you. The video evidence, however, can’t be denied. By getting a clear picture of what is really happening in the classroom, you can begin some truly powerful personal learning about how you interact with your students–and that could have a powerful impact on how well they learn.

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