Creating Sawubona in the Classroom

“Sawubona– we see you, you are important and you are valued.” This South African tribe greeting was introduced to me last week through a powerful professional learning session by Cassie Erkens. Erkens shared that “assessment is sawubona for teachers and their learners. And, that with assessment results, a teacher can say, “I see you there struggling to keep up or, I see you excelling in all that you are trying and awaiting more challenges.” Hearing this transformed my thinking about how we can reframe assessment for students. Furthermore, it made me think about how else can we help students feel sawubona, (feel seen, heard and valued) from the moment they come to class, especially in our virtual world where we may not see our students in the typical way we are used to.

Make Space to be Seen

After researching more about sawubona, I learned that the word is rooted in the idea that “when people don’t see each other, they are unlikely to appreciate others” and therefore, being seen is the foundation for “humanism to inspire and empower one another.”1,2 I believe a powerful way to be seen is through a sense of belonging. I am a big proponent of lesson check-ins and welcoming activities to understand how students are coming into a lesson, but it wasn’t until I was actually in a live lesson with students yesterday that I connected the need to be seen with strategies in virtual learning.

After planning with a teacher in the morning, they invited me to join their synchronous lesson to watch our plans unfold. As students logged on, I got a rush of ambivalent feelings; part of me was so happy to see my screen fill up with so many students signing in to participate, and part of me felt overwhelmed with how quickly their images got shuffled around, resizing smaller and smaller as I suddenly lost where each student was on the screen. It obviously felt different than in person and I worried about how our ideas would play out. However, after a short introduction, we split off into breakout rooms for our first task we had planned: amongst the 5-6 students in the breakout room, students needed to find at least one connection they all had in common. The room I joined began with things like “we’re all in math…we all quarantined this summer,” but I knew their teacher wanted more. So, I challenged them to dig deeper and our conversation continued. Eventually, we found that we all had siblings, and beyond that, we were all younger siblings. One student shared a bit about their family and even though this was a quick 5 minutes, it was an authentic opportunity to get to know each other before going into any math content. We all had a voice in the process and a new sense of belonging to each other. The timing of this breakout was also powerful for two reasons- Upon returning whole group, I now felt connected to those students; I knew their names and I found their faces amongst the sea of small squares in Zoom. And, going back to these same groups for practice later in the class period gave familiarity and added confidence in starting our work together.

While pre-planning this task, the teacher and I discussed how a prompt like this would help students get to know each other without feeling like it was just another “ice breaker”, but we discovered it went beyond this and made an impact on a sense of belonging, truly helping us see each other in this crowded virtual setting. Next week, we plan to continue this routine and try What’s In a Name from SRI.Screen Shot 2020-08-25 at 10.32.27 AM

Rephrase Questions to Hear Strengths

Throughout Erkens PD, she also challenged us to think about what we are doing with results from instruction and assessment. We must change the narrative around the anxiety that is felt about assessment and help students see them, formative or summative, as a way build upon strengths, rather than highlight weaknesses. Erkens also suggested rephrasing questions such as “what do you not understand” to “tell me everything you understand about ____________.” Beginning with what students do know builds a powerful foundation to connect prior knowledge and bridge new learning.

Value Process through Feedback

Another way to help students feel valued is by seeking their feedback. As teachers, we often give feedback to students, but I can admit I didn’t always provide space for students be heard by giving me feedback. Erkens outlined a couple ways to do this and I love how they allow students to feel valued and heard, while maintaining a safe space for the teacher. First, she described an “engage-o-meter exit ticket” idea in which students rank how engaged they were in the lesson on a scale of 1-5. Furthermore, she suggested that this exit ticket could also include questions such as what worked in today’s lesson and what could I have done differently. I think these questions give students a sense of voice in their learning and direction to the teacher. Additionally, my colleague and friend, Rebekah, who is an SEL behavior coach for our district shared that she uses a similar strategy after coming back from breakout rooms by asking students “what was difficult and what went well” before hearing about the content. This quick debrief develops several core SEL competencies,4 fostering students’ self-awareness, relationship skills, and social-awareness. I plan to use these questions next time I facilitate coming back to whole-group from breakouts as a way to transition into the content and I hope it shows participants that I don’t just care about the answer, but I value hearing about the whole process of problem solving.

Coaching and Sawubona

Finally, as I work with teachers I love the idea of making sawubona my guiding light, giving my traditional “how are you” more intentionality. It reminds me that the word invites deeper dialogue and communication as we support and grow each other. As Orland Bishop states, “When we truly see people, is when we see their hopes, dreams and desires. When we truly see people, we see people who needs our humility, our undivided attention, and our assistance. We need to see each other more.”2



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