Do we really know them?
Suzanne Simard is a granddaughter of a forest logger and is now a researcher who investigates the underground world of forests in Canada. She discovered that some kinds of trees, such as fir and birch, exchange carbon dioxide, along with other substances and even defense signals, with other kinds of trees, underground through their roots. Two-way communication between trees of distinct kinds is going on, and there are fungi that keep the trees connected and make them strong. Actually, there are belowground networks of trees, plants, and fungi that sustain the forests, their entire habitat. All we tend to know about a forest is what we see happening above the surface, but the lives of living organisms in the forests are more complex, collaborative, and interdependent than we think they are. Cooperation among inhabitants, not competition, matters.
Simard’s TED talk on trees and forests made me think: What about our classrooms? Are we operating in an environment like that too, where underground connection and sharing add to the health and success of our classes? I think we are. When I contributed an article to the September 2020 Think Tank issue, Tapping into the Social Brain to Tackle Classroom Incivility: Emotional and Social Intelligence, I referred to Cozolino’s (2013) idea of tribal classrooms, where supportive relationships, like in ancient tribal communities, stimulate positive emotions and promote learning. I wrote that emotionally and socially intelligent students who prioritize their peers’ wellbeing are indispensable to these environments. However, I have to admit that I was judgmental. Some of our students in classrooms are more hard-working than others. While some are talkative and friendly, some others are loners. We tend to judge them by observing their behavior in class. Based on what we see, hear, and feel in class, i.e., what is observable above the surface, we categorize students into, say, one group of motivated, hard-working learners and another group of lazy ones who often come to class without doing homework. We cannot stop being judgmental and building up knowledge or biases about our students, but do we really assume we know them well enough when there is so much that we do not know about their lives outside of class?
Just like what is happening below the forest floor, students also live rich lives outside of class and outside of school. To establish a tribal classroom, we must take up an interest in knowing what our students are like. Of course, we cannot know everything about their private lives, and we don’t need to do so, but we can take more interest in who they are. I have started to listen more to what they say rather than how they say it in English and to read more of what they write than how they write it. In their speech and writing, there exist a lot of clues, or information, about themselves, such as food they like, kinds of friends they appreciate, and types of entertainment they enjoy. And there is so much more under the earth that I cannot see that I wish I could. What are they passionate about? How do they fare in the complex world of friendships and social relationships? Just being curious about my students as tribal members and showing genuine interest in their lives has made a difference in how I approach teaching. The clues are my fungi! They help sustain classroom ecosystems.
Harumi Kimura (EdD.) is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She thinks that her mission is “to make learning another language less intimidating and a bit more rewarding.”