By Barbara Gruener
If I were to ask where happy cows come from, would you answer “California” like my teenaged son and my husband both did? When I inquired about how they know that, their reply was, “from the commercial.” If you watch television at all, you’ve probably seen that advertisement. It’s rather engaging, actually, because the cows are conversing and truly seem content. Since I was raised on a dairy farm in America’s Dairyland, I wonder if California has data to back up that claim. I think that our Wisconsin cows are happy, too. My brother, who still lives on the family farm, actually hired a cow psychologist some years back to advise him on ways to make the cows more comfortable. Happier cows, they figured, would produce more milk. I laughed, really, to think that such a job even existed and again, I have to ask for data. How can someone really support the claim that cows prefer to lie down on a slightly-elevated incline anyway?
I found the data I was looking for last August in an in-flight magazine aboard a Southwest Airlines flight. Not about the sleeping conditions that cows may or may not prefer, but research out of Newcastle University in the U.K. claims that cows who have names like Bessie or Elsie produce 68 more gallons of milk than their numbered, nameless sisters. Researchers studied the working relationship between farmers and dairy cows and found that farmers who gave their animals extra care saw an increased yield in milk production over a 10-month period. Those cows with names responded to the extra attention because, scientists believe, it improved their comfort levels as it lessened their fear of human contact. Turns out that happy cows are more productive cows. Maybe happy cows don’t just come from Calif., but from farms where the farmer purposefully connects with his cattle.
It’s not utterly out of the question, then, to conclude that happy students come from schools where faculty and staff members engage and connect with them, a place where we as educators create a climate in which students feel happy and are, therefore, more productive. Just like the cows reacted positively to being called by name, so our students feel a sense of belonging when we know them personally and understand who they are and what motivates them. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and you’ll remember that belonging is a student’s basic need, the one upon which everything else is built. In the classroom, it’s all about giving students the personal attention that they need to feel safe and ultimately be successful at learning. At Westwood Elementary, it starts every morning with greeting students at the door with a hug or a handshake to welcome them to their classroom and get a read on their emotional barometer. It’s a powerful way to start the day.
Another way to create that climate of caring is to hold class meetings. Whether you follow a scripted meeting like the Responsive Classroom Morning Meeting or simply conduct a sensitivity circle, when students have a chance to connect with one another and share their stories before starting into their academics for the day, it provides as critical a part of their morning as breakfast does for their launch into the day. Students need to be heard; that can happen appropriately in a class meeting or inappropriately in behaviors that aren’t conducive to classroom management. Giving students a platform for sharing their thoughts and feelings empowers them and prepares them for tasks that they’ll take on as the day progresses.
A third and vital key to creating a climate that’s conducive to productivity is giving students voice and choice. This can be done through inquiry learning, project-based learning, and service learning. Find out from students what they’re curious about, what they want to research, what problems they want to solve and weave those interests into curricular areas like reading, writing, and social studies. In the book Kids Make It Better, author Suzy Becker encourages students to take a look at problems in their world and come up with viable solutions. Some of the questions are serious: What would you do to help all of the people who don’t have homes? Others are self-reflective: Are you ever shy? When and Why? Some of the questions are speculative: What would you do for a bad economy? And others simply prompt sharing: What is your good news? But what they all have in common is a sample solution, followed by a lined page for scripting and a blank page for sketching the students’ solution. In the back, there’s an observation log as well as some action plan pages, allowing students to become solution-focused citizens in a creative, open minded, and curious way. When a teacher intentionally steps out of the traditional role and becomes a coach or facilitator, possibilities become realities and productivity skyrockets. What could you change today that would give students an authentic voice and choice in their learning?
Infusing meaningful movement into a student’s day is another great way to connect and increase productivity. Professor and author John Medina wrote all about it in his book Brain Rules. Physical activity, he claims, is cognitive candy. Because exercise boosts brainpower, students simply have to move to maximize their cognition. After reading about how exercise can actually trigger the tiny proteins known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and act like Miracle-Gro for the brain, I started walking the track with the students who requested counseling sessions. Exercise actually aids in executive functioning like concentration, impulse control, foresight, and problem solving. How might more movement impact and motivate your students?
Another way to raise productivity is to allow time for and help foster self-reflection. Teachers can promote critical thinking by asking students questions that do not have one correct answer. Ask them what amazed them about their experience or what they would do differently if they could change one thing. Encourage them to talk about their strengths and areas for growth as they relate to projects they’ve completed. Students will naturally begin to weigh the pros and cons of their answers and develop a greater understanding for why their answer makes sense. They love “thinking” questions. Ask them for their predictions and presumptions, speculations and suspicions, inferences and implications. Take them beyond Bloom and stretch them to reflect on how they can influence, impact, change and grow.
Do happy students come from my school, Westwood Elementary? We think so and we have some data to back up our claim. Our attendance rate consistently hovers at 97.2% and our discipline referrals have decreased by 65% over a five-year period. Teacher retention is high and survey data suggests that Westwood is a warm and welcoming place. 98.6% of our students surveyed agree that their teachers care about them and treat them with respect. Volunteers clock a collective 46.5 hours per day. Test scores on TAKS, our state-mandated assessment, remain Exemplary, the highest rating schools can earn. Do happy students come from your school? Intentionally create a culture of caring, mooooove over and let students take the lead, collaborate to personalize it and make it yours, then watch productivity soar.
Brain Rules by John Medina
Kids Make It Better by Suzy Becker
Responsive Classroom www.responsiveclassroom.org
Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine, August 2010
Barbara Gruener is the school counselor and character coach at Westwood Elementary in Friendswood, Texas, a National School of Character. Barb is a seasoned presenter, offering dynamic sessions on how to improve your school’s character climate. Find her here, at ncyi.org, and contact us to engage her for your next counselor training event!