The ABCs of Middle Level Education

18 May 2017

Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School

Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School

By: Dru Tomlin

Homework vs. no homework. Soft skills vs. hard skills. Chunky vs. smooth peanut butter. BYOD vs. low tech. Axe body spray vs. breathing normally. Ugh. I typically avoid writing or speaking about binary relationships because nothing is ever that simple. Especially not in the critical middle grades. Young adolescents and their ever-shifting nature force us to see the subtle, often contradictory shades of life. And while that can be frustrating at times (especially for people who want fast decisions), I think it's pretty cool. Life should be about thoughtfulness and exploration. So here's the binary relationship that I would like to discuss on today's ABCs blog with two letter M words: Major vs. Minor. These terms appeal to me from an interdisciplinary perspective—but specifically with language arts. How? And how do they relate to middle level education?

As a former (and forever) language arts teacher, I think about school as a grand narrative, a story with so much hope and possibility. And like any story, it has a clear setting, plot lines, conflicts, resolutions, themes, and, of course, characters. Both major and minor. And we like to think that every student and staff member feels like a major character in the story of school—as a valued, contributing person in the narrative. Major characters are vital to the success of a story and to the growth of a positive culture. They get things done and for the best reasons. Unfortunately, that isn't always the case. Some staff members come to school, and they feel like minor characters in the story of school. They've lost their fire. They've lost their passion. They're going through the motions. Perhaps they're even counting down the days and checking out completely. And similarly, some students come to school feeling and acting like minor characters in the story of school. They've lost their spark. They're disconnecting from the class and community. They're almost devoid of emotion. Or perhaps, they're starting to fight back against the story of school just so they can feel involved and noticed. When both staff members and students feel like minor characters, you can feel it in the culture and community of the school. So how do we support staff and students who've adopted the minor-character mindset and help them feel like empowered, valued major characters in the story of school? Here are some suggestions:

1. Use movement, proximity, empathy, and listening skills. In other words, go to those staff members and students, ask them caring questions, and then genuinely listen. Yes, sometimes people just want to be left alone, and I get that completely. However, when solitary reflection/mindfulness turns into pervasive isolation/loneliness, it's not helpful. And if they don't open up like a conversational flower at first, don't judge and give up. Empathize and stick with it. We've all adopted the minor-character mindset before, and it can be hard to get out of it.

2. Ask them for help. Sometimes, all it takes to reignite a fire is one simple spark. In other words, when people feel like minor characters with no relevance or impact, they need to be reminded that they do matter and that they can help—with a short, positive task that gives them micro-success. And then you can build on that, like you would with an ember. If you suddenly push them onto a huge committee or give them a colossal project to do, it may compound their minor-character mindset because they may feel overwhelmed or alone in a crowd. And with students in particular, give them a job or a role in your class—and make it casual. You don't need to tell the world, "Johnny's my helper today!" Make it like a cool, secret agreement that is just for them and that really helps you out. Act like handing out papers is the best thing since sliced bread ("Man, I don't know what I'd do if you weren't here to help me pass out those papers! Thanks!!"). Get excited, be authentic, and start small to change their self-efficacy and sense of agency.

3. Notice the small stuff. When you see that disconnecting staff member or student in the hallway, in the mailroom, in the classroom, wherever, say something. Do something. Wave. Smile. Fist-bump. High-five. Compliment their shoes. Whatever it takes. As someone who drifts in and out of disconnection and discontent, I can tell you firsthand that those simple gestures matter. They pull people out of their inward spiral and remind them that someone cares enough to say, ask, or do something.

4. Develop a team approach. In order to help someone feel like a major character in the story of school, you can't and shouldn't do it alone. Fortunately, middle schools are hooked up for this kind of interdisciplinary teaming work. When you meet together as an ID team, talk about the kids who seem disconnected and figure out ways to reconnect them. Find team-based ways to get those students involved little by little. And at this time of year—as you are discussing transition from one grade to the next—be sure to talk to next year's grade level about the kids who have adopted the minor-character mindset and how they can continue to work with them. And with staff members, you can do the same thing as a team. If someone is starting to check out, talk about what's going on and how the team can reconnect with them and rekindle their fire before they burn out.

5. Collect and act on data. Yes, the D word (Data) has relevance with students and staff members who are feeling like minor characters. Because someone doesn't just wake up one day and think, "Oh boy! I'm going to disconnect and be a minor character today!" It happens over time. Small negative actions, interactions, and setbacks that happen every day chip away at people—until they start to fade out, power down, give up. Fortunately, that's data we can collect and act on. We can figure out when and how those setbacks are happening (and what kind they are), and see if there are trends we can work with. Are the setbacks academic in nature? What class(es)? Which teacher(s)? Are they social-emotional? Who's involved? Who needs to be involved? And that's just the quantitative (numerical) data. The powerful, empowering data happens when we sit and talk with that student or staff member and collect the qualitative data to find the story behind the number story. And once we have all of that important data in hand, we work collaboratively with the student or staff member to develop a caring, consistent plan of action to help them develop a major-character mindset.

So as you examine the characters in the story of your school, think about what you're doing to help all students and staff members feel like major characters in that grand narrative. It can be as simple as a gesture, a task, or a listening ear. So add the "e" to human and be humane to everyone you serve and to everyone who serves your students.

 

9 comments on article "Major and Minor Characters in the Story of School"

I really enjoyed reading this blog post because, even at the early elementary stage, this metaphor of a major character becoming a minor character is completely applicable. I feel that one of my students is currently feeling like a minor character and these tips are very helpful to me as to what I can do in my classroom to make him feel like the major character he is.

—Sarah
11/5/2017 8:11 PM

This blog was really interesting to read! I like the five suggestions at the end of the blog that help support both the students and the teachers. This is helpful because there are always students that feel like the minor characters and these suggestions will help them boast their confidence in feeling like a major character.

—Zachariah
12/7/2017 2:41 PM

I really enjoyed this blog post because sometimes I think as educators we get so focused on our students and their well-being that we forget about our colleagues becoming burnt out. I had never thought about utilizing the interdisciplinary team to re-spark that passion back in one of the team members. That is such an important idea because having that power could change the entire school climate to a more positive environment for both students and staff.

—Lindsey
12/9/2017 11:02 AM

This was an interesting blog post as I think sometimes, as teachers, we forget that we are a major character in how the school functions. We look to administration, parents and students, but sometimes forget that we are equally as important. This article made me realize that my well-being and the well-being of my colleagues is just as important as the climate of our classrooms starts with us.

—Rebecca
12/9/2017 12:13 PM

I really enjoyed reading this blog! Teachers often forget it is not only our job to teach students, but we should also empower our students to become major characters and build up their confidence in themselves. All five of the points you made are all great reminders of the role a teacher can have on students and other staff members. Thanks to this article, I will now be more aware of how I can help students and staff members feel more like major characters, and less like minor characters!

—Christopher
4/27/2018 3:00 PM

I really enjoyed this blog because I am a Special Education major with a focus in middle grades language arts. I love that the blog centered around relating our schools to a bigger picture with contributing characters. It is so important to show students that they have a purpose and are important pieces/characters in making our schools and futures bright! We must be well-aware as educators and always pay attention to details, whether that be in our lesson plans or if a colleague or student seems off. Thank you for posting this blog and making us aware of what we can do better!

—Natalie
4/28/2018 12:05 AM

Great ideas! The 5 points at the end are very helpful. Students need to see how important they are to the school as a whole!

—Kevin
4/28/2018 10:25 PM

I really enjoyed reading this blog. It is a good reminder that it is okay to care for others, but we also need to care for our own well-being as well. The five points mentioned towards the end of the article is a good reminder of that and very helpful too!

—Amani
4/29/2018 3:54 AM

I really enjoyed this blog as well. I am a beginning teacher and this is very helpful as well as what to look for and how to recognize the "minor characters" in our classroom. And I also liked how you mentioned the "small stuff matters." Many students may not realize the small stuff matters but it is our job as teachers to make that small stuff count.

—Dawn
11/1/2018 3:34 PM

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