The Power of Habit

So much of the building of any community — a classroom group, a family, a project at work, a relationship with neighbors — is about creating routines, rituals, habits. In my neighborhood, for example, when we moved in some 16 years ago, we were gently informed that arranging to have the mail stopped at the post office while we were away would be a change in routine for our block. It would, in fact, disrupt the routine. The people on our block had developed the habit of asking one another to collect mail, water flowers, take trash cans to or from the curb, and other small tasks, while they were away. By asking for that, the expectation was established that you would also return the favor. In that way, we all not only saved a little money, we established the habit of looking out for one another — noticing who was away when and  keeping an eye on each other’s homes and yards. Over the years this routine has shifted in some ways on our block. For example, many of the children on the block, who were very young sixteen years ago, grew older and started to take on some pieces of those jobs, especially pet responsibilities and more extensive house sitting. These are ideal “first jobs,” and because we had already gotten to know each other as neighbors through this routine, was an easy extension to make.

Our group has been busy establishing many kinds of routines, rituals, and habits as well. And we, too, will extend and adjust as our time together continues and as we build relationship. Below are a few specific examples:

Balanced Response – Each child made a cover for their portfolio, the large binder which by the end of the year will contain a curated collection of work and activities from the year. (Examples of important family and personal events and activities are welcome as well.) The covers were made using Google Slides and included images (and in some cases, a few words) that each child chose to tell the story of who they* are are at this moment in time — interests, favorite things, etc. We intentionally gave few parameters, so that each child would be fully in charge of their introduction to the group. This slide was printed in full color and will be the front cover of the portfolio. Since they were made using Google Slide, they were also the visual aid for each child’s first public speaking activity in the group this year — a personal introduction. The speaker sat down for this presentation so that the focus could be less on physical composure and more on verbal performance (speaking loudly enough, slowly enough, clearly enough, and using few — if any — “filler” words). Veterans to the group (the sixth graders) displayed their growth in these areas magnificently! Ask to see your child’s slide. They can pull it up on any computer.

We still have two more presentations to go this week. We also took the opportunity during Navid’s presentation to ask him lots of questions, since he is newer to the school. This felt like a great time for such questions, having had more than a week to begin our acquaintance in more informal ways.

The habit we focused on at the end of each speaker’s introduction was a major reason for the activity. The audience was asked to observe what went well for each speaker — regarding speaking skills, and design and content of the slide — and also to think about suggestions for improvement or further development. A balanced response. In this instance, the feedback was offered verbally, children and adults offering substantial and specific compliments and, once we remembered to remind ourselves to shift from criticism to suggestions, offering concrete tips and advice for future presentations. Some children who had not yet presented, having heard the suggestions others were receiving, returned to their own slides and made adjustments. We use this routine frequently. We use it for thinking about our own work, ideas, and actions, as well as that of other people.

Responsibility and Accountability – This habit takes so many forms. Here are a few:

  • We created a job chart and we rotate those jobs every week. Ask your child on Monday evenings where they are on the chart and what that job entails. If you hear hesitance or uncertainty, encourage them to ask questions when they come back to school.
  • Assignment books are now being placed in mailboxes on arrival each morning — signed by a parent, with the previous day’s reading recorded, and accompanied by any work that might be due. How is the establishment of a homework routine at home coming? Does your child pack the backpack in the evening? In the morning? Are there consistent locations for materials and a consistent routine for discussing homework and signing the assignment book?
  • We now have “pizza sale teams” established. The children have already created tally sheets by entering the names of all students and teachers in their assigned groups in a Google Sheets document. This week we will be tallying orders, striving to fill them accurately, and establishing the routines for converting our room into Pizza Sale Central for a while on Friday, just before lunch time.
  • We have established the physical boundaries of our campus (which are a significant extension for fifth graders in the group) as well as the time boundaries around choice for which every individual is responsible without the aid of classroom”callers” and are developing richer and deeper understandings of what physical boundaries and emotional boundaries we observe and how they keep all of us safe. I am certain your child can speak to these boundaries already. Continuing to understand and observe them more fully is a central piece of our work together from September through June.

*[Ed.: The use of the singular “they” — now part of the style guides for the country’s major newspapers — is being used in this blog and will be explained to the group over the course of the year as well.]