“Oh,” I said, “Blake’s favorite weekend activity was riding his bike.” I looked at the socially distanced standing circle around the room and tried to muster engagement with Blake’s share, yet found that I was already gearing up to repeat Sienna’s share. This standing circle was an attempt at replicating circles around the rug and a chance to give our class a sense of community and a place to get to know one another better. But between this distanced scene and muffled voices behind masks, I found that I was continually having to restate a student’s thoughts and sometimes skip over them altogether when I couldn’t make out what was being said. I wasn’t sure how to encourage bigger voices, especially so early in the year.
I pondered the circle situation but also noticed communication needs throughout the day. Students were still learning to make friends and to express emotion. I talked with colleagues having similar struggles and decided I would try a mini-inquiry into communication and see what new understanding my students could uncover and apply to our class.
“What is communication?” I asked the class. Students shared their thoughts about talking, sharing ideas, talking to others. I noted these ideas on sticky notes and asked them to notice how they showed up in some read alouds. I also asked them to look for any ideas that weren’t included.
I collected student answers and put them on the chart, and turned to books to guide our thinking about communication. Many of the books were friendship stories, but I hoped that if we highlighted communication, students might see the different aspects of communication. These books helped us find the importance of listening and to feel empowered to “power up” our communication with each other.
Telephone by Mac Barnett
I started the study with Telephone by Mac Barnett. The story of the birds sending the mother bird’s message “Tell Peter to come home for dinner” along the telephone wire made us laugh at how each bird interprets the message and relays it. Students giggled, and we had fun noticing how communication was going wrong. We checked our list and agreed that although the birds were talking, the communication was not very smooth.
Horrible Bear! by Ame Dyckman
Next we revisited Horrible Bear! by Amy Dyckman. We loved rereading this one and recognizing the communication that did not go well: “horrible bear!” And the communication that worked: “I’m sorry.” We decided that some words and some tones work better than others.
The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld
The Rabbit Listened by Cory Doerrfeld was up next. I was hopeful that by sharing this favorite, students would realize that communicating is not just talking but is listening as well. In fact, listening is just as important as the words that are shared. This conversation also led us to the idea of nonverbal communication and finding it in our classroom and school.
I Walk with Vanessa by Kerascoët
This one is another quiet book since it has no words. Throughout the story we imagined (and wrote) what speech bubbles might be filled with, but the power of this was, again, the quietness . . . the reflection of the main character. Students also recognized that the communication in the book was about being aware, taking action, and the clear communication that comes from working as a team.
The Story of Fish and Snail by Deborah Freedman
The last book I read was another favorite, with two characters who are actually really great at communicating with each other; it’s just that they don’t like what they are hearing. When we paused at a certain point in the book, a student said that the characters needed to compromise, that they each needed to give a little. This powerful new word went on the chart for us to try out in our classroom experiences.
Although I don’t have books of students communicating through masks, or trying to hear each other through the distance between them, we have clearer ideas about communication: that it is not only words, but also listening, working together, and compromising . . . a foundation for a healthy class community.
Creating a Class Board
We finished the study by creating a class board (and maybe eventually these will make up a class book) for students to share their own reflections on communication. Communication is now a commonly used word in our class, and we all have a good understanding of it. I move forward in the year with this group planning to continue to build on this understanding . . . building up their voices and their friendships, knowing that regardless of masks, this study will serve as a solid foundation for social skills and, ideally, raise the level of their voices and engage their ears to hear each other.