Tuesday, March 21, 2017

You Can Call Me Al

If you're familiar with '80s music, the title of this post likely sounds familiar. It is the title of a Paul Simon song, whose meaning is briefly described here: 

In the documentary Under African Skies, Simon explained: "'You Can Call Me Al' is really the story of somebody like me, who goes to Africa with no idea and ends up having an extraordinary spiritual experience."

Over the last few weeks, I've had the pleasure and the privilege of engaging with students in three schools outside of our district. I interviewed students at Detroit Country Day School and Orchard View Middle School around student voice, and I spent an hour with students at Novi High School in their AP Seminar class to learn what this new class looks and sounds like. 

Like the song character, I went into these three experiences with little to no idea of what I would experience, and wound up having an extraordinary experience in each. Moreover, I approached each setting with something I've been very purposeful with in the last 7 or 8 months -- introducing myself to students by my first name -- "you can call me Judy," so to speak.

It started when I visited a secondary school in Australia. I found myself introducing myself to the adults I was meeting, and then it came to a student. My self-talk in my head went something like this: "You're here to learn about student voice. They don't know you. Make a connection!!!" So, I fumbled with something like, "hi, I'm Judy Walton from the U.S.," as I shook each person's hand. Eloquent? No. Sufficient? Yes. And extraordinary experiences ensued.

Then, I did the same thing with students at Forest Hills Northern High School when we embarked on our student voice project. And extraordinary experiences ensued.

My intent is simple: to level the playing field. A title, such as Ms. or Dr., is only one measure of respect. We have a lot of hierarchy in education, and I believe it can sometimes get it in the way of conversations, authenticity, and innovation. My unscientific research leads me to believe, or at least sense, that interactions with students are more relaxed and free-flowing when we call each other by first names. Never once have I felt disrespected.

In meeting the 30 or so students from the three school visits over the last few weeks, I found the same thing. It really seemed to put students at ease, especially when I was this stranger who was spending time with them and trying to learn from them. It was not the only condition conducive to learning, but it certainly helped.

I will note that it's not easy for some students to take to. It goes against everything they know in school. Some students prefer to use a title and last name, which is also fine by me. I offer the option of being on a first-name basis, and they make a choice.

I also know this is not something every teacher feels comfortable with, and many teachers successfully create a great learning environment without it. It's just one idea to consider.

Join the conversation...
What is your opinion? How do you create conducive environments in your learning space?

P.S. For any of you who want to look, listen, and have an ear worm for the rest of the day, here you go:

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