The last post introduced the idea of “Synergy” that the Deer Park Middle School Voices class organized in the school cafeteria. The Synergy day was where students sat next to unfamiliar peers to have a conversation.
After the cafeteria based “Synergy” lunch and the survey that followed, the DPMS Voices students determined that our middle-schoolers needed more practice having conversations. So we decided to have mini Synergy lessons in each Flex classroom.
A flex classroom is similar to other schools “homeroom” class. We work hard to make sure the classrooms don't have more than 20 students in them. This allows all of the classroom teachers have an opportunity to build relationships outside of teaching their content.
During this short class time, students are encouraged to work on executive function skills. This is a good time to organize your binder, check on your grades, finish up your homework and make goals. School wide, every checks their grades on Monday, get classwork support on Tuesdays and Thursdays and has community building time on Friday. Wednesdays are carved out for Voices students to give a lesson directed towards social-emotional learning.
In the smaller class setting the “Synergy” conversations, were better received. We kept the same questions and encouraged each classmate to be prepared to introduce their peer. Since the students had all been in class together for half of a year we were surprised how many students were really uncomfortable having conversations with new people. They sit in the same room every single day with these other classmates but they've never had a conversation with them?
We found that the students went very quickly through the questions and didn't have a lot to talk about afterward. While the students expressed that they liked learning more about their classmates they were somewhat uncomfortable talking about themselves. They asked the questions quickly and answered them faster that that.
Honestly, as can be expected in a middle school classroom, there were a handful of resistant participants. But that was not a problem for the voices students because we knew that we were going to continue having a monthly Synergy lesson and people would begin to get used to these conversations.
The next month's energy lesson we focused on teaching students how to listen in order to be able to ask follow-up questions. one of the Voices students even created a competition to give a reward to the partners who asked the most follow-up questions.
While developing the follow-up question lessons the Voices students learned the power of follow-ups. Follow-up questions have amazing power for both students who talk a lot and for those who prefer to be quiet.
Quiet people are often concerned about getting into conversations with other people for a variety of fears. But asking follow-up questions allows the quiet person to get the other person to talk more about him or herself. This reduces the pressure for the quiet person to share or talk. This also has an unexpected effect. The more a person talks about him or herself the more they attribute good feelings towards the person who asked the question. I have often watched my shy husband, Rob, ask questions to keep a conversation going. Right when the speaker is winding down an answer to a previous question Rob asks another one. He even asks questions he already knows the answer to. As a result, the other person in the conversation usually walks away thinking how great a guy Rob is! Rob didn’t even have to share a single thing, but show interest.
Follow-up questions are also a powerful tool for people who love to talk. A person who loves to talk often has a difficult time building relationships because they do not learn a lot about the other person. Often a person who loves to talk is trying very hard to make sure their audience understands more about the talker. So if you teach a “talker” how to ask follow-up questions you are immediately empowering them to keep their mouth closed and listen. Because in order to ask a quality follow-up question you have to listen to the answer. This does not work the first time, it takes a lot of practice.
The Voices students worked hard to ensure that we had a fresh Synergy lesson each month. We started off in the Flex classrooms to build the skill. Then we partnered Flex
classrooms together so the students would have new people to learn about.
The biggest complaint students have is they thought they wanted to ask different questions. So we gave students the opportunity to generate new questions to ask. But we gave them parameters. They had to be questions you could ask almost anybody in our geographical region. The questions needed to be non-invasive. they needed to encourage more than a two-word answer. They needed to be fair questions to ask an athlete or a gamer. and they couldn't be too personal. In the end, students decided to stick with the questions we offered.
Over the months of practice, students became more comfortable with the conversations. Because having conversations is somewhat uncomfortable these were not the student's favorite lessons. But we think they were the most impactful.