We learn so much from Peter Anderson, a middle school teacher from Washington D.C. whose work is featured in our new book, Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms. Today, we're also thrilled to feature him on our blog. Peter recently tested one of our favorite approaches for helping people assess their strengths and come to know one another better: human affinity mapping.
Peter understands that the approaches we share are meant to be adapted, tested, and refined, in response to what is learned about people they serve. To that end, we asked him to share his process, his discoveries, and what he plans to do next, as a teacher who is committed to shaping compassionate humans.
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A Word from Peter Anderson About Human Affinity Mapping:
Despite spending months, and in many cases years together, our students know surprisingly little about each other. Outside of the icebreakers many of us employ in September, teachers rarely offer students the chance to learn about the people they spend the majority of their waking lives sitting next to. As a middle school English Language Arts teacher, I get it. Quarterly benchmarks, test-based evaluations, and an endless conveyor belt of administrative tasks make finding time for meaningful community building difficult. But we will only have time for it if we make time for it.
The activity outlined in this post, human affinity mapping, offers a simple way to begin the community building process. It comes from Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray. At its core, affinity mapping asks students to do two things: articulate what makes them different and then use those differences to make connections. By the end, students will have gained a little insight into how they function in classrooms and social settings. As with all learning, follow through is key. Human affinity mapping pairs easily with a variety of content-related instructional strategies.
I began the lesson by explaining affinity mapping as a way to illuminate the connections all around us. I told students they would leave the lesson knowing just a little bit more about who they are and who sits next to them. The process is simple, I said. Just answer each question, find someone in the room who shares your answer, and talk about it with them. I used four questions:
Where is your family from?
What role do you play in your family?
What role do you play in class?
What role do you play in your friend group?
The first question ended up being the most vexatious for students. Many drew a blank. I recommend gauging your classroom’s prior knowledge about their ancestry before leading off with a question about it. Although the question wasn’t necessarily successful in building affinity, it got students up and moving around, a tall order for a room full of adolescents.
The second question is when things started to get interesting. Before the students went, I modeled the introspection and momentary vulnerability I was looking for. I told them that I was an entertainer. This was a response to my family dynamics, I said. My childhood was marked by stress and anxiety. I learned to cut the tension in my household by being funny. I told jokes, made faces, and did everything I could to maintain a jocular persona. I told the kids that, like all of our identities, being an entertainer has its positives and negatives. I loved making my family laugh. At the same time, I wasn’t able to get in touch with my own grief. The pressure to always be “on” made it difficult for me to get in touch with my feelings and process what was going on around and inside of me.
It’s worth mentioning how these questions can quickly tap into some heavy experiences and emotions. At 36, I’ve had plenty of time to process and make sense of my own childhood and adolescence. These kids don’t have that same level of distance and emotional regulation. So drawing on my own experience as an entertainer, I kept it moving and I kept it light.
Next it was time for students. As they spoke with each other, I circulated among them, using guiding questions to nudge them towards analysis. Why do you think your friends see you as the group counselor? What do you like about that? What’s challenging about it? Whenever a student said something particularly insightful, I asked them to share out with the class. The format I chose allowed kids to move back and forth from identification to analysis, speaking to listening, and safety and vulnerability.
As anyone who has attempted to incorporate movement into a middle school lesson knows, convincing twelve and thirteen year olds to get out of their seats and walk around can be tough. This lesson was no different. At first I was worried that kids were sticking with their friends. They were, but it wasn’t a problem. The comfort of their friends provided a safe space for this inter and intrapersonal work. During the concluding written reflection, many wrote how much they enjoyed getting to know more about their friends.
The activity was a success. I read everyone’s reflections as they were writing them, and almost every student enjoyed getting to know themselves and their peers. Some kids wrote that they felt the activity asked too much of them, and that some things are better kept private. I took note of these students and debriefed with them the next day. I told them that I understood their perspective and appreciated their willingness to step outside of their comfort zone for the sake of a classroom activity. My next move will be to spend some time helping students unpack and understand their strengths using the VIA Character Strengths quiz. This should tie in nicely with our human affinity mapping.
Building and sustaining a compassionate classroom community takes persistence and intention. Human affinity maps offer you and your students a low-stakes introduction to a world beyond the confines of academic tracking and test scores. It gives everyone a space to breathe and become something more than the sum of their test scores and report cards. To honor the identities we bring to every class and the identities waiting to be created.
Peter Anderson has been teaching English Language Arts to middle schoolers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region for nine years. He is also involved with the Northern Virginia Writing Project. His professional interests include composition, critical race theory, and pedagogy. You can reach him on Twitter or through his blog.