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The percentage of U.S. students who graduate from high school has never been higher in our history. But have schools ever been structured, resourced, or intended to educate everybody’s child?
During Jeffrey Benson’s time as a teacher, mentor, and administrator for over 40 years, he worked with neglected, abused, traumatized, and autistic students who struggled with mainstream education. He now focuses on helping schools be more successful with more students through a better understanding of how people learn. In this episode, he and I discuss social-emotional learning and how to use it to improve your lesson planning and boost your students’ engagement for greater success.
2:21 – Jeffrey’s background and the unorthodox way his imagination helped him make lesson plans
7:18 – Exploring the meaningful question from Jeffrey’s webinar that I loved
11:26 – How Jeffrey defines social-emotional learning and its main characteristics
16:06 – So many examples of how Jeffrey would incorporate SEL into an art lesson
29:43 – The value of praising versus redirecting students in class
35:28 – Digging into the idea of positioning yourself as a learner while teaching
38:41 – Advice to help you be more intentional about adding SEL elements into your lesson plans
41:39 – Other simple ways you can intentionally put social-emotional learning at the forefront
45:55 – Jeffrey’s SEl recommendations for teachers
49:07 – The artwork that changed Jeffrey’s perspective on art
- Art Class Curator Curricula at Nasco
- Jeffrey Benson
- Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL by Jeffrey Benson
- Student Voice: The Instrument of Change by Russell Quaglia and Michael J. Corso
- Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain by Zaretta Hammond
- Relationships, Responsibility, and Regulation by Kristin Van Marter Souers and Pete Hall
- Teaching the Whole Teen by Rachel Poliner and Jeffrey Benson
- What We Say and How We Say It Matters by Mike Anderson
Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Cindy Ingram: Hello and welcome to The Art Class Curator Podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator, and The Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delights of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders, and let’s get started.
Hello everybody, welcome to the podcast. I am excited today to welcome another amazing guest interview. Today, I am talking with Jeffrey Benson. Jeffrey Benson is an internationally known author and has worked for over 40 years as a teacher, mentor, and administrator. He has the good fortune of working with wonderful people on school reform, conflict resolution, learning theory, trauma, addiction, advisory programs, math education, staff development, leadership training, and curriculum development. He now coaches principals and teachers, writes about education, speaks at conferences, and all in an effort to upload what he has learned in hopes that others make good use of it. His work now focuses on schools being more successful with more students always rooted in understanding how people learn, which should be the starting point for all that we do in school. Every link that we talk about today will be in our show notes. You can also visit his website at jeffreybenson.org. Today, we are specifically talking about social and emotional learning, and about Jeffrey’s new book, which is called Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL. Without further ado, here is my interview with Jeffrey Benson.
I am so excited to welcome Jeffrey Benson to The Art Class Curator Podcast. Welcome.
Jeffrey Benson: Thank you. Nice to be here.
Cindy Ingram: I recently discovered your book and I also watched a webinar of yours on the ASCD website. I am so excited to have you on to talk about social and emotional learning because that is one of the big things, if not the biggest thing that’s happening in education right now. Before we get started in talking about that, can you tell me and the listeners a little bit more about you, your background, and experiences?
Jeffrey Benson: Sure. For a long time, I was a teacher and administrative principal—in some schools it’s called educational director, and others—of schools in the Boston area for students who weren’t being successful in the mainstream. They had been traumatized, neglected, exploited, abused, they were trans, they were stoned, they were on spectrums, they were off spectrums, they didn’t fit in any way. It was an opportunity for me to learn a lot about the lives kids lead and also to understand the roles schools can play in supporting all sorts of kids, and how to support schools in helping more kids be more successful. Let’s give you an example. What was really helpful for me in my career was that I got to be a teacher for a lot of the years. I was also a school director, which also—I always taught one course—helped me remember how hard teaching is, that I couldn’t say to the staff at a meeting like, “Let’s all do this,” then I would do and I’d be like, “Wow that was hard for me to do in one class. I’m going to try how anyone can do it all day.” It kept me humble. It kept me connected. As all administrators say, the kids are still the best part of being in schools. I don’t want to lose touch with them.
I got this experience of doing lesson plans where I would be thinking about my lessons and I’d imagine that there was like a cartoon devil sitting across the table for me. I would make my lesson plan, then the devil would allure me and say, “Jeffrey, you want to bet me that lesson plan is going to work for every kid?” I’d be like, “Oohh.” I would feel a shiver through my body. I was like, “Why aren’t I betting on this?” I was like, “Oh, because Cindy is going to have a problem at this point, now I know when we do this transition, that’s a hard time for her. Jeffrey is probably not going to be happy at this point unless I attend to this part of that for him,” so I’d have to say, “Okay, I’m not done with this lesson plan.” Because it’s partly an equity issue about who’s the lesson plan for, whose children is the lesson plan written for, isn’t it written for everybody’s child? They were my students, they were my kids.
From that came the notion that what was necessary for certain kids is good for every kid. That I’m not happy that schools are happy that the kids get C- and B+. I’m not happy that teachers ask questions and the same five kids raise their hands all the time. I’m not happy that kids don’t ask questions that aren’t just, “Is this what you want on the test questions?” Our classrooms could be so much more. Part of why I wrote the book was because it’s not a huge leap to get there. My background is going from teaching, learning to finally saying, “How do I help other people do this?” It’s been eight or nine years since I’ve been a principal, writing books, teaching, consulting, and coaching. I’ve been doing that.
Cindy Ingram: That’s amazing. What you were talking about made me think of just a personal example of when I was in high school. I’ve known my husband since we were in high school. We both look back on our high school experiences and we had completely opposite experiences even though we were in the same school. I was encouraged to succeed and I was in all honors classes, straight days, and all this stuff, then he was just barely skating by. I’m like, “How could two kids go through the exact same educational system in the exact same school with the same social economics stat?” It was all the same thing but so drastically different. I love that. I think about his teachers and I’m like, “Well, what were they doing? Why weren’t they reaching him?” Because he’s so smart and he said all this stuff.
Jeffrey Benson: You have to go back to this notion that schools were never structured, resourced, or intended to educate everybody’s child. Never. We’ve never been successful. We graduate more kids now than ever in the history of the country’s percentage of high school. Kids’ graduating time is higher than ever. That’s just through the hard work teachers have done. We’ve learned more about how kids learn, we’ve learned more about diversity and inclusion, but ultimately, we’re still working in a system that isn’t made to be successful for all kids. Too many kids in the class, too many responsibilities as a teacher. My work has been a lot like, “Let’s each of us, get a few more kids over the finish line.” That’s the word. We can do that.
Cindy Ingram: Every teacher gets a few more kids, then multiply that number by the number of teachers.
Jeffrey Benson: Yeah, that’s the idea.
Cindy Ingram: One of the things that you did when I was watching your webinar is you started it by asking this question, “How do you want your students to grow this year?” I love that because I asked a similar one. I asked, “What do you want your kids to remember about art in 20 years?” It just takes you out of the, “Let’s teach about the zigzag line,” and moves you into something greater. Can you speak to why you ask that question and why it’s meaningful to consider?
Jeffrey Benson: Part of my belief is that almost every teacher actually cares about more than just the kids on the test. We all have an implicit social, emotional curriculum for our kids. We want them to ultimately contribute to their communities. We want them to feel good about themselves as learners. We want them to be members of this classroom community in terms of helping each other, listening, and learning from each other. That’s not on the test. That’s just what we all want. The question says, “Let’s take that from an implicit to an explicit place.” In fact, what do I want for my kids at the end of this year? I want them all to know how to talk to their friends in class about learning. If I did that every day the same way I talk about, “Don’t forget to put your name on the top of the paper. Don’t forget to raise your hand before you ask a question. Don’t forget to put your chair in at the end of the classroom,” but what if I said, “Every day, we’re going to talk about how we learn from each other in this class. Let’s remember to do that today”?
Our class becomes that place. We start embedding that into the character of the kids who come into our class every day. We have them for 150, 180 days a year. That’s a lot of time to work on those skills. When we only do it implicitly and randomly, it’s not enough. Some kids get it sometimes but if we say—I have a great phrase—which is “How do we roll around here?” “This is how we roll in this class.” I use that a lot. “It’s how we roll in this class. Remember, in this class, other people do different things but in this class, how we roll is we learn from each other.” That’s why the question is so important, to say we all have it anyhow in us. I don’t think almost any teacher doesn’t care about their kids in that way. Again, the structure hasn’t asked us to do so, hasn’t given us the resources to do so, and hasn’t honored us for doing so.
Cindy Ingram: I was listening to another podcast episode recently about the Presidential Physical Fitness Test and it was talking about how they give this test every year but they don’t actually train the kids in how to do a pull-up, but just once a year, they’ll be like, “Do a pull up.” I think about the way you were saying is if your goal is you want kids to talk about learning but then the rest of the year you don’t do it, you have to have practice in the thing that you’re wanting them to do.
Jeffrey Benson: You’d be asking to think about, “What’s the problem with just having a 15-minute lesson about it for that very reason?” Because it lives everywhere every day in the school, these things. It can’t just be boxed in that space and checked off, and say, “Okay, we talked about this,” it’s actually what we do all the time. By doing it all the time, it’s also easier for us. Great question about, “What do you want to remember 20 years from now?” Almost every adult on the street would fail every high school final. Almost everything after seventh grade is optional in terms of curriculum. I wanted all my students to always thrive and learn stuff but ultimately, we’re actually teaching what’s sometimes called the secondary curriculum, the implicit curriculum, which is we’re teaching them ultimately how to be contributing members to their communities. Do you need to always do that? Do semicolons do that? I’m not sure although I love semicolons but you need to know how to learn, you need to know how to listen, you need to know how to express yourself. It’s what we’re really doing. That doesn’t happen 15 minutes a day. That’s all the time.
Cindy Ingram: Backing up just a little bit is when we’re talking about social and emotional learning, how would you define that and what are the main characteristics of social and emotional learning?
Jeffrey Benson: It’s an interesting thing because—I’m going to talk a little about brain science and what we’ve learned—in the last 30 years, our brain science has been amazing. We still don’t know a lot about what’s going on in our skulls but we know so much more. I always think that at least two professional groups that need to know about brain science are brain surgeons and teachers because we’re both trying to make some changes there. What’s really clear now is that actually, there’s a great quote from a brain scientist neurologist who was originally a high school science teacher, which is why I love her in particular, which is that you actually can’t learn something you don’t care about. There actually has to be a personal, emotional investment to learn something. Each person can find a different personal, emotional investment to get there but you don’t learn it without some investment of you in some fashion. There is actually no separation. The reason that, in some ways, we tolerate C-, B+ is because on some level, you can remember to the test enough stuff to get a C- and B+s on the test. But if I’m going for bigger fish here, fishing for big fish, which is lifelong learning, a lifelong influence on the kids, you don’t get that without bringing their emotional resonance to the class.
The second part about the social part is this is happening in a social setting. School is a social setting. It’s not one-on-one tutorials where you still need to have an emotional component but this is a social setting in which you’re learning. How do we leverage that social setting so that the kids feel more compelled to dive into the work and feel like, “That’s what we do. That’s how we roll around here. Everyone’s chattering, everyone’s doing stuff.” You walk in Cindy’s classroom, it’s busy. It’s active. You can’t just sit around. That’s what happens in that class. Technically really you can’t separate them. What we know is that all the stimulation from the world that ultimately has to get put into your long-term memory through a cognitive part goes through the same apparatus that regulates and monitors your emotions. We get the whole student to walk in the room. We don’t only get their frontal lobe. We get the whole kid. When I go back to thinking about my students and the devil sitting across from me, I would always think that they were land mines, potholes, sinkholes in my lesson plan for kids. I don’t want them to step in on a landmine and that was to be aware of the social and emotional context within which what happens in the classroom and the demand it gets.
Cindy Ingram: I was thinking what we could do is talk through how you add, because your book is, which we don’t think we’ve ever said the name of your book.
Jeffrey Benson: Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL
Cindy Ingram: Oh, I said in the intro. There it is, we did say it. I will say it in the intro that I record later. Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL. I thought we could talk about what are some of the SEL skills you like to focus on and how teachers can embed them into various parts of the lesson. Can you give us an example of a full lesson and how you might add an SEL each step?
Jeffrey Benson: Actually, I wanted to do this with you. You’ve been our teacher. Let’s first talk what’s a typical lesson that might happen in a curriculum. By the way, I want to say through the years of being a director of schools that work with kids who didn’t fit in typical classrooms, our teachers were so integral to the lives of my school. So often, when we would be having a meeting about a kid who might be struggling and the English teacher would talk about how they’re struggling, science would talk about how they’re struggling, and the art teacher goes, “That’s not the kid I see.” “Okay, tell us about the kid you see.” That was so common. There’s something in art classes, oftentimes, when I say, “Get out of the office and enjoy kids.” If they’re elementary school principals, I say, “Go to the kindergarten room, hang out with the kindergarten. You can’t help but smile after that.” In secondary high school, I said, “Go to the art room, hang out with kids there. You’re going to see something else going on there.” Let’s go through a lesson. What’s the lesson we can work with Cindy in an art lesson?
Cindy Ingram: A typical one for me would be just focusing on a work of art. Do you want me to go into detail about which one I’m imagining, or does it matter?
Jeffrey Benson: No.
Cindy Ingram: We talk about it and we then do some engaging activity about it, maybe write a poem about it or do something, then maybe we would sketch it or talk about or lead into some project around it.
Jeffrey Benson: What I want kids to do from doing these activities, I want them to get better. They want to build up their rubric of how to critique a piece of art or I want them to know how to talk about what they like about a piece of art or I want them to understand how art impacts their own emotional life and the emotions that art evokes in people. We’re going to examine this piece of artwork through one of these lenses, then we’re going to have you try to do a piece of artwork that can evoke similar things.
Cindy Ingram: Yes.
Jeffrey Benson: Let’s work with that. Kids walk in the classroom. It’s the first thing. We’re going to greet them in some fashion. You can do a thousand different things in any classroom but I think there’s one thing that must be done every day in every class, which is that the teacher says a lot to every kid. I think it’s the only absolute I have. In some fashion, the kids are coming in, you’re greeting them, they’re doing stuff. Here’s the first time I’m going to say, “Okay, how do we roll around here in this classroom? Let’s use the skill of contributing to the community.” In this classroom, how we roll around here is not just about Cindy doing well, even if no one else does well. This is a classroom in which we all live and work together.” The greater good is what we’re looking at in this classroom. We never let just one person answer for everyone because everyone’s brain is part of this classroom.
We’re walking in the room and I’m going to start thinking about, “Okay, what am I going to say to kids when they walk in the room?” “Hey everyone, we’re going to have an amazing conversation today about this piece of artwork. We’re going to do something really cool, which is we’re going to share our emotional reaction to this piece of artwork. As you’re walking to your desk right now, I want you to ask the person next to you, how are they feeling right now.” That’s one of the questions. Just ask them how they’re feeling because we’re going to start working with that. We’re going to see if that impacts how they think about the artwork.
Right now, I’ve already got them thinking about that part of it as they’re walking to their desk. Then the next part is in some sense, and this is maybe lesson art class one but not necessarily, where we reference a previous lesson. I’m going to say like, “Okay everyone, think for a moment. What were some of the takeaways we had from yesterday’s class?” Again, I want to stop and say a really common activity. I love to go on activities. Question teachers ask is, “Who can tell me what we did in class yesterday?” Before the question is done in the teacher’s mouth, the same five kids raise their hands all the time. This is a key issue. This is a social-emotional issue. It’s not cognitive because we all know that every kid was there yesterday. Some, they all know something but when I’m asking, “Who can tell me?” it’s really “Guess what the teacher’s thinking?” question; 90% of the questions we ask in school are, “Guess what the teacher is thinking?” Not everyone wants to play that game. What’s the point of it?
The teacher knows what she’s thinking. One of those other five kids will raise their hand, they’ll say it, the teacher will repeat it back, “I’m not needed right now.” Instead if I say, “Everyone, 10 seconds of think time, think of one memory from class yesterday because how we roll around here is everyone shares their thinking. I want everyone to think of one lesson, a memory from yesterday’s lesson. We’re going to pool our memories and together, we’re going to remember all the cool things that happened.” One person might say, “Hey, Mr. B, I remember when you were writing on the board and the chalk broke.” I was like, “Yeah I remember that too.” But even that brings people back because what was I writing? Somebody else says, “I remember when Cindy had that great idea about Picasso.” I’m like, “Oh man, I remember too. Everyone, remember that? That was cool that you remembered Cindy said that. That was really nice to give Cindy a shout out there.”
Somebody else might say, “Remember when we were stuck on that question for one minute and no one could figure out the answer to it?” I’m like, “Oh man.” But everyone’s contributing, everyone’s thinking, everyone is bringing themselves back into it. I love that. It only takes a minute. Now, sometimes, if lots of kids want to talk, I might say, “Do a turn and learn, 15 seconds each, talk to your partner about what you remember.” Because I don’t need to hear everything. If everyone in the class is suddenly talking, I’m like, “Great.” All their minds are right now back in yesterday’s class. All their synapses and that neural network from yesterday has been brought back to life instead of five kids raising their hands and me dully saying back what happened. That’s, for me, my favorite, how do we bring everyone back to prior learning.
Now, we have a little direct instruction, which is, “I’m going to show you a piece of artwork. I’m going to just give you a little background to it, then you’re going to have your responses to it.” The question is, “What is each of your job here to make this class work for everyone around us?” “It seems partly, we should probably all be quiet for about 30 seconds while I describe something because that’ll help everyone. I’m not going to be quiet forever but maybe 30 seconds, let’s get our focus, then after I’m done talking, I’m going to have you turn to your partner and say, “What did Mr. Benson just say?” and do it like, “Did that make sense to you?” Make sense of it with each other, then we’ll take a few samples and I might even say, “Cindy, you were talking to Jeffrey. Don’t tell me what you told Jeffrey. Tell me what Jeffrey told you.” Because that’s such a high level skill because you’re going to not only acknowledge what Jeffrey said but you’re going to summarize it and synthesize it, honor him in that. It means you’ve listened and you’ve considered. I might say, “Can you synthesize what you said and what Jeffrey said?” There are all these different ways to get all the brains working. I’m getting to the lesson but I’m getting where everyone is part of because my goal is how do we roll around here? We’re all contributing to this classroom going.
Now I’m going to do the part where everyone’s now looking at it, having their reactions to it. Now you get the idea. I’m already deep into this. Now I can walk around the room at this point and just be saying to kids, “Talk to me, what are you seeing in this?” My favorite three words, “Tell me more.” Because I’m not trying to say, “Guess what Mr. Benson is thinking? Do you notice how Picasso used depth perception here to alter?” It’s like, “What did you see there?” I might say, “Hey, I loved seeing that too. I didn’t even think of what you just saw. I was looking at depth perception in this, can you see that?” Now we’re having a conversation. The kids can hear that the kid has had a dialogue with me, which means “Mr. Benson has been impacted by what a kid said.” That’s huge for kids. That they help the teachers see the world through their eyes. That’s a big part of that next step follow-up.
I want to come to one last part. I’m a big believer in opening rituals. I used to say that I want my school to be better than the street and my classroom to be better than the hallway. Something drawing kids to the space that we were creating for them. Openings are really important, greeting every kid, what’s the first thing that happens? But I’ve come to believe closure is equally important. In a few schools I’m working with, I’ve been surprised that’s where they’ve gone to as their bang for the buck. The worst thing I’ve done as a teacher, and we’ve all done this, is I’m writing on the board, I’m talking, and the bell rings. Mid-sentence, kids start packing up. They’re rushing. They’re trying to get somewhere. I’d be better off stopping two minutes beforehand. I’m sure there will be a kid in the class who would volunteer to be that person to ring the bell with two minutes left and say, “Okay, closure time. I’m going to give you some examples.” If you get in touch with me at my website, which is jeffreybenson.org, I can send you more of these examples but one is, “Okay, let’s be quiet for 30 seconds. What do you want to remember from today’s lesson? Everyone, just quiet. This is not what Mr. Benson remembers, what do you remember? I might do a turn and learn on that one. I might have an exit ticket asking you to write that out for me, so I can get it. Next, turn to your partner, do you both agree what the homework is?” Because this is really important.
Cindy Ingram: That’s a good one.
Jeffrey Benson: Raise your hand. Out of a whole bunch of you raising your hands, bet on Mr. Benson. The next 30 seconds just agree on homework and sometimes, with high school kids, I’ll say, “Make a plan about when you’re going to do homework because you got a lot to do. When are you going to do this?” Another one is, this is a good one for middle school students, “Make a plan with your partner about how you are going to get to the next class on time. What do you have to do and make a bet with each other, can you both get to class on time? Let me know tomorrow. I’m going to start keeping score on who got there because you want to go to your locker, you want to check in with your friends, you want to see this other teacher? There’s no chance you’re getting to class on time. Make a plan on how to do that.”
The last one might be me saying, oh, I’ll do two more. One is feedback time because it’s how we roll around here. We all learn. “Is there anything I, as the teacher, did today that helped?” Ten seconds of think time, I always give think time. “Is there any advice you have for me that I could have done my part of this lesson better so when the next class comes in, they’ll benefit from what you watch me do because I’m learning with you guys in this.” Then my last favorite one. You can’t do these all in two minutes but you get your own deck of cards of this, then you find what works for you. This is my favorite one. “We’re going to do 30 seconds of gratitude. Think for 10 seconds. Who in this class helped you have a good class and we’re going to take just a few shout outs.” Somebody might say, “I want to thank Cindy for lending me an eraser.” “Yeah, that’s great.” Somebody else might say, “I want to thank Jose for asking me how my mom was because my mom was sick and I really appreciated him asking.” I might say, “Hey, I wanted to thank you too, guys, for cleaning up the waste paper basket when it fell over. You just did it. That’s how we roll around here. We take care of each other.” I will also do part of that gratitude because that’s what we do. It’s a great way to end the class because it says, “We’re all in this together. We work together. This is our space together.”
Sometimes, I will walk around class, I might say, “Hey Cindy, don’t forget to thank Jeffrey if you want to at the end because I just noticed that, you don’t have to but I bet that would be a cool thing to do during our gratitude time.” It takes time to scaffold kids up to those. If you think about all these parts of the lesson plan, we have endless opportunities to prompt, model, and praise kids for using their SEL skills. We’ve done it anyhow but if I come in saying I’m going to focus on one of them in particular, I’m going to notice it all the time now. I’m going to notice every time some kid helps another kid. I’m going to notice every time a kid says, “Can I sit over here because I learn better over there?” Yes, that’s how we roll in this class. People make decisions about where to sit so that they can be successful. Once you put that frame on, this is why it’s to me, it’s not super hard. I’m saying that I know that’s a little lib but we do it anyhow. Once you realize all these junctures in the lesson and you just say, “Oh, that’s what I do. I remind kids at this juncture,” you’re just going to be flooded with it. In some ways, you can say, “I can’t keep saying this all the time.” What looks hard to do is actually like there’s pieces of candy on every desk. Just go around. Think of those pieces of little Hershey’s Kisses. They’re all over the room all the time.
Cindy Ingram: It’s just like when you’re shopping for a new car, suddenly, you notice every single car on the road. When you’re looking for those opportunities to notice when students are using these skills…
Jeffrey Benson: Part of why we divided the book into the chapters we did was one, it gave me a really great structure for writing the book but the other was they’re all these predictable things that happen in every class, almost every class, almost every day, they’re like, “Oh, here’s when I can do it.” When you’re writing your lesson plan, part of it is, “Ah, you make a little note to yourself. I want to use this prompt. I want to remember to remind Cindy of this one in particular.” But it’s just going to start oozing out. It’s going to be hard to avoid it.
Cindy Ingram: I love that. There’s so much of what you said that hit me. I’m glad I was taking notes. One thing I noticed was how, when you were saying what you would say to the students, you very often pointed out the skill that you were focusing on or pointed out the skill that they were working on. I think they learned to develop the language of those things so that they can take that with them.
Jeffrey Benson: Another nice piece to this, and this is around discipline management, redirecting kids. Instead of telling kids what not to do, it gives us the language of telling them what to do. Right now, we’re trying to have everyone help each other do this. “How can you do that?” versus “Stop doing this. Don’t do that.” It’s like, “Cindy, this is a time we’re really trying to focus on helping each other notice something in the artwork. I know you can contribute to that as well.” It gives you the positive language all the time right there in front of you. That’s a tough habit to break for all of us to praise more than redirect. There’s always kids who are doing what we want them to do and there’s always something to ask kids to do that contributes to the greater good in a class.
Cindy Ingram: Another thing I’ve noticed, just as a teacher, is that sometimes, praise can feel, I don’t know if it’s forced but I think kids can tell when you’re just praising them just for the sake of praising them. The way that you are describing it, it’s praising them for very specific things.
Jeffrey Benson: Absolutely.
Cindy Ingram: I think that makes a huge difference too.
Jeffrey Benson: I have a funny notion about this. I want to talk a little about this because I’m going to do a whole podcast with a friend of mine, Mike Anderson, just on this notion of praise because he similarly says, “You shouldn’t praise false, da-da-da,” which is true, of course. However, I started doing this in my school. It became part of our years professional development with each other because we wanted to actually look at how much we praised versus redirected. The gold standard is to praise five times as often as you redirect. Whenever I was in classrooms, doing observations or just doing whatever, I would keep a little hash mark on my hand or on a piece of paper, how often people praise versus redirecting. I have to tell you this is the sad part. The very best teachers, the ones who would say were the most beautiful, loving teachers, probably have about twice as many praises to redirect, they were literally only two to one. Most teachers were about 50-50.
When people say to me, “Let’s make sure we don’t praise kids superficially,” I’m like, “No, please start with that. Get over to that side of the continuum, then we can work on, ‘Oh right, it was a good job because you remembered to add commas. It was a good job because you self-checked yourself. It was a good job because you gave yourself a minute break.’” But I would suggest this for those of you who are listening. Do this as a test for yourself. By the way, just the fact that you’re going to be aware of it means you’ll probably praise more than you would have, yay, that’s great. Try it. See how often you actually say to kids, “You’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. I love what you’re doing, great to see you doing that” versus redirecting kids.
Cindy Ingram: It really is because I think I can understand why because our brains are wired to look for things that are different.
Jeffrey Benson: Aberrant.
Cindy Ingram: We’re like, “Oh, that’s not right,” so we immediately go to that, “It’s not right.” That if everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing, we just gloss over it.
Jeffrey Benson: Those people should be like the stars of the class like, “Hey Cindy, you’ve been focusing five minutes on your drawing. That’s great. That’s fantastic” versus “Well yeah, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” l I don’t mind praising kids for doing what they’re supposed to do really because I’m still telling them I am noticing them doing something that’s really good. By the way, I have to say you will smile way more. What I also learned from that was that the ratio, the 5:1 ratio is interesting. It’s for the whole class. If I’ve had to redirect a kid, I’m immediately looking around the room for somebody to praise because it makes me feel good. It’s like I cleanse my own soul in that moment but I have to get back to that other kid. I also have to be 5:1 to that kid who I redirected. I’m going to look at that kid. The second that kid is like, “Oh.” I’m going to say, “Hey man, good job getting back on task. I love that.” I’m going to come back later and say, “I liked that you didn’t argue with me because I was telling you the truth and you took it, you did great listening to the redirection. I really appreciated that.” Because I can get to 5:1 on him too. It’s incredibly intense but I want to say again, something we do anyhow and it’s just choosing our practice, and being conscious about our own practice. But the good part about it is it’s not painful. Actually, your endorphins are going to just skyrocket.
Cindy Ingram: That’s adding so much joy and to think about the difference that it makes because I know of instances where someone has noticed something that I did that I felt invisible, then someone pointed out something good I did. It boosts me, it changes my day, it moves me, and I still can remember that years later.
Jeffrey Benson: I want to point out that even as an adult and having been a principal, when your supervisor or principal acknowledges something good you’re doing, it feels good. “Hey, your bulletin board looks great. I saw your kids coming out of class and they were talking about the work that they were doing in class.” “Hey, thanks for coming early to the staff meeting and helping me set up the tables.” It helps. It feels good. My work with administrators, they also need to be doing that. Getting out and praising, praising, praising.
Cindy Ingram: Because teachers feel pretty unappreciated, especially these days.
Jeffrey Benson: Like the kid is standing in class, doing what they’re supposed to do and no one says, “Hey, thank you for doing what you’re supposed to do. I love that.”
Cindy Ingram: I love that. Another thing I noticed that when you were going through that lesson was that you made yourself a part of the community too and you positioned yourself not as the authority but as a learner. When you asked, “Is there anything I could have done better?” I think that is an amazing opportunity to model for your students, that adults are still learning and teachers are not perfect. We are still caring about how we are in the world. I think that’s really powerful.
Jeffrey Benson: I want to speak a little about the fear of people, which is really interesting to me because I want to say that I have no doubt that I am the adult in the room. I have no doubt that my job, my responsibility, my obligation, my paycheck is dependent on this room functioning well. I’m certainly going to make sure that’s going to happen because do I want to bring the kids into doing that? Absolutely. Do I want to empower them to feel like this is their space to make safe as well? Absolutely. But I want to say that it’s counterintuitive but by doing that, more kids will actually attend, more kids will actually listen, more kids will take instruction and redirection from me because I am in dialogue with them about it. It’s not going to be like I’m only telling them what to do, which only creates a culture of conflict.
I have to say—this is a funny part too—I know in the range of the world, I’m a nice guy, I’m a nice teacher, and all that stuff, but partly why I do all this is because I want to kiss their asses in academics. I want to take away all of the impediments that come with the culture of school, the culture of testing, the culture of failing, the culture of pressure. I want to say I want all their brains to be right there with me. I’ve got to do a lot of labor to undo the culture of “that’s them” and “this is me.” That they try to get away with as little work as possible and I try to force them to do as much work as possible. It’s partly because I want to say, and I’m not bragging about this, my kids did better because I did all of that stuff. I got more academically out of them. It wasn’t fluff. It didn’t take away from instructional time. It made the instructional time focused.
Cindy Ingram: I think that’s really important to those teachers who think that, “Oh, this is one more thing. I can’t do this,” and still teach the standards they need to teach. They help each other.
Jeffrey Benson: Absolutely. This is not one more thing. This is just doing what you already do explicitly, then you’ll do it more often but yay, it’s just going to make the lessons go better. You’re going to do less reteaching. You’re going to have less redirecting to do. The kids will take care of each other more. You’ll like the kids more.
Cindy Ingram: I’ve seen that to be true too in my own teaching. I do like my kids more. When I focus on them. That would make sense obviously. I love your talk about doing this explicitly and intentionally rather than randomly, and implicitly. I feel like you’ve given us a lot of examples of that but is there a way that will help teachers be more intentional with how they do this? Do you have any tips for starting out?
Jeffrey Benson: I may be reiterating what I said earlier but worth repeating, if this is okay, which is it goes back to that question. In what way do you want your kids to grow in this class in addition to learning semicolons, how to do vanishing points, and things like that? What’s the prompt for that? When I’m doing my lesson plan, where I’m going to write my lesson plan? Say this at these junctures. It’s like training oneself. Like some people put on the refrigerators when they’re on a diet, “Eat a fruit, da-da-da.” “I want to remember when I start my direct instruction, here’s my prompt. I want to remember to have a closing activity and I’m going to choose one of these closing things.” Just start with a couple of things. Start with what’s one social emotional skill that you’d like kids to work on. “I’d like them to listen to each other better. I’d like them to acknowledge their own strengths better. I’d like them to use words to describe how they’re feeling and feel safe enough to do that. I’d like them to acknowledge how they’re the same and different from other kids.” Whatever one of those are, pick one and go with that until you’re tired of it. Find one or two junctures in the lesson where you know you’re going to talk about it. What I’m saying is that pretty soon, it’s not going to be one or two moments because you’re going to start seeing opportunities all along but start small.
Cindy Ingram: Yeah. Because that’s you building up your practice with that one too, so in that time that you focused on it becomes habitual.
Jeffrey Benson: Then I’m going to say in fact, start with what you’ve already been doing implicitly. That’s how I started saying, “By the way, what are you doing already? Pick the one you’re doing already. Do that. Do that well. Do it often. Have fun.”
Cindy Ingram: That’s really good because I have the tendency to get excited about something, then I go full force and I’m like, “I’m going to do 10 SEL skills this week.” I love that. It’s like start small. Ease into it.
Jeffrey Benson: You got enough, we’re doing enough, and I want to say that most of you are doing enough. This is just a little piece more. It shouldn’t tip you over the edge of doing too much because I would say take something else out and do this piece.
Cindy Ingram: It’s definitely more important than creating that poster that the art club is making you do for the fundraiser later.
Jeffrey Benson: But even that, once you get it, you’re going to be using those prompts with the kids doing the art poster for the fair.
Cindy Ingram: Awesome. In addition to adding the SEL into the lesson plans, what are some other ways that teachers can intentionally put a seal at the forefront that we haven’t talked about?
Jeffrey Benson: I’ll mention three and they come with different amounts of stuff. One is saying hello in some fashion to every kid every day. There are lots of rituals about how to do that. Some people stand at the door and they literally say hello to every kid by name, “Hi, Jeffrey. Hi, Sue. Hi, Jose. Hi, Tony.” You just say it. Sometimes, you walk around while kids are sitting in and you just make eye contact, and say, “Hey, good to see you. Hi, how are you?” You just look at each kid. They need that. That’s a big one. In fact, that’s what I say. The only one you have to do is acknowledge each kid’s presence in your room. Do that. That’s one minimal thing. If along the way you can say, “Hey, I love your hat. How’s your new baby brother?” One little thing that you can say that acknowledges who they really are that you’ve noticed, that’s gold. That’s one piece. I would say, easy to do, fun to do, a little energetic, you need to put in a little energy but you’re going to get more energy back doing it. You’re going to put out a little bit more.
The second one is any opportunities for kids to have choice in what they’re doing. The first thing of acknowledging them as people is really important because I want them to see that they get to choose something that works best for them. There are multiple ways to reach almost every goal of a lesson plan. Here are three or four ways to do this. One way in particular, one spot in particular, I think homework is a place to start. If you’re looking for a place to do that, some kids only need one thing to do. I’m going to use a math example. For some kids, it’s like, “Do one problem, then write to me how you did it. I know you understand the problem.” Other kids would be like, “I hate writing. Can I just do four of them and get four of them done?” I’m like, “Sure.” I taught kids to say, “Do one but I’m going to show you how to annotate doing a math problem, so you could just put little bubbles and show me the steps.” Or do a step-by-step analysis, just like an organization, like bullet points but they all get me to the same place. I want the kids to be engaged with it.
Homework is a really good place to do that, then I can sit and talk with kids, “How come you chose that one? I want to know more about you, did that work for you?” You have those dialogues around that. Wherever you can give kids some choice is really important, then have a great conversation with kids about, “Hey, why’d you choose that? I didn’t think you’d choose that one.” Or sometimes, I’ll say to kids, “Hey Cindy, see number four on the board? I thought of you when I wrote that in the lesson plan. You could try number one or two or three but don’t you think four would be good for you?” The kids will appreciate that and will be more invested in trying stuff. Again, it gets back to the social emotional skill of kids learning to know what their strengths and weaknesses are. Say hi to kids. Give them a choice in some spot. It’s really helpful.
Cindy Ingram: I love that. The student just feels seen. I think there has been research, I can’t pull it out of my head right now but students who like and respect their teacher are more likely to do better in their class. I think I’ve read that somewhere.
Jeffrey Benson: I want to say one book that has all that data, which I often draw on a lot, is Russell Quaglia’s book Student Voice. He did this amazing amount of research. It’s literally kids who feel seen by their teachers are more likely to try harder on their academics. He actually has all of that data. I often use in my workshops to say this actually is true. It doesn’t just sound right. We actually have research on it. Kids who feel safe, kids who feel seen, kids who have choice.
Cindy Ingram: Wonderful. I’m going to check out that book. All of the books and links that we talk about in that episode will be in our show notes. But besides your own book obviously, what are some of your favorite resources for SEL that you would recommend to a teacher?
Jeffrey Benson: I know you’re going to ask me that question and I thought, there’s this book and this book, then literally, I was like, “Okay I’m going to narrow it down to just a few books for now.” Again, I love being in touch with teachers. At my website, jeffreybenson.org is where you can email me. I will write back to you. I love being in touch with folks. In fact, I also put together seminars of teachers and we do Zoom seminars from teachers from all over the country. We meet for 75 minutes in the evening and we talk about this work together, so it’s just a chance also, if you’re interested in being in a cohort of teachers who are doing similar work, I facilitate, I put that together.
Cindy Ingram: Wonderful.
Jeffrey Benson: Books to consider. One of my favorites is Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain by Zaretta Hammond. I’m going to say she gets it the same way I get it. We’re a mutually supportive team in this way because she looks at it through the eyes of culture, race, brain, and curriculum. It’s a really wonderful book. It’s very practical and inspiring in that way. There’s a book called Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation. It’s an ASCD book by Souers and Hall, which is a really nice complementary book to my book. Their book came out a year before mine. I like saying to them, “I’m not trying to step on your toes but your book is so good. We gotta do more than your book did because your book was so good.” I have to do a plug for another book I co-wrote called Teaching the Whole Teen because we think social, emotional learning is the elementary school stuff. My work partner, Rachel Poliner and I, we said, “No, we’re going to write this from a secondary school teacher’s point of view.” Because once, a secondary school teacher said to me, “Jeffrey, we’re not going to take out the graham crackers and mats, and do nap time.” I was like, “But you know what, it would be really good for high school teachers.”
Cindy Ingram: They would love that.
Jeffrey Benson: You have a different kind of parameters you work within but does any high school teacher think their kids are actually emotionally fully regulated and fully developed? Of course, not. That’s a really good one. Another one is from my colleague, Mike Anderson. All of his stuff is great but the book I’m thinking of for today is What We Say and How We Say It Matter. He’s looking at prompts as well and the things we say to kids, whether it sparks them to invigorate and try or whether it makes them go into their shell, and close down because of the implicit messages and how we say stuff. If you get those four, great, but again, write to me if you want other things. On my website are lots of articles I’ve written. They’re all free, just go to the links. However, I can help.
Cindy Ingram: Wonderful. Thank you so much for that. I hope that everyone hops over there because I’ve learned so much today and also have some books that I’m going to go read next as well. You’ve already told us how to connect with you online. That’s beautiful. We’ll put that in the show notes but I do ask one final question of all of my guests and that is, which artwork changed your life?
Jeffrey Benson: I love this question. I thought of a couple but I’ll stick with one. I was lucky that my fifth grade teacher had previously been an art teacher. I am not a visually gifted artist. I know everyone can do stuff. I’ve learned how to be better at drawing stick figures. As a teacher, I want to say that I became really good at drawing stick figures in a way that my students would watch me intently because if they didn’t watch me intently, there was no knowing what that actually was but I have all their attention. But I’ve come to appreciate my own limited visual inherent skills but having her as a fifth grade teacher was great because she brought this whole visual component into teaching and learning. She also, I was growing up in New York City, took us to The Museum of Modern Art where I would have never gone. My parents would have never taken me there.
I remember seeing Magritte’s painting of the guy in the bowler hat with the apple in front of his face. I was like, “Wow, that’s so funny.” It was the first time I ever knew that art could be funny because art was always like this thing, like the Sistine Chapel, serious and austere. I was like, “Oh my God.” Then we talked about it like, “Why would he have done that?” It’s not just funny. What else is it? It’s like this is the early 60s, it was like pre-psychedelia when Bob Dylan started writing really nonlinear lyrics. I was ready for it because of that conversation about Magritte’s painting. Since I’m a songwriter, it was like I have never thought about the link to that Magritte painting to the Bob Dylan lyrics to my own artwork as a writer and a songwriter. I was like, “Oh.” That was thrilling. I can still remember looking at it. I couldn’t believe that they put that in the art museum.
Cindy Ingram: Yes, I love that story. That is so good because art isn’t always just this deep serious thing. It’s filled with joy, delight, humor, and fun. That’s a great story. Thank you for sharing that.
Jeffrey Benson: Yeah. I loved your question.
Cindy Ingram: Thank you so very much for joining me today. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Jeffrey Benson: I loved our conversation. You too, Cindy, be in touch for anything. I loved having this conversation. I’m sure we can have many more.
Cindy Ingram: Yes, thank you.
Art Class Curator and Nasco have come together to create two incredible full art curriculums, World Mosaic for Elementary and Perspectives for High School. These are so much more than just lesson plans. Your students will experience powerful social emotional learning that’s integrated with language, arts, social studies, history, and more. They are totally aligned with National Art Standards. World Mosaic will take your elementary students on a journey around the globe as each unit features an artwork from a different part of the world with art projects that explore various media and activities that will strengthen their critical thinking skills and expand their worldview. Perspectives is the high school course that explores how art connects us with ourselves and one another through 10 idea-centered themes; using diverse artworks, thought-provoking discussions, and engaging activities. Perspectives also gives teachers the option to create a choice-based classroom so it’s perfect for any type of teaching model. We are thrilled to be partnered with Nasco Education. They’ve been working with districts for years and are huge advocates for educators everywhere. You can learn more about these exciting curricula at artclasscurator.com/nasco.
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Call to Art Webinar: Celebrating Art Teachers with Kris Bakke (Nasco) and Cindy Ingram (Art Class Curator)
Wednesday, November 11 at 5pm Central
Join Kris Bakke of Nasco and Cindy Ingram of Art Class Curator as we chat with our communities about our greatest love, ART TEACHERS. Grab a cozy drink and hang out with us to have some fun conversation, celebrate your wins, and maybe win a few prizes!
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