“Kids aren’t going to be able to take risks and push themselves academically, without having a trusting support network there,” said Lindsay Maglio, principal of Lindbergh Elementary School, where some teachers improved on traditional get-to-know-you exercises in the first few weeks of school by adding more searching questions, and where all school staff are engaged in community-building lessons in small-group sessions with students taking place at set periods throughout the year.
While noting that getting to know their students is already “something we do feel strongly about,” fourth-grade teacher Beth Callies, now in her 11th year at Lindbergh, said she saw value in a districtwide strategy emphasizing it. “It’s a good push to remind us,” Callies said.
Beyond asking her students to describe themselves through traditional questions such as choosing what animal or what TV show they would like to be, and where they would like to take a vacation and why, Duernberger also invited them to free-associate this year by responding to the line: “I wish my teacher knew this about me.”
The students’ answers, which they also read to each other in a follow-up exercise, were as varied as their life stories. Students said they liked to go camping, had two brothers, worked hard, could read-upside down, and had two dogs at home before mom gave one away.
Teachers have been encouraged to mine a book by educator Zaretta Hammond known as “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” for new techniques and deeper understanding of the issue. At Lindbergh, Maglio built time into the school day for all staff to meet once a week for 40 minutes with students in small groups “to build community and work on trust,” with possible lessons on topics such as resolving conflicts or bullying.
“It’s really based off the issues that kids are having, so there’s not a set structure (for the weekly sessions),” Maglio said. “We just need to think about being more purposeful in how we plan for all our students. It might be working for 80 percent of students, but we need to think more about the ones we may be struggling to reach.”